Multi-millionaire space cowboys queue up to take tourism to the limit

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Dozens of Britain's multi-millionaires will gather in London next month to compete for a prize that is "out of this world".

At stake is a place on the world's first entirely commercial space mission, a visit to the International Space Station (ISS), and the title of Britain's first ever space tourist. At £12m, the full board, en suite "holiday" will not come cheap, but there is no shortage of takers.

The American company behind the project, Space Adventures, will hold a party in the capital in a fortnight, where more than 50 of the nation's wealthiest individuals will be briefed on the mission - set to take off from Kazakhstan in early 2005.

Those invited include the Virgin boss Richard Branson and the Blur guitarist Alex James - both believed to be keen on experiencing space travel first-hand. The rest of the guest list is thought to include an assortment of celebrities, aristocrats, entrepreneurs and sports personalities.

Mr Branson could be an early front-runner for the seat. A friend of the Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, who sits on Space Adventures' advisory board, Mr Branson has already registered his Virgin trademark for space travel. His company, which owns the name "Virgin Galactic Airways", is known to have been monitoring opportunities to get into commercial space flight at ground level for some years.

Another of the invitees is the millionaire property developer Chris Drake, who last year travelled to the edge of the atmosphere in a Mig aeroplane, courtesy of Space Adventures' British sister company, WildWings.

"I just find what they're doing incredibly exciting," said Mr Drake, 41, speaking from his yacht moored off the Spanish coast. "The mindset of the public is locked in the idea that it's just astronauts who can go into space, but it's not - ordinary people can do it too.

"I think £12m is a fair price. Once people realise how attainable space travel is becoming, I'm sure that price will come down for subsequent trips.

This latest mission marks a major step forward for Space Adventures, and space tourism in general. The company, which has already sent two paying customers - American Dennis Tito and South African Mark Shuttleworth - to the ISS, managed to buy its own Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft in April. Whereas Tito and Shuttleworth had to buy themselves on to pre-existing Russian missions, Space Adventures now has the ability to arrange its own commercial voyage to the ISS.

Eric Anderson, the company's chief executive, described the mission as "a huge leap forward". "The fact that we are able to do this is testament to the public's interest and understanding of commercial space flight," he said. "The future is better, more economical space exploration, and the only thing that can support that is space tourism."

Potential candidates for the mission only had to fulfil two "simple" criteria, said Mr Anderson. "Individuals will need to be medically and financially qualified. After those tests have been passed, it's basically first come, first served. We're ready to go."

The Soyuz capsule, worth about £24m, can only be used once, but seats three passengers. One will be a cosmonaut employed by Space Adventures; the other two places are up for grabs. The company, which has a significant interest in the UK market courtesy of WildWings, is keen for a Briton to fill at least one of these places.

Also present at the exclusive event in London next month will be the former US astronaut Norm Thagard, who now works closely with Space Adventures.

"The UK has a long tradition of producing explorers willing to push the frontier," said Thagard, the first American to fly on a Soyuz spacecraft. "It's only natural that the same drive should apply to space as well."

Last night, however, not everyone with an interest in British space exploration was excited about the prospect of the UK's first space tourist. Professor Colin Pillinger, the Open University scientist leading the Beagle 2 project to Mars, was among them.

"I'll believe it when I see it," saidProfessor Pillinger. "I doubt very much whether Nasa will let people just drop into the International Space Station for a cup of tea.

"The only possible benefit I can see from all this is that if more people are going into space, rockets will become cheaper for the rest of us."