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April 5, 2022

Shanghai to New York in just a couple of hours? Not a problem when you fly in a hypersonic space plane.
Beijing-based Space Transportation (aka Lingkong Tianxing in China) aims to make this prospect a reality with the development of a passenger-carrying vehicle that can hurtle across the skies at one mile per second -- over twice the speed of Concorde.

The firm has released an animated publicity video showing passengers (no helmet or spacesuits required) board what appears to be a 12-seater space plane that nestles underneath an aerodynamic delta-shaped structure, flanked by two titanic booster rockets.
The vehicle launches vertically into the heavens, and upon reaching cruise altitude, the space plane separates from its boosters and then skims the edge of space at 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) per hour, landing vertically at its destination with the aid of a tripod-type undercarriage.

How flying will change in 2022
According to Space Transportation's website, the company aims to launch its first suborbital space tourism test flight in 2025, followed by a "complete full-scale global hypersonic vehicle flight by 2030."
The initiative, if realized, will be the embodiment of China's ambitions to straddle the potentially lucrative niches of space tourism as well as hypersonic point-to-point flight for business travelers, and is backed by significant players in the Chinese investment landscape.

Last August, the undertaking garnered over 300 million yuan (about $47 million) in initial financing, jointly led by a Shanghai-based industrial investment fund led by Matrix Partners China and the state-owned Shanghai Guosheng Group. CNN has reached out to Space Transportation for further comment on its launch plans but has yet to receive a response.

It is rocket science
China's longstanding association with rocket tech dates back to the battle of Kai-Keng in 1232, when the country fended off Mongol invaders using a barrage of "arrows of flying fire."
Chinese archers attached bamboo tubes stuffed with gunpowder to their arrows, which were ignited when launched.

In the present-day context of celestial rivalry, China's main adversaries are now the US and Russia, while the territory being contested is the stratosphere and lower Earth orbit.

The stakes are high, too. According to recent analysis by Emergen Research, "the global suborbital transportation and space tourism market revenue is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 16.8%, and market size is projected to increase from $423.7 million in 2020 to $1.44 billion in 2028."

Space tourism on the rise 
Four people returned to Earth from a three-day extraterrestrial excursion aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, marking the end of the first-ever flight to Earth's orbit flown entirely by tourists or otherwise non-astronauts.

For now, suborbital flights as a means of getting from point A to point B are a ways off.
But space junkies have an ever-expanding universe of options to choose from to get their cosmic fix -- ultra-high altitude space balloons, parabolic flights for weightlessness experiences, and soon, even space walks might be possible.

SpaceX's Polaris Dawn mission, slated to launch later this year from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will spend up to five days in orbit, during which time the crew will attempt the first commercial spacewalk. The mission is a stepping stone towards eventual missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.

But whatever flavor of space tourism piques the interest of wannabe astronauts, ticket prices are astronomic. In December, for example, it was revealed that Grenada diplomat Justin Sun, founder of blockchain-based digital platform Tron, had placed a winning bid for a seat on Blue Origin's reusable New Shepard rocket.

Space tourism won't be affordable for the masses any time soon
The $28 million bid money went to Blue Origin's foundation, Club for the Future, which supports space-based charities to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM. Sun and five crewmates will fly on the New Shepard spaceship later this year.

Getting closer to the stars, last December, Japanese fashion magnate Yusaku Maezawa, his producer Yozo Hirano, and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin returned safely to Earth in a Russian Soyuz capsule after having spent 12 days on the International Space Station at a round-trip cost in the ballpark of $80 million.
And for those on a more modest budget, Virgin Galactic is offering 90-minute space flights, commencing in Q4 this year, at $450,000 a pop.

"Demand for space travel is strong, and we've been selling seats ahead of the pace we had planned," says Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, in a statement. The company claims that approximately 700 seats have been sold to date.

But with the high cost of access to space, the market is, at least for now, seen as the exclusive preserve of the super affluent.
"Space tourism is still an emerging area and is very much a billionaire's turf," John H. Schmidt, global aerospace and defense industry lead at Accenture, commented. "While space tourism will likely ramp up, it will take considerable time until costs dramatically drop to reach a far broader audience of passengers than the billionaire-set."

China gears up for hypersonic passenger flights
And that's where China comes into the picture, with its demonstrable knack for identifying and formulating a scaled-up response to new market opportunities, and driving down prices for consumers.
China is already a significant player in space, with a nationally sponsored road map that supports a spectrum of initiatives, including satellite technologies, moon and Mars landings, interplanetary voyages and deep space exploration.

In a white paper published by the State Council Information Office, China outlines its plans for bolstering its space economy objectives, and these include high-speed transporting of humans.
With space tourism's lucrative potential, it's hardly surprising that China has been ramping up resources and facilities to enable advancement of its own space plane proposition.

In March 2018, for example, China revealed that it was building a 265-meter-long wind tunnel, which can be used to test scale model hypersonic aircraft prototypes at speeds of up to Mach 25 (30,625 kph) at China's State Key Laboratory of High Temperature Gas Dynamics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"Hypersonic aircraft may be on the horizon, but we're still at a very early stage. One of the big challenges is that this area requires rare skills. Governments are investing in research and pilot projects to explore what's possible and develop the skills to someday build production hypersonic aircraft," says Accenture's Schmidt.