The race to launch the first commercial passenger spacecraft is gaining pace as one of the Ansari X Prize competitors, AERA Corporation, signed an agreement with the US Air Force on Monday to use the launch services at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

It is the first space tourism company to do so and claims it may be ready to offer tourist flights as early as 2006.

The US company – which competed in the 2004 contest to fly the first commercial craft to the brink of space under the name American Astronautics – says it could be as close as 18 months away from offering sub-orbital rides to space tourists aboard its Altairis rocket. The space vehicle is scheduled to be unveiled in New York City, US, in April 2005.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, by comparison, plans to offer sub-orbital space flights in 2007 or 2008. It will license technology developed by the X Prize winner, SpaceShipOne.

The announcement on Monday comes during a flurry of activity in the space tourism industry. The US Federal Aviation Administration recently released its draft regulations for licensing and regulating commercial passenger spacecraft. The FAA will hold a public hearing on those guidelines in Washington, DC, US between 29 and 31 March.

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