One night in June, Sheng Tianxing made good on his name, which translated literally means “sky travel.” With a single click online, he paid $100,000, about a third of his annual income, for a seat on a rocket that will carry him into space.
Come 2016, if all goes as planned, Mr. Sheng, 41, a tea trader from the southeastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, will spend up to six minutes floating 64 miles above the Earth as one of the first civilians aboard a commercially operated flight beyond the planet’s atmosphere.
“I’ve always wanted to go into space,” he said recently, recalling that he got hooked on space films and science fiction as a boy growing up in a mountain village. “I’ve always wondered if Armstrong did actually walk on the moon. I’d like to have a look myself.”
A half-century ago, bemoaning his nation’s backwardness, Mao Zedong said that China could not launch a potato into space. Now, well-to-do Chinese business people are lining up for one-hour voyages to the cosmos, and tour operators say China is set to become the world’s largest market for the incipient space tourism industry.
Already, more than 30 mainland Chinese have purchased or made down payments of 50 percent on tickets for journeys offered by XCOR Aerospace, a company based in Mojave, Calif., that plans to begin operating suborbital flights late next year. The tours went on sale in China in December, two years after the company began selling them elsewhere, and one in 10 of all bookings have been by Chinese citizens, according to Dexo Travel, the Beijing-based sales agent in China for the trips.
The sales reflect late-blooming interest in space travel in China, which celebrated the successful landing of a lunar rover in December, four decades after the United States accomplished the same feat. The notion of traveling amid the stars has captivated a segment of the Chinese public just as it once fascinated Americans who were riveted by Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. But unlike that earlier generation, the Chinese have the option of booking a trip themselves — and many have the money to pay for it.
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