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Image: Rocketplane
Rocketplane
SpaceShot plans to award suborbital trips on Rocketplane's space plane, shown in this artist's conception, as the top prize in an online game. "I will sell as many Rocketplane flights as people are willing to buy entries for," says SpaceShot founder Sam Dinkin.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 11/7/2005 6:46:44 PM ET 2005-11-07T23:46:44

So you want to fly in space? You could put down $20 million or so to buy a ride to the international space station. You could put aside $200,000 or so for a couple of years and wait for the first suborbital spacecraft to take you to the edge of space.

Or you could plunk down a few dollars and play your way onto that suborbital spaceship.

At least that's what two of the players in the commercial space race are promising, as part of separate efforts to bring spaceflight within the theoretical reach of the average Joe (and Joan). Sometime in the next month or two, Texas-based SpaceShot as well as the British-based Virgin Group are both planning to unveil online skill games that offer a ride into space as the grand prize.

SpaceShot is partnering with Rocketplane Ltd., an Oklahoma company that is planning to begin suborbital service to outer-space altitudes in excess of 62 miles (100 kilometers) in 2007. Meanwhile, Virgin Skill is developing a space-themed skill game that could land the top winner on Virgin Galactic's "SpaceShipTwo" rocket plane beginning in 2008.

Online skill games pit players against each other in a challenge that involves something more than mere chance — in contrast with Internet gambling, which is illegal in the United States. On the Virgin Skill Web site, as on many other "casual gaming" portals, participants can pay as little as a half-dollar to compete against each other for high scores in Solitaire, Bejeweled, trivia quizzes or other games of not-totally-chance. Payoffs are deposited into winners' accounts, and can be withdrawn as real money.

Virgin's spaceship-themed game, called Virgin Galactic Quest, is being fine-tuned for a debut later this month, said Stephen Attenborough, vice president of astronaut relations at Virgin Galactic. "I've had a look at it," he told MSNBC.com. "It's a very compulsive game."

He said the game would put you "in control of your spaceship's progress," with different levels posing an escalating series of challenges. "It will consist of a tournament which will lead to a finale, and there will be a Virgin space seat for the lucky winner — or the skillful winner, I should say," Attenborough said.

Attenborough said the lowest charge for playing Virgin Galactic Quest would be a "minimal amount," but could not give a precise figure. The fee may vary depending on the level of play, he said.

SpaceShot gets set for launch
SpaceShot's founder, economist/entrepreneur Sam Dinkin, told MSNBC.com that he started up his company out of frustration over the high cost of citizen spaceflight.

"I'm really mad that there's no spaceflight for anyone to walk up and buy an entry," he said. "The only way most people get to drive Ferraris or go on round-the-world vacations is to buy a lottery or enter a sweepstakes. Or the new way, which is legal in almost all the states, is to play a skill game."

Dinkin said SpaceShot's game would be unveiled by the end of the year.

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"It's a nondexterity skill game," he said. "It's not a shoot-'em-up. It doesn't have anything to do with Virgin Galactic's game, and I'll go further to say it's not a game where people have to play for a while, like checkers or chess or Reversi."

A single entry would cost less than $5, and there would be multiple tournaments resulting in space-ride prizes, Dinkin said. "I will sell as many Rocketplane flights as people are willing to buy entries for," he said.

Dinkin said he selected Rocketplane as SpaceShot's partner because, in his view, the company would be the first to offer suborbital spaceflights. In a news release, Rocketplane President George French said the SpaceShot prizes would be "a huge sales channel for us."

"Even if they award all of our booked flights as prizes, we can build additional rocket planes to meet demand,” French said.

Dinkin said the economic calculations behind the skill game were "pretty straightforward."

"You need enough losers to pay for the flights of the winners," he explained. "If the tickets are less than $5, and the price of a suborbital flight is about $200,000, and you need to pay an extra $100,000 in taxes, then you need at least 60,000 losers for every winner."

The legal calculations behind skill games, however, are unsettled — particularly when you're talking about big-ticket items like outer-space tours, said I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School who specializes in Internet gambling law.

Uncharted legal waters
Some states, such as Arizona, would forbid awarding a high-value prize like a suborbital spaceflight, he said. Moreover, different states have different definitions of a legal game of skill as opposed to an illegal game of chance. "It often depends on what the trial judge rules," Rose told MSNBC.com.

He said it's better to run a skill game as a player-vs.-player tournament with multiple rounds, "so the element of chance drops out." However, structuring the competition as a series of simple guessing games might be less likely to meet the skill-game standard, Rose said.

"It's hard to do a skill game that is really, truly a game of skill and is fun to play," the professor observed. "That is a very practical problem. If it's too easy, then it might become a form of gambling. And if it's too hard, it becomes a form of gambling."

To navigate the uncharted waters, SpaceShot has put together a legal team including attorney Martin Owen, co-author of the book "Internet Gaming Law," and members of the law firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich and Rosati. Other advisers, listed in a news release issued Monday, include David Livingston of "The Space Show," Jeff Goldsmith of IGN, Joe Latrell of Beyond-Earth Enterprises and John Jurist, an expert on medical issues surrounding spaceflight.

Will people pay to play?
There are plenty of precedents for space-ride giveaways, even though none of the winners will be able to cash in for at least another couple of years. Last year, Virgin Galactic and the automaker Volvo awarded a seat to a Colorado man as part of a Super Bowl promotion. Space Adventures worked with Oracle Corp. as well as the Norwegian candy company Nidar to give away suborbital rides on a spacecraft to be named later, and still more sweepstakes are in the works.

But "Virgin Galactic Quest" and SpaceShot's game are different in that participants would actually have to pay a nominal fee to enter. Two years ago, Florida officials rejected the idea of setting up a lottery with space-themed prizes, saying that the idea didn't fly in focus-group sessions.

"Our players said that they would be more interested in winning cash prizes as opposed to going to space," lottery spokeswoman Leslie Steele told MSNBC.com.

Dinkin was unfazed by Florida's experience.

"I imagine that a very high percentage of people would rather take the money than the ride, and SpaceShot is not for them," he said. "But there is a large core of people who, if they had the money, would spend it on the ride. ... We're a scrappy American company, and we don't have a million-dollar PR budget to buy a Super Bowl ad. But we're going to deliver this service, and I think it's going to be a good service."

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