Tension is rising in the most unlikely of discounted flights market — rocket rides into space.

Overnight, Boeing announced it will sell spare seats into orbit on its CST-100 spacecraft (under development) through Space Adventures, which is separately waging a discount war with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture into the comparatively more affordable sub-orbital thrill-ride market.

This is air-fare discounting taken to new heights, literally, and while lacking the mass-market appeal of Jetstar versus Tiger, or Ryanair versus BA, something of the fire of low-cost airline competition has been ignited.

At the moment, Space Adventures has sold flights to the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz rockets for $US20 million and upwards to eight obviously loaded businessmen playing space tourists. The price included about six months training in Russia, and the missions involved around 12 days in orbit.

But Russia has foreshadowed an end to its willingness to host space tourists for cash, just as the US moves to end its Shuttle flights and throw crew rotation and supply missions open to private enterprise, starting as soon as the rockets are “proven”, which could be as early as 2012.

The two main contenders are Boeing, with its seven place CST-100 spacecraft and Space-X, which achieved a spectacularly successful first orbital flight by its Falcon 9 launcher and a similarly sized dummy Dragon reusable orbiter in June.  Billions of dollars in NASA launch contracts have variously been let or offered to both companies pending successful test flights.

Space Adventures and Boeing won’t say how much the spare seats will go for, but specify that they will be available to private space travellers to allow earth orbit platforms not just the International Space Station, and there are already plans for hundreds of these types of resupply flights requiring manned crews in the next 15 years as the cost of the industrial uses of space falls by some calculations to less than 10% of current prices.

However, Space Adventures is already chasing hard the sub-million dollar space flight market. It is offering sub-orbital rocket rides using an Armadillo Aerospace vertical lift-off-and-land vehicle for $US102,000, or half the current price of a Virgin Galactic ride on Spaceship 2, which is ferried to 16,000 metres under a pterodactyl-like lifter aircraft, where it is dropped, ignited, and ridden on a sub-orbit arc reaching 100 kilometres into space before making a “conventional” landing.

Armadillo and Virgin Galactic are co-tenants at Spaceport America, 50 kilometres from Truth or Consequences in New Mexico, where competing billboards have appeared over a landscape of narrow blacktop roads and blowing tumbleweeds.

They each predict that as volumes build from the hundreds of deposits already taken for the short rocket rides, the price per flight will plummet, which is perhaps not the best of metaphors for the activity.

The orbital flights will always cost more than sub-orbital, but may also come down to less than $1 million before including training costs, space suits, and the other travel essentials for days in orbit.

Space Adventures is also looking for takers for a new super-expensive rocket ride, too, a flight around the moon. This would involve Russian rockets, and could involve a loop around the hidden side of the moon, as performed unexpectedly by the stricken Apollo 13 mission in April 1970, or a period in lunar orbit, gliding low across its craters and mountains, on a mission such as that flown by Apollo 8 in December 1968.