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Oklahoma Spaceport launch set

(OKLAHOMA CITY) - Officials envision newfangled, rocket-propelled space vehicles regularly leaving Oklahoma in a few years, but the state's first space launch this Saturday will feature balloons and paper airplanes.

``Dark Sky Station,'' a vehicle whose primary mode of lift is balloons, is set to leave at daybreak from an old Air Force base at Burns Flat in western Oklahoma, where a future spaceport is planned.

The vehicle will travel to the edge of space, a height of 100,000 feet, where it will drop more than 500 paper airplanes that have been made by Oklahoma middle school students.

``This event will be a harbinger of things to come,'' said Jay Edwards, retired Air Force general and executive director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority.

Edwards sees Oklahoma leading the way in ``space tourism.'' He said one company in contact with the state could begin one-week space flights from Oklahoma in just 3 1/2 years. He said the company says it already has 100 customers signed up at a cost of $98,000 each.

With the help of a $32,000 educational grant from NASA, Takeoff Technologies of Southern California is coordinating Saturday's launch with the Oklahoma Department of Education, JP Aerospace and Ecliptic Enterprises.

Takeoff Technologies is a company described as a bridge between the entertainment world and the scientific and technological communities. JP Aerospace is an independent space company that developed Dark Sky Station. Ecliptic Enterprises developed a camera that will be mounted to the vehicle and will photograph the curvature of the Earth.

Officials expect the paper airplanes to fall as far as the East Coast. Stickers on the planes will notify finders of a web site where they can learn about the launch.

Also aboard the launch is a package of weather instruments to test atmospheric conditions that was developed by the Department of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma.

Edwards said the event will bring attention to Oklahoma as an emerging location for the space industry.

He said spacecraft technology is rapidly changing and in the near future people will be able to take commercial suborbital flights on vehicles that look more than airplanes than space shuttles.

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