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Small island has big ambitions in space

An image of the space stations used by Excalibur Almaz.

Buckner Hightower of Excalibur Almaz.

Unveiling of space stations by Excalibur Almaz, Isle of Man.

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: The launch of the space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled in a few hours, but NASA says weather could delay this morning's launch. If it goes ahead, it'll be the last lift-off of the 30-year old U.S. Shuttle program. Some say it could mean an end to American dominance in space. But who's going to fill that void?

Reporter Christopher Werth tells us about an unexpected contender.


CHRISTOPHER WERTH: And the newest entrant to the space race is: The Isle of Man, a tiny island in the middle of the Irish Sea between Britain and Ireland. And I've come for the unveiling of a pair of old, Soviet space stations once used for spying on the United States.

BUCKNER HIGHTOWER: Hello, welcome to the Isle of Man space program.

Buckner Hightower is here from Texas. He's the CEO of a company called Excalibur Almaz, that's based on the island. It plans to turn these relics of the Cold War into hotels for space tourists orbiting the earth.

HIGHTOWER: The view will be literally incomparable.

The Isle of Man is best known as an offshore banking center. But over the last several years, it's begun using that reputation to lure private space companies from the U.S. and Europe.

Chris Stott is with ManSat, the agency in charge of marketing the island as a hub for the commercial space sector.

CHRIS STOTT: We're 80,000 people. We can't really have our own NASA. But what we can do is take that financial expertise that we have, go to the space industry, and say to them, 'We can actually help you be more profitable.'

Last year the aerospace consultancy, Ascend, ranked the Isle of Man fifth among countries most likely to return to the moon. But Tim Craine, of the island's Department of Economic Development, says that doesn't mean it will be the next Cape Canaveral.

TIM CRAINE: The Isle of Man is basically located under the main trans-Atlantic flight path between the U.S. and Europe.

Leaving little room for rockets blasting off towards the stars. In fact, most of the island's fledgling space industry is made up of satellite companies handling the dull but essential details of commercial space flight.

CRAINE: The Isle of Man entities will procure launches. They'll take out insurance policies. They'll order satellite bills.

All in all, those companies are expected to rake in upwards of a billion and a half dollars over the next five years. Which gets at what might be the true reason space businesses are setting up shop here. Corporation tax on the island is a whopping -- well, there is no corporation tax. And the top income tax rate: a mere 20 percent.

On the Isle of Man, I'm Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

Buckner Hightower of Excalibur Almaz.

Unveiling of space stations by Excalibur Almaz, Isle of Man.

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