Destination: Outer Space

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They are traveling farther, higher, faster and in greater numbers than ever before. They dive to the depths of the seas, climb the heights of the Himalayas, probe the icy fastness of the Arctic and girdle the globe in super-luxury cruise ships. They are even headed out of this world as dozens of companies gear up to send paying passengers to boldly go where few have gone before on wild and weightless space odysseys that could begin as early as next year. As Stanley Kubrick's 2001 approaches, tourists are traveling everywhere and anywhere by any means from rollerblade to rocketship and spending more money than ever to do it.

An estimated 657 million people crossed their home borders to go on international tourist trips last year, generating $450 billion in earnings, an increase of 3.2% over 1998 and the highest revenue level ever. Add non-international tourism and the earnings figure hits something like $3 trillion a year, providing income for one worker in 10 worldwide and making travel one of the planet's biggest industries.

It is an industry, moreover, that is poised for a leap into the void literally. The first paying space tourist is scheduled to blast off from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in 2001 on a week-long trip to the Mir space station, which is being refurbished and refueled to begin earning money as a sort of space camp for the truly adventurous and the truly rich. Dozens of private firms are making plans and in some cases actually building spacecraft to carry paying customers to the edge of earth's atmosphere and beyond. Industry experts predict that regular suborbital tourist trips will be operating by 2004 and that large-scale and affordable tourism to orbiting hotels is less than 20 years away. "Once you have low-cost access to orbit, the construction of a space hotel is a very straightforward piece of engineering," says David Ashford, the managing director of Bristol Spaceplanes, a British firm seeking financing to build a craft capable of taking tourists into space. "The best prediction I have is that within 15 years space tourism will be affordable by middle-income people that means about a million people a year could go."

Ashford's firm is one of 19 from five countries that have made bids to compete for a $10 million reward offered by St. Louis-based X-Prize Foundation for the first privately funded team to send a spacecraft capable of taking three people to an altitude of 100 km and returning them safely to earth. To win, the craft must be capable of repeating the feat within two weeks. Some entrants, like Ashford, are qualified engineers or scientists who have carefully designed plans and a good chance to win. Others are dreamers with little more than an idea. "It's a real mixed bag," says Rand Simberg, an aerospace engineer who consults on space tourism. "Some of them just sat down and drew a picture of a rocket."

Whatever their qualifications, the competitors share a desire to be entrepreneurs in space "astropreneurs," they might be called applying free enterprise principles to a field that, until now, has been the monopoly of governments. That is the idea behind the X-Prize, which harks back to the $25,000 Orteig Prize that inspired Charles Lindbergh to make the first transatlantic flight, from New York to Paris, in 1927. "We want this to be the America's Cup of space, because humans respond to competition," says Peter Diamandis, the foundation chairman.

Diamandis won't say which of the teams has the best chance of winning, but he predicts the prize will be claimed before the end of 2001. Among the frontrunners is Burt Rutan, who designed the superlight plane that his brother, Dick, used in the first non-stop, non-refueled around-the-world flight in 1986. Rutan has already begun flight tests of his Proteus space launch system, which would take off using conventional turbofan engines and divide into two parts at just over 11,000 m. The smaller section would blast into suborbital flight with rocket power.

Another serious contender is Ashford's Bristol Spaceplanes, which has a craft called Ascender at the blueprint stage.

Ascender would use essentially the same technology as the rocket-powered X-15, which set records in the 1960s with its suborbital flights. A light aircraft with hypersonic shape and a rocket motor, Ascender would have room for two crew and two passengers. It would take off on its own power, accelerate to nearly three times the speed of sound, coast to an altitude of 100 km and then dive back to earth and, like the X-15, glide to an airfield landing. Unlike those craft, however, Ascender would do all this several times a day, giving each pair of passengers a 30-minute flight, including two minutes of weightlessness and a view of the earth's curvature below and the blackness of space above.

Ashford and other astropreneurs are aiming for eventual orbital flights and even for construction of orbiting hotels to accommodate tourists up to a week. The architectural firm Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo of Honolulu envisions a space resort in low earth orbit that would accommodate 100 guests dining on hydroponically grown food, playing zero-gravity games, taking spacewalks and, perhaps, visiting the planned international space station. The firm says the space hotel could be up and running by 2017. Other serious space travel concepts include the "Space-Hopper," a reusable shuttle being designed by Astrium, the space division of DaimlerChrysler. The first-generation Hopper would be unmanned, but within 20 years it could evolve into a transporter for taking tourists to space and back. The firm has also developed a concept for a 280-berth orbiting hotel that looks suspiciously like Star Trek's Deep Space Nine. But company officials say it will be 20 or 30 years before the development of cheap, reliable shuttles makes the hotel project economically realistic. Meanwhile, nasa is backing a project to build a spaceplane called VentureStar that would be used to put commercial cargos into orbit possibly as early as 2005 and ultimately could put people into orbit.

What is driving all these efforts? Money. Lots of it. Polls show that most people would be eager to take a trip into space, and many would be willing to spend a large amount of money up to a year's income for even a brief suborbital flight. "There would be literally hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions worldwide, who would jump at the chance to take a holiday in space if the costs were to drop to, say, $10,000," says Ian Collier, sales development manager for Wildwings, a travel agency in Bristol. Wildwings is the British representative for Space Adventures, a U.S. firm that is already taking reservations for suborbital trips. A 1997 survey by the Space Transportation Association in the U.S. said as many as 40 million Americans would consider taking a two-week Space Shuttle trip and of those, 3 million would be willing to pay $100,000 for the privilege. In a poll of Germans, 43% said they would consider a trip to space and 5% said they would spend up to a year's salary on the fare.

For now, the price for space travel is so high that even $100,000 is not enough; only the seriously rich and wildly adventurous can consider it. That accurately describes American billionaire and former nasa space program engineer Dennis Tito, who is currently in Russia training to become history's pioneering space tourist.

After NASA Tito, 60, founded the California investment management consultancy Wilshire Associates, where he made his considerable fortune. He has agreed to pay $20 million of that fortune to blast off with two Russian cosmonauts sometime next year for a week-long visit to the Mir space station. The plan is to send two or three tourists a year on Mir visits in hopes of making enough money to keep the 14-year-old station in orbit.

Suborbital flight is a less costly option than orbiting with Mir, and 128 potential passengers have plunked down a refundable deposit of $6,000 to fly on Space Adventures' suborbital flights, which are to begin sometime between 2003 and 2005. Twenty-five prospective travelers have already paid the full $98,000 fare, which will cover the flight plus a week of training and you get to keep the flight suit. Among the booked passengers is Madsen Pirie, 60, current president of the London-based Adam Smith Institute, which studies free-market issues. "Until now, this has only been available to professional astronauts and cosmonauts, most of whom have a military background," says Pirie. "It is only now that seeing the planet from the outside is available to ordinary civilians."

What would such a trip be like? Well, take a ride in the world's most violent roller coaster, mix in weightlessness, nausea, double vision, headache, terror and the very real risk of death, and you have a fairly accurate picture of space tourism, at least in its early stages. Even seasoned and trained astronauts have suffered space sickness during launch and in orbit, and the ghosts of the Challenger crew will be riding with early space tourists. Despite training, travelers are nearly certain to spend as much time clutching their barf bags as peering out tiny portholes at the edge of earth. Yet astropreneurs have no doubt there are plenty who will take a flyer, and pay for it. "It's the confrontation with the high-tech world of space travel, the hero myth surrounding astronauts and the prospect of traveling around the globe at a speed of 30,000 km/h in slightly more than 80 minutes instead of the 80 days it took a century ago that seems to fascinate us so much," says Michael Reichert of the German Aerospace Center in Bonn.

For those who want some of the thrills, spills and ills of space travel without the high cost and high risk of a Mir visit or one of the early suborbital flights, realistic substitutes are available. The enterprising Russians are offering flights in a MiG-25, which goes to 26,000 m at more than twice the speed of sound. That is billed as the edge of space and is high enough to discern the earth's curvature. The fare: $10,000. To experience the feel of spaceflight, try a parabolic flight aboard an Ilyushin-76 at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, just outside Moscow's city limits. The specially equipped plane flies to around 10,000 m and performs a series of climbs and dives to give passengers in a padded cabin about 10 episodes of weightlessness lasting 30 seconds each. "You can fly like Superman, you can walk up the walls and across the ceiling," says Collier. "It's a pretty neat experience." And a pretty neat price: about $5,000.

One reason much of the early space tourism centers on Russia is the relative lack of regulation and lawyers in the Wild East. In the West, potential providers of spacecraft rides are likely to face a blizzard of regulatory paperwork and the possibility of ruinous lawsuits in case of accident. "Another issue is medical screening of potential passengers," says Angie Bukley, a lecturer in engineering at the International Space University in Strasbourg, an institution devoted to preparing for interplanetary explorations. "You can't just let anyone go, particularly if you know it will kill them."

Perhaps you're somebody who wants to go into space but can't meet the medical criteria because you're too old or too ill or otherwise unfit. A U.S. company called Celestis can help. For about $6,000 Celestis will launch your ashes into orbit after you die and make you the ultimate astronaut, circling the earth for all eternity. Even Yuri Gagarin didn't do that.

With reporting by Polly Forster/Washington, Helen Gibson/London, Ursula Sautter/Bonn, Stacey Smith/Paris and Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow