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Aspiring astronauts run 'space camp on steroids'

LARGO — A Czech-made fighter jet spins above the Gulf of Mexico.

Passengers inside another aircraft start to float, feeling like astronauts, as their plane soars up and dips down.

As jobs go, it's not bad.

Since May, entrepreneurs Howard Chipman and Veronique Balsa Koken have been carving out an interesting little niche in the Tampa Bay tourism industry by offering what they call "astronaut training," based at the St. Petersburg Clearwater International Airport.

Chipman, a physician with a clinic in Oldsmar, and his fiance, Koken, provide flight training in the fighter jet. And they offer simulated weightless flights in the other aircraft, a Rockwell 700 Commander.

''We call it a space camp on steroids," Chipman said.

Ultimately, they hope their company, Aurora Aerospace, could become involved in privately financed space flights, a dreamy sounding concept that many experts believe is already on the launch pad.

While zero-G simulators have been around for years, commercial space travel is still far away from reaching the general public. Dozens of small companies are devising ways to launch into space, build housing and live there, but costs for travel remain extreme, said John Olivero, chairman of the physical sciences department a Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

Only the Russian Soyuz spacecraft offers private jaunts to the heavens, and their prices start in the tens of millions. Experts predict that space research, such as explorations geared toward medical breakthroughs or new energy resources, is the best hope for making travel to the stars more affordable.

A company called Virgin Galactic recently unveiled what it calls SpaceShipTwo. The spacecraft is about the size of a large business jet, has wide windows and seats for six passengers. It's billed as the world's first commercial spaceship and will sell suborbital space rides for $200,000 a ticket, offering passengers 2½-hour flights that include about five minutes of weightlessness. Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, who partnered with aviation designer Burt Rutan on the venture, hopes to begin passenger flights out of New Mexico sometime in 2011.

Chipman, who is licensed by the FAA as a flight instructor, said he has been flying since he was a teen growing up in Canada. Koken, originally from Brazil, said she has always loved space, and studied aeronautics at Embry-Riddle.

Chipman said he bought the L-39 Albatross for $300,000. He said he does not offer "rides" per se, but offers training flights in the jet.

Some customers have never flown before, but always wanted to know what it's like to handle a fighter aircraft. For those clients, obviously, Chipman handles the takeoffs and landings, but the client can take the controls in the air, under his instruction.

Other clients are experienced commercial pilots who want to know what it's like to turn their aircraft over in a roll — something the L-39 is well-suited for.

"You obviously can't take an airliner or a business jet and flip it around upside down," Chipman said. He estimated the company has had about 100 clients in the jet.

For the "zero-G" flights, Chipman, Koken and passengers fly upward toward the clouds and then dip down, creating a sensation similar to the feeling you get when driving over a sudden rise in the road. Except in the airplane, you actually do float for up to 10 seconds.

"I'm their coach as they float in the air, because you have to make sure they're safe," Koken said.

The flights start at $2,200.

They also have plans to aim higher. The two have teamed up with Craig Russell, a pilot and space enthusiast based in Huntsville, Ala., who is raising money for what he hopes will be a privately launched space flight.

His dream is to build a replica of the a Gemini space capsule, mount it atop a commercially built rocket, and launch two astronauts into space. One would be a passenger willing to pay several million for the flight. The other would be Chipman or Koken.

This is a plan that requires $60-million or so, but they're all hopeful.

"We're both, obviously, astronauts in progress," Chipman said.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or ckrueger@sptimes.com. Staff writer Luis Perez and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Aspiring astronauts run 'space camp on steroids' 12/13/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 13, 2009 10:05pm]
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