With stars in their eyes, travelers look to space

Published June 11, 2000|Updated Sept. 27, 2005

It's still years away _ if it ever comes _ but adventurers are lining up to be the first tourists in space.

For a mere $98,000, Bill Lane bought a round-trip ticket to space.

No, really.

Lane, a former ambassador to Australia who hails from a prominent family of magazine publishers, has reserved his spot. If private companies begin taking civilians into space, he wants to be one of the first tourists out there in the great beyond.

At age 80, Lane hopes to replace John Glenn as the oldest man in space.

"I don't know when the day will be exactly, but I'll bet it will come," Lane said recently from his California home. "It's terrific."

If this all sounds a little too much like The Jetsons, consider this:

Two U.S. companies, including one in Sarasota, have signed up more than 230 amateur astronauts _ albeit rich ones _ to go into space. Some have plunked down deposits of $5,000 or more. Others have paid the nearly $100,000 price in full.

The first trips, scheduled in three to five years, would take people up 62 miles where they will see what looks like a nighttime sky _ even in the daytime _ and the curve of the Earth. The companies originally anticipated taking off in 2001, but already have postponed the trips.

Well-known astronauts, scientists and even entrepreneurs looking to cash in on what they hope will be a popular, new vacation spot believe we will be able to head into space soon _ though probably not in three years. NASA officials, supportive of commercial efforts to put tourists in space, suggest it might be another decade or two.

Still skeptical? You have some reason to be.

None of the almost two dozen companies attempting to build spaceships that would be modeled after existing vehicles have nearly enough money _ maybe $150-million or more.

Then there's the Federal Aviation Administration, whose Office of Commercial Space Transportation must sign off before blast off.

And, of course, there's the chance of fatal accidents and the question of who in this world would insure the risky venture.

"Is this physically possible? Yes. But is it safe and reasonable? I don't know," said John Pike, director of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists. "It's a good way to kill people and lose a lot of money."

But space tourism, as it is called, already has sparked some well-known companies to put down hard money on making space vacations come true:

Virgin Atlantic chairman Richard Branson formed Virgin Galactic Airways to take passengers into space by 2010.

Billionaire hotelier Robert Bigelow, owner of Budget Suites of America, claims he will spend $500-million toward a lunar-orbiting hotel, including suites with cosmic views.

American telecommunications tycoon Walt Anderson has pledged millions to turn Mir, the closed Russian space station, into among other things, a vacation spot for millionaires.

Even Frommer's, the travel-guide publisher, is getting into the act by writing The Moon: A Guide for First-Time Visitors.

Scoff all you want. But with adventure-seekers already shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for guided treks up Mount Everest and down to the Titanic's remains, entrepreneurs believe space could be the next big thing.

"Some people think we're crazy and that it is a scam," said Chris Faranetta, space flight program manager at Space Adventures, one of the two companies accepting reservations. "But we're a serious effort."

This isn't the first time companies have offered flights into space.

In the 1980s, the Seattle-based adventure company Society Expeditions collected deposits for trips that never materialized. The now-bankrupt Pan American World Airways also took reservations.

Most efforts were abandonned after the 1986 Challenger explosion rid the nation of some of its enthusiasm for space.

Now, we're at it again.

For companies booking trips into space, the future is now. Incredible Adventures of Sarasota and Space Adventures near Washington, D.C., have been taking reservations for nearly two years. The businesses act as booking agents for the 20 or so companies that want to build spaceships.

"Dear Dreamer," the Incredible Adventures' Web site begins. "The reality of civilian space travel is only a few short years away. We invite you to contact us now, to find out how you can reserve your spot in history."

Passengers would pay $95,000 and up for week-long travel packages that include training, medical checkups and, of course, the grand finale: the suborbital flight.

They would don some sort of futuristic space suit _ picture Buck Rogers or Star Trek _ and get strapped in a spaceship that would seat six to 10 people. They would be sent hurtling up 62 miles and, depending on FAA regulations, may be allowed to tumble around weightless for a few minutes.

The spaceship would travel high enough to enter space but would not go into orbit. The suborbital flight is the same the first American in space, Alan Shepard, took in 1961.

"We're not reinventing the wheel," said Greg Claxton, Incredible Adventures' sales director.

About 130 people have registered with Space Adventures, plopping down the $6,000 deposits or more, and agreeing to make monthly payments of $1,000 for three years. More than 100 others paid $5,000 to Incredible Adventures, which does not require additional payments until a date has been set for the trip.

"We're ready," said Jane Reifert, Incredible Adventures president. "We're just waiting for the vehicle to be built."

Bill Lane, the former ambassador, heard about space tours three years ago from Stanford University's alumni group, which sponsors educational _ not to mention adventurous _ vacations each year.

"Boy, sign me up," said Lane, a 1942 graduate, when he heard Stanford was joining forces with Space Adventures. "Some people are skeptical of this feat at my age, but I feel wonderful."

Other would-be astronauts are lawyers, stockbrokers, doctors and entrepreneurs. Most are thrill-seekers who have been on risky adventures before.

Pike of the Federation of American Scientists described those who want to go to space as Evel Knievel types who are taking a chance on getting killed.

It will be many years, Pike said, before these trips could be used as typical vacations for you and me.

"This will not be safe any time soon," he said. "Is a normal person going to book this for his family? No. It's physically possible but won't work on a reasonable basis."

Pike anticipates funding will dry up for these ventures after the first accident occurs.

That's grim news for companies still searching for initial investors to build spaceships.

Estimates for building a spaceship come in at $150-million to $200-million. And that doesn't include launch and insurance costs.

"Everything we are talking about has been done already by a government at a big price," said Bob Haltermann, executive director of STA's space travel and tourism division. "The trick is to do the same thing for a lower price."

In the meantime, would-be space travelers like Bill Lane will have to cool their jets. But he says he's not giving up hope.

"I just assume I'm going," said Lane, an aviation buff who has been around the world. "Technology is moving so fast."

_ Researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.