Ever since the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing seven astronauts, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, NASA has appeared a bit reluctant to take non-astronauts into outer space. But where there is money to be earned, private business will find a way.
Enter an industry even more nascent, and possibly more risky, than e-commerce -- space adventure travel for tourists. For a mere $98,000 (plus $4,000 optional cancellation insurance) Zegrahm Space Voyages in Seattle, Wash., is selling tickets for the first-ever commercially operated tourist trip into outer space, to take off -- and land -- on Saturday December 1, 2001.
The two-and-a-half-hour voyage will carry six passengers at a time in a yet-to-be-built Space Cruiser at speeds of up to 2,300 miles per hour 62 miles above the Earth's surface. Passengers would sustain weightlessness for two minutes, "long enough to take at least one somersault," according to Zegrahm's Chris Ostendorf, 28, who worked in the cruise ship industry for five years before joining the travel company about seven months ago.
Zegrahm's first trip is being coordinated in association with the Stanford University Alumni Assocation, whose Travel/Study program has in the past visited locations such as Kuwait and Vietnam. Within days of the space trip's announcement, two individuals put down their $5,000 deposits -- one of them a retired Stanford engineering professor, the other a woman who felt like the trip would make a nice present for her husband.
In fact, even though Zegrahm has produced no working vehicle, and the location for the launch itself has not been determined, more than 20 people have plunked down $5,000 deposits for the trip, which includes a week of "astronaut training" prior to the launch, as well as videotapes of the trip and official-looking monogrammed space suits. If the trip doesn't happen within four years of paying the deposit, would-be passengers will receive a refund, minus their $4,000 optional payment insurance and interest.
Ostendorf, who says the space travel industry should mirror the cruise industry, describes his clientele as "people who are interested in unique experiences -- they have been everywhere, and have run out of places to go." Of the 1,200 or so people who signed up for Zegrahm's informational e-mail list, 25 percent are female, and the average age is 45 to 65. Judging from these demographics, it may be physically impossible for many of these people to take the trip -- it's not for the "ordinary person from the street," warns Jurrie VanderWoude, a former Air Force fighter pilot who now works at the Jet Propulsion Labs. "Weightlessness is like seasickness," he laughs. "That is why you train in the device that NASA refers to as the vomit comet."
Nonetheless, VanderWoude would jump at the opportunity to take the trip. "I think it would be fabulous. Simply fabulous. If I had the money."
But VanderWoude warns that space travel may not be as easy to arrange as Zegrahm is hoping. "It is not like just taking a trip to Washington, D.C." Not only will all potential passengers need to be checked out by a medical professional, but the carrier will need to be approved by a whole range of federal agencies and transportation overseeing bodies, such as the Federal Aviation Agency and the National Transportation Safety Board. None of these decisions can be made until there is, at the very least, a ship, and once the vehicle is ready to be inspected, it will most likely be subject to the snail's pace typical of most federal bureaucratic decision-making processes.
"It is not going to happen by 2001, that is for sure," mused Rusty Schweickart, a former NASA astronaut who served as lunar module pilot for Apollo 9 in 1969 -- the third manned flight of the Apollo series and the first manned flight of the lunar module. Schweickart did not want to comment about the potential success of Zegrahm in particular, but he appeared pessimistic about the space travel market's prospects of making a splash in the early part of the 21st century. "Right now there is really nothing to say; there is no tourism in space. It is a fun idea, but it is a long way in the future."
Say 20 years from now, said Schweickart, when "there will be facilities in space, and there will be transportation that is cheap enough that it could be a reasonable business proposition. But at the moment, we are a long way from that. For two and a half minutes, it is not worth it."
Or is it? "There are many experiences that are very short-lived but are nonetheless well worth it," insists Eric, a 34-year-old "information engineer" who runs his own business and lives with his spouse and two children in the Pacific Northwest. Less than three weeks after hearing about Zegrahm's proposed space travel plans, Eric paid his $5,000 deposit and $4,000 payment insurance, even though Zegrahm has presented no finished craft.
"When I first heard about this trip, I was skeptical," he notes. "But after doing more research into Zegrahm, it became clear that they are serious. There is really no reason that this could not happen, and they are not going to go up there half-cocked -- they would not be allowed to."
If Zegrahm manages to pull it off, the company could be hitting on a timely and lucrative concept. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, travel is the third largest retail industry in the United States, with total annual spending of $473 billion. By the year 2000, the association predicts, travel is expected to rise to number one.
Original file name: CNI - Space Tourism.not so soon
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