Forget about joining the Air Force or earning a degree in astrophysics. If the X Prize Foundation succeeds in its mission, space travel may no longer be restricted mainly to the military or academic elite.
A St. Louis-based, nonprofit organization, X Prize is offering $10 million to the first privately financed corporation to successfully send three civilian passengers into space, return them to Earth and complete a second trip within two weeks. Fourteen companies from the United States, Europe and South America have so far entered the competition.
"We plan on winning," says Harry Dace, director of Texas-based Civilian Astronaut Corps, a private club that hopes to send its first passengers into the stratosphere on July 4, 1999. "Of all the people offering rides into space, we go the highest, we go the fastest and we offer the longest weightlessness period," Dace says, as if everyday space travel were already a reality.
But Civilian Astronaut Corps hasn't yet built its rocket and has only sold 42 of its anticipated 2,000 seats despite a low-end $4,000 ticket price and advertising in magazines and on radio and television.
"People just don't believe this is possible," Dace admits.
A growing number of enthusiasts not only believe that space travel is the wave of the future, however, but are donating money to guarantee it. Enterprise Leasing, First USA Bank and author Tom Clancy have all made donations toward the $10-million prize, half of which has been raised.
Last week, X Prize announced a credit card sweepstakes to help raise funds for the project. Each purchase on the X Prize Visa card is also an entry into the sweepstakes, for which the grand prize is a 15-minute space flight. Runners-up will win one week of training, a trip on a MiG 25 or a zero-gravity flight--all offered by Space Adventures, a private adventure tourism agency in Fairfax, Va.
Up to $100,000 can book wannabe astronauts a seat in advance through one of the handful of space travel agencies around the country.
"It may sound like a lot, but it isn't," says Eric Anderson, vice president of Space Adventures. "People spend that much for high-end golf vacations. Why not outer space?" So far, he has booked 19 seats with two firms, Pioneer Rocketplane in Lakewood, Colo., and Kelly Space & Technology in San Bernardino, competitors in the X Prize contest. The suborbital flights would be similar to the voyage Alan Shepard took 37 years ago.
Most of the X Prize competitors' known designs feature a runway takeoff and pressurized cabin, like traditional airplanes. Two minutes into flight, it is anticipated that these civilian spacecraft will be vertical and approaching 2,500 miles per hour.
"The passengers will then feel the force of 2 Gs--double the force of gravity or twice their body weight. Reaching 60 miles into the stratosphere, the engines cut off and the passengers will be weightless for several minutes. That's about enough time to do a somersault twirl through the cabin," says Scott Fitzsimmons, vice president of Zegrahm Space Voyages, a tour operator in Seattle that has already booked 40 seats at $98,000 apiece for a seven-day program of training and simulations and a flight on a vehicle to be built by Vela Technology in Herndon, Va. The two companies, part of an aerospace group, are competing for the X Prize.
Upon reentry into the Earth's atmosphere, passengers may experience up to 5 Gs, or five times their body weight.
"They're really gonna be glued in their seats," says the Civilian Astronaut Corps' Dace.
Participants in the far-out travel deals with Zegrahm will receive two complimentary space suits designed by a team of students and Dr. Harvey Wichman, director of the Aerospace Psychology Laboratory at Claremont McKenna College.
"We wanted the passengers to look like astronauts but also to be comfortable and stylish, so we designed a suit that falls somewhere between a pair of blue NASA coveralls and a Star Trek uniform, " says Wichman.
The civilian space suit is a blue, three-piece ensemble made from flexible and temperature-resistant Kevlar and has numerous sealable pockets to keep items from floating away during weightlessness. According to a survey conducted by the Space Transportation Assn., a private organization, the average person would pay two months' salary for the opportunity to travel in space. Eric, who did not want his last name used, is the 34-year-old founder and owner of a computer design and installation company in Seattle. He is making payments on a space trip he booked through Zegrahm a year ago.
"It's not a pittance, but it's really nothing for the experience," he says.
All of the money paid to Zegrahm goes into a trust account as required by Washington state law, Fitzsimmons said, and is held until the passenger's space flight returns. There are various departure dates, with the first one on Dec. 1, 2001. If there is no flight within a year of scheduled departure, passengers may receive their money back.