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Space--Tourism's Hot Ticket

Fly you to the moon? Some 1,200 are on one waiting list. 'Space hotels will open in my lifetime,' vows an entrepreneur who's investing $500 million.

May 22, 2000|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — Robert Bigelow has this vision: He and fellow space tourists orbit the moon aboard a luxury liner rocket ship with wall-to-wall windows on deep space. The five-star accommodations include gambling, gourmet food and romantic weightless encounters. For additional thrills, laser light shows illuminate the far side of the moon.

It all sounds like a pure reverie, except that Bigelow, owner of the Las Vegas-based Budget Suites of America hotel chain, is putting $500 million into development of technology to hurl a hotel into orbit and back again.

"As an investment, it's beyond risk. It's crazy," he said. "But I'm a practical businessman; you can't be prone to fantasy and survive in the finance field. Mark my words: Space hotels will open in my lifetime."

Crazy maybe. But Bigelow is among a growing galaxy of competitors who have set their sights on the stars in a new, privately funded space race.

Amid lampooning from critics who point out that there is still no such thing as a safe, reusable rocket, this new drive is being piloted by entrepreneurs who have long stood on the launch pad sidelines.

In February the Netherlands-based MirCorp announced that it will commercially operate Russia's Mir space station and begin delivering tourists for brief weightless stays in space. A Japanese TV reporter and a woman from England recently spent eight days aboard Mir at a cost of $10 million each.

Already, tourists are willing to pay big bucks just to come close to entering Earth orbit: 144 have paid $98,000 apiece to reserve seats on a trip to the very edge of space aboard a craft that has yet to be built.

Space Adventures of Alexandria, Va., hopes to offer a two-hour flight that will soar high enough above the Earth to enter space but not travel fast enough to go into orbit. Six companies are vying to develop the rocket that will take customers on the brief voyage.

Christopher Faranetta, the company's space flight program manager, said Space Adventures already takes people for jaunts inside the cockpit of a Russian MiG-25 military jet. More than 4,500 people have paid $11,900 for the trip, which tops out at 85,000 feet. An additional 1,200 are on a waiting list for an eventual trip to the moon.

Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin--the second man to step on the moon--has formed a nonprofit organization, ShareSpace, to promote space tourism. Aldrin said: "This is completely within the realm of possibility."

Even more fantastic plans come from people like Gene Meyers, a West Covina engineer whose Space Island Group wants to open a space resort by 2007 fashioned from "space junk," discarded space shuttle fuel rockets connected in a wheel-shaped design "like something from '2001: A Space Odyssey.' " Meyers said there are people already trying to figure out how to run the place--in a course in space resort management at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Facing Up to Some Practical Questions

Some major corporations have dabbled in futuristic plans. Virgin Atlantic Airways wants to build an orbiting Virgin Hotel--reached by a new airline called Virgin Galactic Airways--if the right technology can be developed.

Last fall, Hilton Hotels announced an interest in developing an orbiting hotel, but has since expressed doubts about the potential market. "Once a consumer climbs aboard that spaceship, are they going to be able to get back?" asked Hilton spokeswoman Jeannie Datz.

Good question.

The space shuttle makes trips to space and back, but the current cost of putting people and payloads into orbit is stratospheric: $10 million per flight, or $10,000 a pound.

"If the good Lord had meant for us to become space tourists, we would have been born with more money," said John Pike, space analyst for the Federation of American Scientists. "After four decades of space flight, there still has been no improvement in the cost of getting into Earth orbit. That's not going to change any time soon. Not in our lifetime, anyway.

"They say the best way to earn a small fortune in commercial space tourism is to start out with a large fortune," Pike said.

A 1998 NASA study concluded that the space tourism industry could one day be worth billions. But the economics of space travel is "a 'chicken and egg' problem," said Jay Penn, senior project engineer with Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo. "To get people into space, you need to get the cost down. But to get the cost down, you need to get people into space."

Peter H. Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, agreed. To solve the problem, his group has offered a $10-million prize to inspire engineers to design a rocket to carry the first space tourist.

The X Prize is modeled after the $25,000 Orteig Prize, which inspired Charles Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic Ocean on his 1927 New York-to-Paris flight. Erik Lindbergh, a grandson of the historic aviator, is a board member of the foundation offering the prize. Competitors include 17 teams from a dozen countries.

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