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You'll want a window seat

For $200,000, Virgin Galactic promises tourists four minutes of zero gravity and a perspective- altering view of Earth. A line already is forming.

March 03, 2007|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. — Sometime between the end of the Apollo missions and the shuttle disasters, space lost its shine.

Instead of Capt. Kirk boldly going where no man has gone before, space shuttle launches barely cause a media ripple. The most recent indignity was the headline-grabbing misadventure of a diaper-wearing, lovesick astronaut.

Now, all that may be about to change.

Companies are angling to cash in on space, hoping that wealthy adventurers, who think nothing of plunking down big bucks for art and wine, will fork out $200,000 for four minutes of zero gravity and an awe-inspiring view of the Earth.

Already, 200 rich daredevils have bought seats priced well below the $20 million that tourists such as Dennis Tito and Anousheh Ansari are paying for stays at the International Space Station.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Space tourism: A March 3 article in Section A about space tourism said Los Angeles billionaire Edward Roski Jr. had hiked 28,251 feet to base camp at Mt. Everest three times. He has climbed nearby peak K2, which has an elevation of 28,251 feet, three times.

Los Angeles billionaire Edward Roski Jr. bought ticket No. 128 on Virgin Galactic, one of the companies chartering the out-of-this-world flights.

It's the next logical trip for the 68-year-old real estate mogul. The part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Kings and Staples Center has already conquered earthbound extremes, such as hiking 28,251 feet to base camp at Mt. Everest -- three times -- and contracting a Russian research vessel to take him to the wreck of the Titanic, 2.5 miles beneath the ocean's surface.

"It's got to be a real thrill to go up there," Roski said. "I jumped at it immediately. I said, 'Sign me up!' "

His travel agent, Craig Buck of Montecito Village Travel, didn't even have to break a sweat. "It didn't take a whole lot of selling," Buck said

This fresh space race is fueled by teams of ambitious engineers and affluent businessmen that are developing lunar landing vehicles, rocket racers and spacecraft that will whoosh travelers from Sydney, Australia, to New York in an hour.

"Right now, it's just a fantastic time," said John Spencer, president of the Space Tourism Society. "It's at the birthing phase where these really wealthy, smart people are seeing enormous opportunities."

Even astrophysicist Stephen Hawking plans to hop a flight on Virgin Galactic, the private company with the only reusable, manned spacecraft that has successfully flown to space and back.

Not everyone is sold. Space historian Roger Launius said real space tourism -- weeklong vacations in space and not fleeting moments -- was decades off.

The suborbital tourism proposed by Virgin Galactic might appeal to only a tiny fraction of the population, he said.

"It's obviously going to require people who have a fair amount of disposable income," said Launius, curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. "They're not like Aunt Mable and Uncle Ed who go to the beach for a week. These people exist, but it's not a large community and never has been."

Skeptics aside, a team of 47 "space agents" from the luxury Virtuoso travel network has begun peddling tickets after completing two days of training last month in Cape Canaveral.

The agents were schooled in space aviation history, the company's spaceship technology and what exactly $200,000 would buy. (One suggested pitch: It's not just four minutes of weightlessness; it's a three-day, perspective-altering experience that almost no one else has had.)

As he stood quoting Socrates and spewing technical jargon about G-forces and flight plans, chief pilot Alex Tai charmed them with his British accent: "If you want to be an astronaut, you have to dress like one. So we're going to have the coolest, sexiest pressure suits you've ever seen in your life."

Some agents swooned: Who wouldn't want to go to space with Tai behind the controls?

And why not be there to witness a story of true love? Over glasses of wine, George and Loretta Whitesides held court as agents inched in close enough to hear.

"When I was 11," George Whitesides recalled, "I remember looking up in the night sky and promising, 'I'm going to go up there.' "

Bad vision killed that career, but science fiction kept feeding the desire. His future wife shared the same dreams, and they crossed paths in Austria, at a space conference. They started Yuri's Night, an annual World Space Party, and fell in love. On Valentine's Day, they launched the website www.spacelove.org to document their quest to be the first honeymooners in space.

Together, they watched SpaceShipOne -- designed by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft Corp.'s Paul Allen -- capture the $10-million Ansari X Prize in October 2004, by becoming the first reusable, manned spacecraft to enter space twice in two weeks. Surrounded by crowds of cheering enthusiasts in the Mojave desert, SpaceShipOne suddenly brought space within reach of private citizens.

"We're going to give back this dream to the world," said George Whitesides, now the executive director of the National Space Society, a space education and advocacy group. Paying for that dream is "a stretch for us," he said, describing their financial status as "definitely middle class."

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