Adventures in Space — for a Price

If you’ve ever longed to be an astronaut, floating weightless and catching a glimpse of Earth from outer space, a Washington, D.C.-area company can make your dream come true – as long as you have the bucks.

Space Adventures, a private company based in Arlington, Va., sends its patrons on $5,400 zero-gravity flights, where they experience brief bouts of weightlessness, and edge-of-space excursions costing up to $12,995 that let them see the curvature of the earth.

Astronaut wannabes can also witness a shuttle launch for $1,150 or go through simulated cosmonaut training for up to $6,995. And if they have $20 million and at least six months to train, they might be able to blast off on an orbital flight to the International Space Station like entrepreneur Dennis Tito did last year.

"The era of space tourism has begun," said Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures. "Space is back in."

The company is building an FAA-certified aircraft that can take passengers on $98,000 sub-orbital flights starting in 2005 – where they’ll travel to an altitude of 62 miles, experience several minutes of weightlessness and see Earth from outer space before returning home to earn their astronaut wings.

Space Adventures has even partnered with US Airways, accepting frequent flier miles accrued on the airline as payment for some of its tours.

"I’ve always been a space buff and these packages were a way I could get a taste of what it’s like going up in space," said Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Tilenius, 34, who has tried nearly everything Space Adventures offers.

The zero-g flights – in Ilyushin-76 jets — take off from the cosmonaut training center in Star City, Russia, with about a dozen passengers and 18 crew and specialists. Inside the body of the plane, there are no seats — only padding and a few small windows.

After reaching 30,000 feet, the jet does a series of parabolic maneuvers – flying up and down in hill formations and causing those aboard to experience about 30 seconds of weightlessness per maneuver. During those times, they can walk on the ceiling, do pinwheels or float through the aircraft.

"It’s the most intense sensation," Tilenius said. "Your body and all your senses are feeling an incredible thrill at being weightless. It’s like being Superman. You can fly from one end of the plane to the other."

The edge-of-space flights, also out of Russia, are on supersonic jets traveling twice the speed of sound to 80,000 feet, where passengers can get a quick glimpse of the planet from outer space.

"The sky is very, very dark blue and you can see the curvature of the earth," said another client, Richard Garriott, 40, of Austin, Texas. "Though you’d love to linger, you almost immediately have to nose over and come back down. It’s basically a rocket trip to that spot."

Shuttle launches can also be witnessed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and simulated cosmonaut training allows participants to experience some of what it takes to become a professional.

Historically, trips into space were reserved only for the federal government’s NASA and those who trained extensively for years to become astronauts. But many – including NASA — see the future of space exploration for tourists being handled by the private sector.

"In general, the agency supports private commercial efforts to utilize space," said NASA spokesman Ed Campion.

In fact, the department has been working with private industry for years on some of its projects, including preparing the space shuttle for flight and conducting its missions.

Still, NASA has some trepidation about privately-run space tourism companies.

"We’ve voiced concern that space exploration doesn’t become an expensive joy ride for people who have big bucks, while the rest of the world gets left out," Campion said. "And we still think space travel is a risky endeavor. You don’t shy away from risk, but you don’t take it blindly."

Anderson acknowledged the dangers, characterizing them as par for the course, but said his staff has extensive expertise in space exploration.

"The public understands that during times of innovation and exploration there are risks involved," he said.

Space Adventures’ current costs are prohibitive for the majority of the population, especially in this economically shaky time.

But Anderson said business has grown at a rate of about 200 to 300 percent a year. Since it began in 1997, the firm has had a few thousand clients – about 1,000 in 2001 alone – and made millions of dollars in revenues that same year.

"We’re at a time in history when there’s more wealth than there’s ever been," he said. "Spending in the luxury industries actually increases during times of economic downturn."

He predicts that space travel will go the way of commercial air and sea travel, and personal computers.

"It will become much less expensive in later years and available to more people," Anderson said. "A lot more people will fly in space in the next 20 years than did in the last 40."