Celebrities Shoot for the Stars ... Literally

Maybe they're taking the concept of stardom a little too literally.

Celebrities of the highest luminosity are flocking to be among the first to embark on the kind of trip that was once the province of "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" geeks — spaceflight.

A-listers like Madonna, Paris Hilton, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Tom Hanks, B-listers like rocker Dave Navarro as well as the famous faces you'd expect to be on board for a trip to outer space, like the U.S.S. Enterprise's William Shatner, all have stars in their eyes, according to various reports.

“Space travel is sexy,” said Star magazine editor at large Jill Dobson. “If you think rock stars get the chicks, wait 'til Dave Navarro returns from space and then see how popular he is with the ladies.”

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The current craze for celebrities freeing themselves from the bounds of the terrestrial sphere was capped off with the news that celebrity personified, Paris Hilton, had bought a ticket on Virgin Galactic, the commercial spaceflight program created by ebullient British billionaire Richard Branson. Branson hopes to have stars and regular (but very rich) Joes up in space by 2008.

Hilton, a fan since childhood of the "Star Wars" movies, reportedly paid $200,000 for the honor of donning a diaper (there will be no bathrooms on board the six-person craft) and being shot past the outer reaches of Earth's atmosphere into zero-gravity for a few minutes.

Madonna also made news recently when a Russian lawmaker proposed giving her a seat on a mission to the International Space Station, which she supposedly expressed an interest in visiting. The Duma voted that motion down.

But don't count Madge, or other celebrities, out.

“This is a trend that is really going to, ahem, skyrocket,” Dobson said. “Has Madonna ever failed to reach a goal? No. If she can achieve a perfectly toned, rock-hard body at age 47, she can certainly get someone to give her a lift to space. Piece of cake.”

Branson has confirmed that others booked for a flight to where not many men have gone before include Shatner and Navarro, along with some 7,000 others who can shell out for the pricey passage to 70 miles above terra firma.

Other reports say they may be sharing space with Jolie and Pitt, physics scholar Stephen Hawking, actress Victoria Principal and Prince Harry, who's good friends with Branson's son.

But this is not the first crop of stars to pine for the great unknown. Long before he rocketed to the cover of People magazine with the announcement that he was gay, *NSYNC star Lance Bass made headlines when he failed to get a berth into space.

"Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry had his remains shot into space, and singer John Denver had long lobbied to travel into the great vacuum.

Others who have supposedly expressed interest in going into space at one point or another include Sigourney Weaver of "Aliens" fame, Moby, CNN anchorman Miles O'Brien, Nicole Kidman, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos (who has his own spaceship program) and Google's Larry Page (on the board of the Ansari X Prize Foundation, which offered $10 million to a successful private, reusable manned spacecraft).

But why do celebs want to travel to space?

“Every kid grows up wanting to be an astronaut — but then we find out in high school that you have to be good at math and science," Dobson said.

"For Paris Hilton, that might have been a deterrent," she continued. "Now that she has learned you just have to be rich to book a flight to space, she's all set! Some other celebs might just want to take the best trip, just like they want to drive the best Ferrari and get the best film roles. And how do you top outer space?”

The star-studded passenger list doesn't surprise George Whiteside, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Space Society, which has promoted space exploration since 1974.

His non-profit group's board, which includes celebrated space vets such as John Glenn and Buzz Aldrin, boasts a celebrity-heavy cast of its own, including “Apollo 13”'s Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise (“Tom Hanks wants to go,” Whiteside said. “My sense is Tom Cruise would love to go”).

“The interest we're seeing from celebrities is representative of the interest on the part of the public as a whole,” Whiteside, who also has a Virgin Galactic ticket, said.

“People in general are getting turned on to the revolution in personal spaceflight that's going on. Now of course, in these early years, seats to space are still going to be fairly expensive, so it's to be expected that celebrities with money will be some of the first customers. But the exciting thing is that space is a universal inspiration, and it'll stretch between the famous and not-so-famous.”

Of course, celebs won't be the first civilians up in space — journalists like Toyohiro Akiyaka and the wealthy and much-ridiculed “space tourist” Dennis Tito have already made their mark, and NASA and other governmental agencies have included civilians in their missions.

Still, ordinary people might be wondering: what's in this for me?

“I expect people will say, 'It's a rich man's game, why do I care?'” said Jeff Krukin, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to opening up the space frontier and based in Nyack, N.Y.

“I encounter that a lot, and after the X Prize, people in the aviation industry were saying, 'Big deal, it's just a brief suborbital flight.' I try to remind them they're working in an industry that started with the Wright Brothers, not 747s circling the world."

Krukin added that celebs' interest in space is "just the beginning of something."

"Just by the nature of these people being celebrities, people who may not be paying much attention to what we do as a country or as a world will have a favorite celebrity doing this and suddenly begin to see, 'Hey, that's not an astronaut, that's a regular person who's flying into space.'"

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