WASHINGTON – You don't have to be an astronaut anymore to experience walking in space. All you need is $35 million and the willingness to risk your life.
A private Virginia firm that already has sent three super-rich men to the international space station for $20 million each announced Friday it would offer an even rarer adventure: A stroll outside the space station for an extra $15 million.
"It is the holy grail of spaceflight; it's something very few of the astronauts and cosmonauts have done," said Eric Anderson, chief executive of Space Adventures Ltd.
Added former NASA spacewalker Kathy Thornton, who is on the firm's advisory board: "It's just sort of the feeling of freedom, that you are your own satellite."
With the blessing of the Russian space agency, Space Adventures is arranging for the first spacewalking tourist to go into orbit in about a year or so, Anderson said. The trip would involve a launch in a Soyuz capsule, an eight-day stay aboard the international space station and a 90-minute spacewalk in a Russian spacesuit. An extra month would be added to the six-month cosmonaut training.
The plan still needs the approval of the other 15 partners in the international space station — including NASA — but Anderson said Russian space officials are confident they can get the OK.
In Space Adventures' news release, Russian manned spaceflight chief Alexei Krasnov said space tourists could "potentially perform" a spacewalk.
NASA, which has grudgingly accepted Russian-initiated space tourism, would not comment on the proposal.
"They're going to be right outside the door for an hour-and-a-half tethered to the ship," Anderson said. "Of course, they will have a cosmonaut with them."
A spacewalking tourist is "probably unwise," said one former astronaut, who almost died during a February 1997 fire aboard the Russian Mir space station.
"Common sense tells you that you want professionals trained to the Nth degree to do jobs like astronaut jobs," said Jerry Linenger, who was the first American to wear a Russian spacesuit in a spacewalk. "Do you want to get in an airplane with a (professional) pilot and a co-pilot who never flew before?"
Linenger said if a spacewalking tourist does something wrong, that person could endanger the cosmonaut accompanying him. And if the cosmonaut has a problem, the tourist would not be much help, he said.
But others among the more than 150 people who have spacewalked say it offers great thrills.
"I would recommend it to anyone," said Dan Bursch, a former astronaut who lived on the station in 2001 and 2002 and made two spacewalks in the Russian suits.
"Just about anything that could go wrong, the other spacewalker could go help them," Bursch said. "You really have to try hard to screw up."
But you can kill yourself if you do something wrong on a spacewalk, said former astronaut Jay Apt. A spacewalker could become untethered and float away or depressurize the spacesuit and die.
Former astronaut Tom Jones, who is on Space Adventures advisory board, said spacesuits are reliable, but the biggest risk is "doing something stupid inside because you are not on top of the situation."
"If you don't have that comfort level with that suit, that's when you can get a panic attack," he said.
In the end, he added, a spacewalk is worth the risk.
"It's such a beautiful experience physically," said Jones, author of the memoir "Sky Walking." "It brought tears to my eyes."