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TRAVEL WATCH: DECEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 25

Space Tourism Can't Get Off the Ground
By STEPHEN SHORT


Illustration for TIME by Leo Espinosa

You'd think NASA's recent disasters would have dampened the spirits of those who see space as tourism's final frontier. Not a bit. Orbiting hotels are still being planned, some travel agents are offering flight bookings and Frommer's, the travel-guide publisher, has weighed in with The Moon: A Guide for First-Time Visitors. But let's come back down to Earth for a moment. There has been only one space tourist: John Glenn. And it will be years before the rest of us have the opportunity to take that giant leap.

For all their promises, the would-be pioneers of space tourism are a long way from putting you, me and our suitcases in orbit. That's why Seattle's Zegrahm Space Voyages has had to postpone, for three to five years, its inaugural trip into weightlessness. The company had hoped to take people 100 km up for six days in 2001. It has already accepted 139 bookings at $98,000 a person. Now it says that, until technology can be developed that is safe enough, all bets are off.

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Zegrahm's Space Voyages division was recently acquired by Space Adventures, one of several tour operators that take travelers to the "edge of space"--22 km high--in Russian-made MiG-25 jets from an airfield in Moscow. Thus far, some 4,500 adventurers have made the trip, for $12,000 each. If you have the courage and the cash, start the voyage with a visit to spaceadventures.com.

The next step: sub-orbital travel, up to 100 km high. Chris Faranetta, spaceflight program manager at Space Adventures, calls this "the missing link to orbital space tourism." Sub-orbital ships will be technologically less complex than full-fledged spacecraft and cheaper to operate. Private companies and rich individuals are rushing to develop models. One U.S. group, the X Prize Foundation, is offering $10 million to the first designer to develop a ship that can carry passengers into space.

Until then, plans to build hotels in space will remain mere pies in the sky. But that hasn't stopped folks from drawing up blueprints. Experts like Ron Jones, a former NASA official who is executive director of Buzz "the second man to step on the moon" Aldrin's ShareSpace Foundation, believes that orbiting hotels are closer to reality than a resort on the moon. "Right now, the idea of a lunar Hilton is just one big dream," he says.

Space tourism's best immediate chance has come from a surprising angle. Instead of trying to get to the moon, why not bring it a little closer to us? LunaCorp, a private firm in Arlington, Virginia, in tandem with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has developed a rover called the Icebreaker. While the Mars Pathfinder was the size of a microwave oven, Icebreaker is more like an office desk with surround vision. It will dig for samples on the lunar surface in the hope of finding water. But by 2003, visitors to selected theme parks and science centers (like the NASA Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, which gets 3 million visitors a year) will be able to "drive into the future for $10," says president David Gump. LunaCorp has designed a motion platform that will relay every jolt and dip the Icebreaker makes in its journey. Drivers will be selected to sit in the command chair and take the rover for a spin, simultaneously watching a live high-definition relay of the action on a video screen. Icebreaker will be equipped with a laser beam that can be fired at specific targets in the search for resources. Expect there to be a small robot colony of rovers by 2005, then wait for the races. Two weeks ago, LunaCorp signed a deal with its first sponsor. Details won't be revealed until March, but the firm says it's an American retailer with a world-famous name.

This is the way forward for space tourism. A new concept for a new millennium: spacetainment. Revenues from such activities will drive other commercial cosmic developments. And as spaceflight gets cheaper, watch the bookings skyrocket.

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