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The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT) January 28, 2001, Sunday

Space tourism still a bit out of this world

By Lee Bowman Scripps Howard News Service

When it comes to "civilian" travel in space, getting there may not be half the fun -- it may be all the fun -- at least for the next several decades.

Not only is there presently no way to go into the void unless you're part of an American or Russian astronaut crew, but there's also no place to go except up and back, around the Earth a few times, or, maybe, to the International Space Station Alpha.

The money-starved Russian Space Agency has a paying customer -- American financier Dennis Tito.

But its only orbiting home away from home, the Mir space station, is about to go out in a blaze of glory as it returns to Earth next month in a controlled crash.

While Tito has been promised a seat in one of the Soyuz capsules that are being sent regularly to rendezvous with the new Alpha station, the "no vacancy" sign could be up once he gets there.

The United States and Russia are the chief backers of the station.

At NASA, 15 years after the loss of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and six others in the Challenger shuttle explosion, there's no enthusiasm for sending any nonastronauts in the near future.

The shuttle fleet is almost entirely committed to building and supporting the space station.

"At this point in the assembly sequence, we have a tremendous job up there, and we want to have astronauts doing it," said Robert Cabana, NASA's manager for space station operations.

NASA officials note, though, that they haven't been formally asked by the Russians for permission for Tito to come aboard.

Tito, 60, has tucked a reported $20 million in an escrow account for his journey and has undergone extensive training in Russia over the past year.

And he at least has some background in space, having worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for several years in the 1960s before going on to make his fortune.

The Russians are already selling Soyuz seats to the European Space Agency to carry scientist-astronauts to Alpha starting later this year.

One of the long-term benefits of rotating a few hundred scientists through the space station over the next decade or so is to figure out what techniques and equipment will work so that humans can go farther into space on future flights that might last months and years.

Even if an exception is made for Tito, though, the space station is unlikely to double as a space hostel as currently configured.

However, MirCorp, the Alexandria, Va., consortium that poured some $30 million into the failed attempt to save the Russian space station, remains committed to working with Russian partners on commercial space ventures, including adventure trips offered as prizes on a network television game show, company officials say.

Among the plans are a "commercial" module that could be attached to the new Alpha station.

NASA's official vision for civilian space travel, outlined in a 1998 report, is that it should happen on privately-built and -launched spaceships.

It simply costs too much right now to fly into space.

Currently, it costs about $10,000 a pound to get anything into orbit.

Various space transport groups estimate that launch costs will have to get down to the $400-per-pound range before commercial space flights are economically viable.

Several ventures formed in the past several years to sell suborbital package tours have set the fare at around $100,000, and gotten scores of those willing to invest $5,000 or $10,000 as a down payment.

"People see this as the ultimate in adventure travel, and even if a lot of them don't end up making the trip, they can feel that they're part of this great enterprise to open up space travel," said travel agency head Gloria Bohan, a founder of Space Ventures, based in Fairfax, Va., which has been booking flights on a yet-unbuilt space plane.

Besides NASA, more than a dozen private companies are working to design and fly reusable space planes, spurred in part by a $10 million prize offered by a foundation.

And there are other entrepreneurs making plans to build orbiting space hotels out of used booster rockets.

Still, NASA's goals of having by 2005 one or more next-generation shuttles in production that would cut launch costs to $1,000 a pound are earning anxious looks from overseers in Congress and elsewhere.

"After four decades of space flight, there still has been no improvement in the cost of getting into Earth orbit," said John Pike, an analyst for the Federation of American Scientists.

"That's not going to change anytime soon. If the good Lord had meant for us to become space tourists, we'd have been born with more money."

Copyright 2001 The Deseret News Publishing Co.