WASHINGTON — California millionaire Dennis Tito has made a reality what many thrill-seeking earthlings thought they would never see in their lifetimes: space tourism.
Space has long held a lure for untold numbers of people bound to the confines of the Earth's surface. Up to now, only some 400 astronauts and cosmonauts have had the privilege of voyaging past Earth's atmosphere into the pitch black of the cosmos.
But when Mr. Tito glided out of the Russian Soyuz capsule and into the International Space Station (ISS) on Monday, the tourist industry suddenly had a completely new destination to offer.
There is plenty of jockeying among those eager to become the next "space tourist." Several people have already put their names down to visit the ISS, including "Titanic" film director James Cameron, according to media reports.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is dead set against such flights of fancy, although in 1977, it carried out a survey which found that one-third of the US population wanted to visit outer space.
Last year, the marketing firm Yankelovich determined that 55 million people would be willing to go on a two-week space cruise aboard a space shuttle. The firm estimated it would cost $1 billion to refurbish the shuttle fleet, but that NASA could make $30 billion a year from space tourism.
Patrick Collins, a researcher for the Japanese space agency, recently said that 70 percent of all Japanese and US citizens under the age of 50 would be interested in taking a trip into space.
At present, very few candidates are able to pay what Tito did - $20 million, or $1,800 per minute - to make their dream come true. Nevertheless, several companies are now working to bring "democracy" to outer space.
Space Adventures already offers for $12,000 an action-packed flight aboard a Mig-25 fighter jet, taking passengers at twice the speed of sound close to the edge of the atmosphere at 79,000 feet. The company also organizes flights that give passengers the sense of weightlessness for a few seconds.
For $98,000 - a little more than the $70,000 bill for an expedition to Mount Everest - Space Adventures expects to offer commercial trips into space within three years.
Space Island has more ambitious plans. By 2007, it hopes to build its own space station and a shuttle fleet to serve it.
Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, is thinking of building a hotel on the moon for 100 top-paying customers and a staff of 50.
The US Congress recently held a hearing on space tourism attended by, among others, Buzz Aldrin, the second person to set foot on the moon.
"Privatization will make it possible for your average citizen to travel into space," Mr. Aldrin, who currently heads the ShareSpace Foundation promoting commercial space flight, told lawmakers. "Space tourism is a big market that, once it takes off, will grow astronomically. And when that happens, it will reduce the cost tremendously."
The X Prize Foundation is offering $10 million to the first private team capable of launching three people to an altitude of 65 miles twice in a fortnight. Twenty teams have already signed on to the challenge.
For the average earthling, more-affordable space travel is at hand now, albeit for a different kind of voyage: Celestis Inc. specializes in putting human ashes in orbit. Hippie guru Timothy Leary has already taken this "ultimate trip."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor