The International Space Station is not exactly the Waldorf-Astoria. And a Russian Soyuz capsule will never boast the creature comforts of a stretch limo.
But that doesn't bother an increasing number of well-heeled executives and celebrities willing to pay millions of dollars and spend a few months training in exchange for a quick trip to orbit.
Welcome to the dawn of space tourism, where opportunities to view spaceship Earth from aboveare rare, visions of the future are grand, and Everyman seems willing to shed planet Earth, if briefly. The latest "tour-o-naut" to buckle up and place his tray table in the upright, locked position is South African venture capitalist Mark Shuttleworth. He launched with two cosmonauts on a space-station resupply flight yesterday from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. He is the second fare-paying visitor to the station, following in the bootsteps of Dennis Tito, a US businessman who took that same trip last year.
They aren't alone. "Another eight to 10 people have expressed interest" in a Soyuz trip to the space station, notes Tereza Predescu of Space Adventures, an Arlington, Va., company that arranges the flights.
Russia's next resupply flight is scheduled for October, and two Americans are vying for the passenger seat: former National Aeronautics and Space Administration associate administrator Lori Garver and boy-band 'N Sync's Lance Bass. Aerosmith rocker Steven Tyler also is reportedly eyeing a future flight.
"There is a lot of pent-up demand, at least emotionally" among a large number of people to journey into space, says John Logsdon, of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
For example, in 2000, Harris Interactive surveyed Americans' and Canadians' willingness to travel into space as tourists. Overall, 86 percent of the 2,022 respondents would be interested in a trip to space. Extrapolating from the results, Space Adventures, which commissioned the study, estimates that 10,000 people a year would be willing to pay $100,000 apiece for a quick up-and-down suborbital flight, a la Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard. That translates into a $1 billion-a-year business.
If they received the trip as a promotion or gift, 80 percent of the respondents said they'd take an intercontinental space-plane, 70 percent would take a space-station tour or an orbital flight, and 74 percent would be willing to take a suborbital journey.
For space tourism to truly take off, however, several things must happen, says Frank Sietzen of the Space Transportation Association, an aerospace-industry group in Arlington, Va.
"You need a strong, growing US space transportation system, and the federal ... decision that it's in the national interest to fund ... a second generation reusable launch vehicle to supplant the shuttle at a sufficiently low cost that it would be commercially viable," he says. Out of that effort would come the rocket or rockets that would service commercial passenger flights.
He likens the effort needed to one the US Air Force undertook in 1951, when it began developing an aerial tanker to refuel jet fighters and bombers. The result, he continues, was the KC-135, known commercially as the Boeing 707, the first commercial jet to be used worldwide.
The government is moving in that direction with NASA's Space Launch Initiative. The agency has budgeted $4.8 billion through 2006 for the development of safer, more reliable, and cheaper follow-ons to the shuttle. It looking beyond the SLI to a program designed to develop a third-generation of launch vehicles.
Others are not waiting for the government to act. Some 20 companies and groups worldwide are in a competition for a $10 million purse offered to the first firm that can build and fly a two-stage, reusable rocket that can carry three people on a suborbital flight and be refurbished for its next flight within two weeks. Yesterday, a Canadian team paraded a mockup a 60-foot-long "Canadian Arrow" through the streets of Manhattan in a pitch coinciding with Mr. Shuttleworth's launch.
Known as the X Prize, the contest is modeled after the prizes that stimulated growth of commercial aviation early in the last century, says X Prize Foundation president Peter Diamandis.
Noting that Charles Lindbergh's record-breaking trans-Atlantic solo flight was a response to the offer of an aviation prize, he adds that within six years of that flight, commercial passenger flights became common. He expects a similar commercial response after his prize is issued.
"People paid what for them were large sums of money" to fly with early-20th century barnstormers "to see the world from 2,000 feet," he says. He expects a similar response when an X Prize winner emerges. Indeed, Space Adventures already has payments from roughly 100 customers willing to fly with astronautical barnstormers once a winner emerges, perhaps as early as 2004 or 2005.
The contest already is stimulating a range of related efforts, ranging from states trying to set up space ports for tourism flights, to Federal Aviation Administration development of licensing requirements for private commercial launch facilities and passenger operations.
Where Dr. Diamandis sees relatively short-term opportunity, however, others suggest a viable space-tourism industry is still a decade or more away. "It will happen," he says, "but not in the time frame that will please tourism's advocates."