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Space tourism finally lifting off, but prices can be sky high



By DIAN VUJOVICH
SPECIAL TO THE DAILY NEWS

When Ralph Kramden got steamed at his wife in The Honeymooners, Jackie Gleason's television character was known for shaking his fist and making an over-the-top threat that has since become a classic: "One of these days, Alice straight to the moon!"

Who knows where that line came from, but one thing is certain: When the Honeymooners entertained America in the early 1950s, Kramden's comic threat seemed as empty as it was impossible. No humans had been to moon.

But that's not to say that people weren't imagining the trip. After all, the United States had sent fruit flies into outer space eight years before and was trying its best to get monkeys to and from those rarefied altitudes without complications.

Once men actually walked on the moon in 1969, the possibilities for space travel and exploration seemed, well, as endless as the universe itself. Look up any night into our dark, starry skies, and think about taking a ride into that mysterious unknown. It was a dream of mine, once upon a time.

While at the University of Minnesota, I took up space. Literally. Via a University Without Walls program, my liberal arts degree was from the School of Education and fell under the heading of Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education. To earn that degree, I designed day-care centers for space colonies. Really.

Even today, the dreams of those with stars in their eyes never die.

While scientists are still trying to figure out how future astro-colonists could procreate in space -- gravity plays an enormous part in our ability to connect here on Earth -- and funding for government-sponsored space explorations has fallen dramatically, over the past decade-plus there has been a burgeoning interest in space travel for the average Joe or Jane. Well, maybe not for the financially average Joe or Jane, but for the well-heeled traveler who wants a firsthand experience of "what's out there."

Some of these opportunities rely on cooperative efforts with the governments of nations around the globe, including Russia. Other programs are fueled by the imaginations of those in private industry with pocketbooks that seem as deep as black holes. All have a desire to create a space tourist industry on solid terrestrial ground.

Private projects include those focused on supplying the International Space Station with supplies, getting U.S. astronauts to Mars or purely recreational space travel with the space tourist in mind. To that end, all that's required is a dream of flying into space, plenty of disposable income and a body fit for the trip.

To be sure, none of the options available right now will get you to the moon. But if you've got the cash -- ranging from $20 million or more to less than $5,000 -- space travel, or at least a chance to experience the space-age charms of zero gravity, is no longer a fantasy.

Just ask Barbara Barrett, a former U.S. ambassador to Finland, who trained as backup for Guy Laliberte's 2009 space flight to the International Space Station via the Russians' Soyuz rocket. Laliberte, you might recall, began his career as fire-eating street entertainer and later went on to found Cirque du Soleil.

Although Barrett didn't end up blasting off, she spent months in training. And when she wasn't learning in a classroom setting, preparing for the flight took place inside of a Soyuz Simulator at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center at Star City outside Moscow.

"The Soyuz is a sphere that's a little under 7 feet in diameter, in which three inhabitants live," explains Barrett, who among other things is president and CEO of The Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Mont. "So you get very familiar with each other."

Having the right stuff for a 12-day journey from Earth to the ISS and back again in the Soyuz requires mental and physical agility. Just getting into orbit, for instance, means spending hours in confinement. "You'll spend about six hours in tight confinement before there's a chance to move around. And while you're almost (fully) reclined, your knees are bent back, so your heels will almost touch your behind," she says.

If that's enough intro for you to want to take a Soyuz journey, all you'll need to do is contact Space Adventures and be ready to write a check for $35 million.

If you want instead to keep the costs down but still fancy a sub-orbital zero-gravity ride, ZERO-G requires less than five Gs -- as in $5,000 -- to make that happen.

Zero Gravity Corp. (ZERO-G) offers flights on a Boeing 727 that don't leave the Earth's atmosphere but take you high enough to experience about eight minutes of weightlessness. A number of those flights take off frequently from here in South Florida.

Prefer a Sir Richard Branson experience, and you'll have to wait. While the entrepreneur extraordinaire is hoping his White Knight Two will be ready for flight this year, you'll have to book passage on it via one of the Virgin Galactic's approved travel agents. White Knight Two is the name of the Branson mother ship, which is designed to carry the smaller SpaceShip Two into sub-orbital space and bring its guests back down.

You'll plop down $20,000 for the deposit on the $200,000 fare -- and then you'll get to wait. The good news is there's an approved booking agent in Delay Beach.

Peter Friedman's love of space won him the coveted honor of being a space agent for Virgin Galactic. According to Friedman, who works with Unique Travel, two South Floridians have already signed. Both are men in their 60s.

Even though the first flight is fully booked -- there are something like 400 people on the wait list -- Friedman suggests that people don't let that stop them from booking a once-in-a-lifetime experience of hearing the SpaceShip Two flight host say, "You are now free to float around the cabin."

The Virgin Galactic experience includes 21/2 days of training, and -- I'm going to guess -- luxury earthly accommodations and a goodie bag that would surely be out of this world.

So how do you pack for a sub-orbital space journey or trip to space station? First, leave the Hartman luggage behind. Sub-orbital flights take only a few hours, so there's no need to dress for dinner or carry along a pair of Jimmy Choos.

Even the 13-day Soyuz trip requires little in the way of supplies. You're only allowed a small payload of about 20 pounds, and the earthly weight of clothing and personal items, as well as Russian-approved electronics such as iPods and cameras, adds up. And keep in mind that once it's out of its container, whatever you bring with you floats around when it's not anchored.

"Everything moves," says Barrett. "Comb your hair and put the comb down, it doesn't stay down. Weightlessness and zero-gravity create a lot of complications."

And so many possibilities.

Into Outer Space

While there's likely to be more opportunities for space tourists to experience their out-of-this-world dreams in the future, two of the most popular companies to do so today are Space Adventures and Virgin Galactic.

Space Adventures has already sent seven individuals up on the Russia's Soyuz rocket - one made the trip twice - and each paid between $20 million and $35 million for the journey. For more information, visit spaceadventures.com, or call (888) 85-SPACE or (703) 524-7172.

Booking on Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two means ponying up a deposit of $20,000 now for a flight sometime in the future that will run you $200,000. Locally, the only way to make that reservation is by calling Peter Friedman of Unique Travel, a member of Virtuoso, in Delray Beach, at (561) 495-5775. Or e-mail him at peterf@uniquetrav.info, or visit gozerog.com. Or phone Space Adventures at the numbers in the listing above.

Gravity Buster

Offered by Zero Gravity Corp. (ZERO-G), a 90-minute trip on a Boeing 727 will take you high enough to experience about eight minutes of weightlessness in a zero-gravity environment for less than $5,000. Take 35 of your best friends along, and it will run about $165,000 to charter the whole plane. ZERO-G is owned by Space Adventures. For more information, visit gozerog.com. Or phone Space Adventures at the numbers in the listing above.

Dian Vujovich writes frequently about travel and finances.


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