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The Straight Dope


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When will average people feasibly be able to afford a commercial trip into orbit? --Mike, via AOL

What's your idea of average? If it's people who have $98,000 they can plunk down for a three-hour ride in 2001 aboard a spacecraft that isn't even built yet, there's a company that'll take your money right now. It's called Zegrahm Space Voyages, based in Seattle. They probably figure they'll get a lot of business from Microsoft execs spending the quarterly dividend on their stock.

I had two basic questions when I called Zegrahm, which made its name offering trips to exotic locales like Antarctica and Botswana: (1) Is this a scam? and (2) What are the chances it will actually, you should pardon the expression, fly? Having talked at length to Zegrahm vice president Scott Fitzsimmons, I'm willing to believe these people are sincere. Whether they'll succeed even I don't know.

What Zegrahm and its partners propose is an update of the old X-15 rocket plane from the 50s (design is being overseen by a company called Vela Technology Development). As with the X-15, which was launched from a B-52, two vehicles are involved. The Space Cruiser is a craft vaguely like the space shuttle that will carry six passengers and two pilots. It'll be borne aloft by the Sky Lifter, a larger aircraft along the lines of Britain's Vulcan bomber.

The Cruiser will remain suborbital, reaching an altitude of 100 kilometers. The passengers will be weightless for only about two and a half minutes, but they'll be able to float around the cabin, and one supposes they'll experience a reasonable approximation of orbital spaceflight. (Possible drawback: when the astronauts did weight-less training in a jet transport flying in a parabolic arc similar to that proposed for the Space Cruiser, they nicknamed it the Vomit Comet.) Interestingly, the Cruiser's rockets will burn a combination of propane and nitrous oxide, the well-known dental anesthetic. So even if the rest of the project goes bust, the fuel will be good for a few laughs.

One obvious problem is that although the projected launch date is December 1, 2001, Zegrahm and Vela have yet to start building the two vehicles. Engineering work is complete, Fitzsimmons says, and a rocket engine has been tested. He believes construction can be completed in a year and a half and projects another year and a half for the Federal Aviation Administration to certify the vehicles.

All of this is expected to cost about $150 million. Fitzsimmons wouldn't say how much money they'd raised yet, but I'm guessing it's a lot closer to $1 than $150 million. Not to worry, he says; negotiations are under way with unnamed heavyweights. I was led to believe these were established aerospace or aircraft companies for whom the development of a suborbital craft would have potentially profitable spin-offs--for example, long-distance commercial air travel, like New York to LA, or New York to Tokyo. Fitzsimmons thinks (well, hopes) something may pop by fall.

Economically, commercial-passenger spaceflight doesn't add up. Even at a hundred grand a head, the proposed spacecraft would have to make 250 voyages to recover the development cost, and that's allowing nothing for operating expenses. Sure, there might be some money in spin-offs, but the supersonic Concorde has been a less-than-resounding financial success.

What seems to keep the whole thing going is the surprisingly widespread conviction that commercial-passenger space travel is an idea whose time has come. The X Prize Foundation, backed by business leaders in Saint Louis, is offering $10 million to the first private venture to carry passengers into space. (You have to do it twice in two weeks, to prove it wasn't a fluke.) The foundation has already raised half the prize money; author Tom Clancy pitched in $100,000. So far about 15 teams, including Zegrahm, have registered their interest. Many have considerable aerospace expertise.

There's a space-hungry public out there, too. Scott says Zegrahm has had inquiries from 6,000 prospective passengers in 42 countries, and 40 true believers have put down all or part of the $98,000 fare. (There's a $5,000 minimum deposit, in case you're a little short this week.)

Will they get this thing off the ground? I'd say the chances of it happening by December 1, 2001, are pretty slim. (If there's a delay of more than a year, the Zegrahm passengers can get their money back.) But someday, who knows? Twenty years ago I scoffed to think I'd ever be balancing my checkbook on a personal computer, and guess what I do it on now.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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