8 October 1997
Media - Other (None)
Off-Earth tourism preparing for lift-off
Ex-astronaut seeks funds to develop first spaceline
Washington - Peter Conrad, Apollo 12 astronaut, wants to make history again - this time by starting the first space airline.

"This idea lights my candle," the space pioneer says, "like the old days at NASA."

Conrad traded on his glamorous exploits to hawk his idea with industry types at a seminar for advocates of space development in Washington last month.

In 1965, Conrad circled the Earth for a then-record eight days when he piloted Gemini 5. And he went to the Moon in 1969 as commander of Apollo 12, the second lunar landing mission.

At stake right now for Conrad is a NASA contract, potentially worth up to $40 million (U.S.), to build a small rocket. For the future, he seeks backing from Washington lawmakers.

Conrad and author Tom Clancy had top billing at a symposium called "Cheap Access to Space - the Key to the Space Frontier." Clancy couldn't make it. So Conrad got the stage to himself.

"I predict that people will be flying to space routinely for a vacation" he told the crowd.

It's not a far-fetched idea, the former astronaut said. The science exists. And he wants to be there when the technology takes off.

He's not alone. The new buzz words in Conrad's circle: "Space tourism."

The Japanese are talking about building a hotel off this planet. One survey shows about 70% of Japanese and about 60% of Americans are interested in going into space.

To get them there, a few entrepreneurs are looking to build reusable rockets.

NASA is funding its own model. And space buffs in Congress are trying to get more money for such endeavors. Not all of them envision people in space. But they see potential profits.

"This is the coming out for the Boeings of the 21st century," said Tim Kyger, Conrad's Washington lobbyist. "All of these small rocket companies, they all have the same paradigm. They want to make bucks in space."

But not all space experts share Conrad's enthusiasm.

John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists says safety and cost issues make space tourism a risky, if not impossible, venture.

The odds of getting killed are 1 in 100 on the space shuttle and one in 1 million on a passenger plane, he said.

"The problem is trying to figure out who's going to fly it for the first several thousand times in order to get it safe enough and cheap enough to get tourists on it," Pike said. "I don't see how we get get there from here."

NASA's policy about flying civilians in space has been under review since the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing all six people on board, including Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher."

[*] In fact that the DC-X was a VTOL craft, and landed repeatedly (like an airplane), but riding vertically on its rocket exhaust, not horizontally using wings - SFJ

Conrad's team is the only one among the start-up companies that has operated a reusable rocket. Before starting his business, Conrad was at McDonnell Douglas, where he helped build and fly a spacecraft that took off like a rocket and landed like an airplane [*].

But even Conrad knows the space airline won't fly anytime soon. Maybe in a decade or two, he says, average Americans will get to space as easily as they travel coast to coast.

Between now and then, he'll be selling "space services".

He has started one company, Rocket Development Co. to build rockets. Another company, Universal Spacenet outside Philadelphia, will track satellites. And his Universal Space Lines will launch them.

Private investors, he said, have put up more than $1 million for Universal Space Lines, which was one of four companies last month to win a NASA contract for build a small rocket.

Rand Simberg, who wants to compete with Conrad's proposed soace line, boasts that his company has an endorsement from Buzz Aldrin, another former astronaut.

Like Conrad, he's just waiting for the rocket he needs to get his space line going.

"The question will be how much it costs to build and how much people are willing to pay," Simberg said.
Source: Dina Elboghdady, The Toronto Star (Canada)

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8 October 1997
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