13 February 1998
Media - Other (None)
A trip to space - for an astronomical price
Japanese newspaper covers space tourism
by Patrick Collins
TV star Akiko Hinagata was given an out-of-this-world birthday present. During a televised celebration, her friends reserved a seat for her on the "space cruiser," a craft that could become the first private passenger vessel in space.

Hinagata was the first Japanese to book a space on the trip to space. The seven-day trip, organized by Seattle-based tour operator Zegrahm Space Voyages, includes a 2 1/2 hour flight to the so-called astronaut altitude, 100 kilometers about the surface of the Earth.

The first voyage is scheduled to depart Dec.1, 2001. Hinagata and 26 others have so far signed up for the flight.

The weeklong package includes training for the flight and lectures on the history of space exploration. The climax will come when the participants blast off for their two-stage flight to the outer limits.

A jet cruiser attached to a rocket will take them one step beyond the realm of normal human experience, after which the two will separate and the jet portion will hopefully bring the tourists safely back to Earth, where they will be given medallions and a celebratory glass of champagne.

In addition to the 27 who have signed up for the flight, which was announced in October, more than 1,600 have requested Zegrahm's brochure.

Those scheduled to take part in the first flight vary between 35 and 70 in age and include a former U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration employee.

Scott Fitzsimmons, the company's vice president, said Zegrahm came up with the plan after a number of customers said a trip to space was their ultimate dream.

"Our clients are experienced travelers and they've been everywhere on Earth looking for new places," he said. The company has organized trips to places such as Antarctica and the Amazon River.

Although Fitzsimmons would not say how much the project is costing the company, he said the "space cruiser," the vessel that will hold the passengers and return them to Earth, could be built at a price comparable to that of a luxury jet.

In addition to Zegrahm, an association of space development researchers and rocket manufacturers here have formed the Japan Rocket Society. The group said it had estimated a cost of \1.4 trillion to experiment with four rockets of the type that could take humans into space.

While they expect to spend about 10 years developing the technology for the commercial trips beyond, they expect that about 700,000 people per year would be shot into space by the venture's seventh year of operation.

Designed by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, the reusable Kankoh Maru rocket will weigh 550 tons and be 18 meters in diameter and 22 meters in height. It will carry up to 50 passengers to an altitude of 200 kilometers.

Organizers of space tours are convinced that enough people will go to space to warrant the initial costly investment.

When Patrick Collins, a guest researcher at the National Space Development Agency, conducted market research in Japan, Canada, Germany and the United States, he found that a large number of people are frustrated by the lack of opportunities to travel to space.

In the surveys, more than 70 percent of people under the age of 50 have expressed interest in trips to space. More than 30 percent of Americans and 50 percent of Japanese said they would put up three months' salary for the privilege of leaving the Earth, if only for a little while.

Collins said the demand was there and that space trips could boost the economy.

"It is an entirely new industry and has a potential to bring large profit," he said.

In the past, trips to space had been reserved for a select few. Now, however, advances in technology have led to a new space race, one in which private firms are competing to launch the first passenger ship to space.

In the United States, the effort to commercialize space has generated extra enthusiasm. Modeled after the group that backed Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic, a foundation started by St Louis business leaders promises $1 million to the first private spaceship to reach the 100 kilometer height.

The award, called "X PRIZE", was established to promote low-cost commercial transport to take humans to space. So far, 15 groups, including 10 from the United States and three from the United Kingdom, have enrolled.

While the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been reluctant to help private ventures make the leap into space, it has been looking into space tourism.

Japan's Science and Technology Agency predicted last year that technological advancements would allow ordinary citizens to visit space by 2022.

If commercial space flights become available to ordinary citizens, so, too, could space travel. Anticipating that possibility, Shimizu Corp. has produced plans for a space hotel.

With room for 100 guests, the hotel would rotate to produce artificial gravity. Electricity would be supplied by expandable solar panels. The hotel would feature restaurants and recreational facilities.

Other firms have even grander schemes. Construction firm Obayashi Corp. said that by 2090, 50,000 people could be living under its dome on Mars. The firm believes that transportation between Earth and Mars will advance between 2015 and 2050. By 2080, people will be able to travel to the red planet within a week on three months' salary, the firm predicted.

But many companies have planned a commercial leap into space only to watch their venture come crashing back to Earth.

For example, Seattle-based Society Expeditions Space Travel Co. said more than 10 years ago it wanted to use a space shuttle for the first commercial trip to space. When NASA refused to lend one of the vehicles, the company said it would send people in a small rocket in 1985.

Despite the extravagant $50,000 fee, about 370 people, including 14 Japanese, signed up for the trip. But difficulty winning investment kept plans on the ground.

Persistence may be the key element in commercial space travel. Rikko Wakamatsu, who was the Japanese agent for the Society Expeditions trip, said he was still eager to begin commercial flights to space. Wakamatsu recently set up his own travel firm, Spacetopia Inc., which would allow people to not only visit space, but orbit the Earth as well.

Hinagata will need more than enthusiasm to get into space. Her friends were generous but not generous enough when they shelled out the $5,000 reservation fee. The actress still must pay the remaining $93,000 if she hopes to make the trip.
Source: Sayaka Yakushiji, Daily Yomiuri, 1998 February 11, p 3.

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Patrick Collins 13 February 1998
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