hings must indeed be looking up for the industry -- after almost two years with no customers, a tenacious Arlington, Va., adventure tour operator announced it had signed up a client for the unique experience it offers.

The company is Space Adventures, Ltd., and its product is a seat on a Soyuz TMA spacecraft. The price tag -- $20 million -- leads to an understandably long closing process: A company spokesperson said the wanna-be cosmonaut, Gregory Olsen, first contacted them last June. There were delays due to the Columbia shuttle tragedy and, the spokesperson noted, potential clients must be "carefully qualified." (The credit check alone must take months.)

Olsen, who founded a technology company that he sold for $700 million, counsels others who would like to visit space that "education, hard work and desire" can get you there. "If I can do it, so can you."

Speaking for all the educated, hard-working and hopeful star-gazers who fall somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million short of seeing our desires realized, I thank Olsen for his encouraging words. But as I save my pennies and nurture my dream, I comfort myself by recalling that, even if I can't afford a solid-gold filling like Olsen's, Walt Disney Co. can provide me with the equivalent of a temporary crown.

Last fall, I rode the Mission: Space attraction at Epcot. It attempts (among other things) to realistically re-create the launch phase of a manned space flight, and uses a centrifuge to create G-force sensations during "blast-off." It certainly surpassed my expectations, but then again, I have no basis upon which to judge its realism. I want to believe it's good enough -- if I can save the $20 million, I'll probably just go that route.

Fortunately, Disney invited a number of astronauts to try the attraction, and then made them available for press interviews. I asked Gordon Cooper, who was on both Mercury and Gemini missions, how realistic the simulation was. "It was great," he said. "It brought back familiar feelings."

Space-shuttle veteran Bruce McCandless, the first to leave a craft and maneuver through space untethered, felt Disney did a good job "within the limitations of physics." He did, however, feel a certain discontinuity due to the compression of a multiday mission into minutes. "It takes hours just to get out of a pressure suit," he said. (I sensed he understood that a realistic pressure suit-removal attraction would have only limited appeal.)

Shuttle astronaut Winston Scott liked it, and even opined that he wasn't sure there was any place further Disney could go with space simulation. Referring to a feature from "Star Trek," Scott said, "I'm looking to Disney to perfect a holodeck. And I want to be one of the first to try it."

Many of the astronauts see themselves as pilots first and foremost, and focused on the ride's technical similarities to air travel. Which brings me full circle. When I started writing this column, I wondered whether or not to characterize Space Adventures as an airline because it has a very strong similarity to carriers in one regard: Even on a $20 million ticket, the commission to agents is ... zero.

Perhaps space is not the final frontier after all.


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