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.