Budget Space Travel Just Around the Corner?

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It used to be that a kid's chances of going into space were about as slim as his chances of playing in the NBA. Not any more. Astronauts, investors, and engineers are gathering at Third International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight to figure out how to get the average Joe into space.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

It used to be that a kid's chances of going into space were about as slim as the chances of playing professional basketball. Not anymore. And space tourism is no longer a pipe dream. That was obvious this past week at the Third International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight.

The event, held in Las Cruces, New Mexico, attracted dreamers, astronauts, investors and very smart engineers.

Doug Fine spoke with a pretty good sample of all of them.

Unidentified woman: When do I want to go yesterday? What's the hold up?

DOUG FINE: This symposium is the dream-come-true for any kid who grew up watching "Star Trek" reruns. Now, if the price is right - and these days it hovers between 200 grand and 30 million big ones, depending on how high up you want to go - you too can blast off into space like the NASA heroes of old.

But with no training? NASA's Michael Lopez-Alegria is a veteran of four spaceflights. I asked him if I would survive the g-force of reentry.

Mr. MICHAEK LOPEZ-ALEGRIA (Astronaut, NASA): I think, for particularly suborbital flights, the physical part is not going to be that big a player. I think what you should focus on is enjoying the ride, trying to absorb the experience.

FINE: Is the food going to be okay? I mean, you know, the Tang thing and all that. I mean, is it going to get better?

Mr. LOPEZ-ALEGRIA: The food onboard space station is not bad. Yeah, we're not eating food out of tubes anymore.

FINE: So how soon will I be storing my carry-on bags on a spaceship? Some folks have already done it. Anousheh Ansari became the first female private space explorer when she spent 11 days on the International Space Station in September 2006. She reportedly paid millions. I pressed her for rookie advice.

What do you wear in space? Is it more Club Med or more Hyatt or…

Ms. ANOUSHEH ANSARI (First Female Private Space Explorer): Whatever you're wearing, make sure that it has a lot of Velcros and lots of pockets, because things fly out there and they disappear, and you're bound to lose something. If you didn't zip up the pocket, it will fly out of your pocket.

FINE: You mean, like your gum will start floating to the ceiling?

Ms. ANSARI: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FINE: Budget space tourism is about two years away. Budget means 200 grand for a three-day adventure that includes two hours in zero gravity about 62 miles off the ground.

Alex Tai is COO of Virgin Galactic whose SpaceShipTwo craft may be closest to commercial flight. Tai claims these rides will have Virgin's first-class signature on them.

Mr. ALEX TAI (COO, Virgin Galactic): It's not just about the flight to space. It's the training. It's the hotel. It's the food. And then the cherry on the top will be this incredible vision of the black sky, space and looking back at the planet you just left as you float around in your spaceship.

FINE: That sounds great, but why would someone want to pay a king's ransom for a few hours in zero gravity at presumably great risk? Some people just really want to escape the Earth's atmosphere.

Thirty-something physician Divia Chander(ph) paid her way from San Francisco to the symposium and spoke like a woman a mission, or a woman who wants to get on a mission.

Dr. DIVIA CHANDER (Physician): I decided when I was 14, I would die happy if I could see the Earth from space. I decided to first get a Ph.D. in Earth science because I thought it would help me get into the astronaut corps. I am here and I want to fly and I'm going to do it and I don't care how it happens.

FINE: The nascent space tourism industry, like any business, will only take off as it promises profitability to investors. There have been successes and failures in the early attempts to build reusable spacecraft for short tourism flights. The non-profit X Prize Foundation awards cash prizes. CEO Peter Diamandis believes space tourism is in a phase similar to airplane travel in its infancy.

Dr. PETER DIAMANDIS (Chairman, CEO, X Prize Foundation): No question about it. You have to be an optimist to privately build a spaceship and fly people into space. But that's okay, because every breakthrough is driven by optimists.

FINE: Pessimists, Diamandis says with disdain, become real estate agents here on the planetary surface.

For NPR News from Earth, for now, I'm Doug Fine.

HANSEN: Writer Doug Fine lives on a solar-powered ranch in New Mexico.

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