STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
It may soon get easier for tourists to travel into space. In recent weeks, several different companies have been planning, promoting, and even selling tickets for space flights. A company called Space Adventures produced this video.
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Unidentified Man: Participants will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and marvel at the Earth below. But most of all, they will get their astronaut wings by having actually reached the border of space.
INSKEEP: That's assuming this plan comes together in the next couple of years. You would not go into orbit but you would climb to an altitude of about 65 miles. And if you don't like that plan, you may, within a couple of years, have your choice of space flights on a Russian craft or on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
NPR's science reporter Joe Palca is following this story. Hi, Joe.
JOE PALCA: Hi, there.
INSKEEP: Why is everybody getting into this business now?
PALCA: Well, if you talk to them, they say hey, we've been working on it all along - you guys are just paying attention. But the answer is there are opportunities to do this and the time is coming when it's actually going to happen.
INSKEEP: There are people already collecting money for this.
PALCA: Yeah. Virgin Galactic, you know, you could put a deposit down with them for 20,000. Space Adventures will take your money. That costs a lot more when the when the flight comes along; it's about 200,000. None of the companies have rockets to go up yet. But several of them are in the testing phase and they really do expect to have these services available by 2012, 2013, 2014...
INSKEEP: When say they'll take your money, are they guaranteeing a flight? You get a return on your deposit? What is this?
PALCA: Yeah. No, you know, you get your money back if it doesn't work. But they're confident enough and people are anxious enough to spend the money. They've collected millions of dollars now for people who just say, take me.
INSKEEP: If I do this on Virgin Galactic, do I get frequent flier miles?
PALCA: I think they're still working on that little point there.
INSKEEP: Okay. So how soon could this actually happen?
PALCA: The first powered test flight of the one that Virgin Galactic is going to use, is supposed to happen later within the year. They had a glide test just last week, where they checked out the aerodynamics of the craft.
INSKEEP: What does that mean, a glide test?
PALCA: The first step of these planes are all glide like the shuttle. You get a powered ascent and then you turnoff the engines or you run out of gas, and then you glide back down.
INSKEEP: Okay. So, Richard Branson is excited about this. He's going to go up there himself?
PALCA: He says he is. In fact, it was amazing after his test flight, he said, yep, I'm going to do it but first I'm going to make sure it's safe.
Here's what he said.
RICHARD BRANSON: Somewhere between 18 months and two years, I think, realistically, is when we'll first - well, when I'll first board the spaceship with my children and my parents, and go on the first voyage into space.
INSKEEP: Well, it sounds like he thinks it's going to be safe and he's going to take his entire family on board. But can outsiders know that this is safe?
PALCA: Well, that's an interesting question. The regulatory framework for regulating this new industry isn't fully in place yet. That's why the law says, now, that if you buy a ticket on this plane, the liability is on you.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute. If I get on a regular airline flight going someplace, or any kind of tourist flight, I might be covered by any number of consumer protections. Do any of those laws apply to space flight in the same way?
PALCA: Well, right now, no. In fact, you're not even called a passenger if you get on one of these things. You're called a Space Flight Participant. This was written into a law a few years ago because, first of all, they wanted to have no liability at all. And people said, well, what if your spaceship blows up and it falls on somebody? I mean those people can't sue you? And they said, no; okay, those people can sue you.
But the passenger or, excuse me, Space Flight Participant...
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PALCA: ...cannot sue you.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about another thing, though. Astronauts have to train, sometimes for years, for space flights. Have they arranged these in such a way that you don't actually have to have rigorous training to do this the right way?
PALCA: Well, it reminded me of like a resort course in scuba diving. I mean you learn the basics. So you learn you're going to experience this, that and the other thing. In this case, you have to see if you're going to be able to withstand 4Gs or four and half Gs, as you re-enter and takeoff.
INSKEEP: So they're going to put you in one of those centrifuges...
PALCA: Centrifuge, exactly.
INSKEEP: ...to see if you're...
PALCA: To see if you're going to pass out or, you know, you have a heart problem. I mean they don't want to kill you in this exercise.
INSKEEP: Kind of bad for business.
PALCA: But like scuba diving, there are certain inherent risks and they want to get you acquainted with those.
INSKEEP: So you're not actually orbiting the Earth. This whole flight would take, what, a few minutes, a few hours? How long?
PALCA: No, it's in the range of minutes. It's not going to be - it's like, if you recall the first flights of Alan Shepard, it was a suborbital flight. He goes up. He goes weightless. He lands - parachute.
This one, they're going to go up, go weightless, turn around and fly back to where they started from.
XCOR: you get to go into space in the morning and you get to scuba dive in the afternoon.
I mean, talk about your vacation. What did you do this week?
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PALCA: A little scuba diving. A little space flight, you know, the usual.
INSKEEP: Well, Joe, thanks very much for the update.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Joe Palca bringing us the latest on plans for space tourism.
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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.