Space Travel: Only for Billionaires? Billionaire Charles Simonyi, a former Microsoft guru, is blasting off into space this weekend. Simonyi paid $25 million for a short vacation in Earth's orbit on the International Space Station. He says the private spaceflight industry is beginning to take off.
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Space Travel: Only for Billionaires?

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Space Travel: Only for Billionaires?

Space Travel: Only for Billionaires?

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This weekend, a billionaire is going into outer space. Charles Simonyi is a former Microsoft guru who helped create popular programs like Word and Excel. He recently ponied up around $25 million for the chance to orbit the Earth.

But as NPR's Nell Boyce reports, he thinks it won't be long before the rest of us can go, too.

NELL BOYCE: Charles Simonyi has been training in Russia for seven months. The night before he left for the launch site in Kazakhstan, he took a break from packing to chat on the phone. He says, growing up in Hungary, he was crazy about space.

Mr. CHARLES SIMONYI (Computer Software Developer, Intentional Software): I knew everything about space. And I knew the names of the space dogs.

BOYCE: The space dogs?

Mr. SIMONYI: Yes, of course, you know Laika, and Chernushka, and Zvezdochka -the dogs that have been sent to space.

BOYCE: Simonyi never thought he'd follow those famous space dogs. But a couple of years ago, he went on a tour of a Russian space center where he got to see cosmonauts blast off.

Mr. SIMONYI: And the people who organize these tours, Space Adventures, suggested that I might be interested in actually flying on those rockets.

BOYCE: He just couldn't believe it. Was he really qualified?

Mr. SIMONYI: There's the question of health, the question of age, the question of eyesight, and who knows what else.

BOYCE: And money, of course.

Mr. SIMONYI: I think that the money, in my case, wasn't the greatest consideration.

BOYCE: Forbes magazine says Simonyi is a billionaire, so $25 million seemed doable. He was healthy enough to go, and he knew Space Adventures could deliver. The company was founded almost a decade ago. Its Astronaut Advisory Board includes Buzz Aldrin, and it has an agreement with the Russian Space Agency. Simonyi will be the fifth paying customer it's sent up. On Saturday, he will blast off with two cosmonauts and spend over a week orbiting Earth on the space station.

So far, Space Adventures is the only company to put customers into space. But space consultant Alan Ladwig says it won't be long before others do.

Mr. ALAN LADWIG (Space Consultant, Whitney, Bradley & Brown, Inc.): You've got Virgin Galactic out there with Richard Branson, you've got Blue Origins, Rocketplane Kistler. There's any number of companies that are out there going after a market that they believe could be close to a billion dollars over the next 10 to 15 years.

BOYCE: Ladwig used to work at NASA. He says 20 years ago, the idea of space tourism seemed laughable.

Mr. LADWIG: It had what they called at NASA at the time, the snicker factor.

BOYCE: But now, companies have ambitious agendas. Eric Anderson, founder of Space Adventures, plans to send a pair of tourists around the moon.

Mr. ERIC ANDERSON (Founder, Space Adventures): The price tag on the lunar expedition, which could launch as early as 2009, is $100 million per seat.

BOYCE: He's dead serious. He says the Russians have the technology, and he's got customers.

Mr. ANDERSON: We are fairly certain who would go on the first mission. I mean, we even have takers for the second mission, potentially.

BOYCE: Now, a $100 million moon shot is pretty far out. But other companies are offering cheaper options, and there's clearly a demand. Loretta and George Whitesides live in Washington, D.C., where they both work for organizations that promote space exploration.

Mr. GEORGE WHITESIDES (Resident, Washington, D.C.): We've had the idea to go to space together for a long time. I mean, obviously we're, sort of, space junkies.

BOYCE: They couldn't afford a Russian flight. Instead, they bought tickets from Virgin Galactic. Starting in about two years, this company says it will be sending people more than 65 miles up. Loretta Whitesides says the trip will be brief but eventful.

Ms. LORETTA WHITESIDES (Resident, Washington, D.C.): You'll be up there for about seven minutes. You will see the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space. And as soon as they turn off the rocket engine, that's when you'll experience weightlessness.

BOYCE: The cost? George Whitesides says, about what they'd spend on a house.

Mr. WHITESIDES: For two tickets, it'd be $400,000. You know, this is really expensive, but within our range, you know? It's possible.

BOYCE: If that seems beyond your budget, there's no need to give up yet. For a mere $3,500, you can float like an astronaut without leaving Earth. Noah McMahon works with the Zero Gravity Corporation.

Mr. NOAH McMAHON (Chief Marketing Officer, Zero Gravity Corporation): We offer a chance for anybody to experience weightlessness.

BOYCE: The company flies a big airplane plane up and down, like a roller coaster. This produces bursts of zero gravity that last around 25 seconds.

Mr. McMAHON: When you're in the airplane, you have no idea that you're even in an airplane. It's like you're in a magic room and everything starts to float.

BOYCE: Over 2,000 customers have done it. Physicist Stephen Hawking is going up in a couple of weeks. And the company has just signed a deal with The Sharper Image to sell tickets at your local mall.

For former Microsoftie Charles Simonyi, these are all signs that something is really happening in the space industry, just like things changed in his field, computers. When he started out, computers were just for big corporations and governments.

Mr. SIMONYI: It was the involvement of civilians - the personal computer that really made the industry explode with the energy and creativity.

BOYCE: He says sure, his ticket was expensive, but he hopes that by buying it, he's helping to someday make space travel a lot cheaper for everyone else.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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