Public gambles on trip in space Seattle firm takes deposits from ordinary people for cruises in 2001

November 23, 1997|By SEATTLE TIMES

SEATTLE -- If you believe the glossy brochures, slick drawings and peppy sales talk, you'll soon see that any old Joe can float weightlessly like an astronaut by jumping into a rocket-powered cruiser that will gently return its passengers to Earth.

If you believe. Some people do.

Seattle-based Zegrahm Space Voyages began collecting $9,000 deposits last week -- a dozen so far -- from people who think the adventure-travel company can make good on its promise of space flights for ordinary people by 2001.

Zegrahm and partners, including California-based Vela Technology, will manufacture the small jet--like vehicles, power them with rockets and find people willing to fork over $98,000 for the out-of-this-world space-tourism experience.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been reluctant to consider taking civilians into outer space since Challenger exploded in 1986, killing seven astronauts, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

Where NASA is hesitant to tread, private businesses appear eager to go.

Like Zegrahm, Colorado-based Pioneer Rocketplane announced this year that it would launch a supersonic space plane by 2000 that could be used for space tourism.

Japanese companies talk of opening a hotel for weary space travelers.

And the X Prize committee is offering a fat purse to the first privately financed project that will affordably ferry people to space -- the kind of financial incentive that inspired aviator Charles Lindbergh to break records.

Lots of talk, little action

For all of the talk, the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation has seen little paperwork. The office has the job of ensuring the safety of launches of privately owned space vehicles.

Pending legislation would extend jurisdiction over safe re-entry of reusable space vehicles that some companies want to use to launch satellites.

Even 43-year-old Rick Fleeter, whose Virginia-based AeroAstro designed the rocket included in Vela Technology plans, wonders whether he'll be 53 by the time the project is done. The company has a rocket design that shuttles satellites up to space at speeds and trajectories gentle enough for a human payload.

"I've been working in this space business my whole career," Fleeter said. "That's one of my great frustrations -- everything takes so long to see happen. It just takes a long time to get all the pieces together."

Regardless of possible delays, the concept of space travel brings a glisten to some eyes. Scott Fitzsimmons, Zegrahm Space Voyages vice president, has a dream of following in the footsteps of the astronauts he watched as a child.

Zegrahm has been nibbling away at the $8 billion annual adventure-travel market for the past seven years, offering "soft-adventure" expeditions to remote locations such as Antarctica, Botswana and Asmat, Indonesia.

Four-year timetable

Under its Space Voyages proposal, passengers would make payments on their $98,000 bill and fill out paperwork while details -- such as where vehicles would take off and land -- are firmed up. If the flights don't occur within four years, the would-be travelers would receive their money back minus insurance costs and without interest.

Weightlessness, the hot draw of the flight, will last about two minutes. And trajectories of the ride up and down will be designed to minimize the gravitational force to which passengers are subjected.

The space-travel concept is not a new one to Fitzsimmons and Zegrahm company President Werner Zehnder. Both worked for Society Expeditions in 1985 when the Seattle-based company also promised space missions for ordinary people. After the Challenger exploded, the company returned deposits and quietly folded.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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