Space available? The space suits, souvenirs and launch date are all set. The only question is, will adventure-travel company Zegrahm ever get its tourist-fueled rocket off the ground?

September 27, 1998|By Tina Kelley | Tina Kelley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sure, you can get all excited about going suborbital, somersaulting weightlessly and bringing home the complimentary astronaut suit. But the potentially coolest thing about traveling to space with Zegrahm Space Voyages, a Seattle-based adventure-travel company, is playing with the space toys.

Imagine holding in your hand a padded, clear sphere and watching the water inside it gradually become weightless and disperse into a cloud of droplets. After all, when riding in a Space Cruiser worth tens of millions of dollars, you can't just let a glass of water or hot Tang loose inside.

"In the industry, we call it slime control," says Zegrahm vice president Scott Fitzsimmons. Hence, the carefully contained water.

For a group that is pursuing one of the least down-to-earth dreams of the waning century -- commercial space travel -- Zegrahm has so many of the specifics figured out that it begins to seem almost likely that they will, in fact, take six people at a time, at $98,000 each, for 2 1/2 -hour space rides in a few years' time (yes, that would be $653 per minute).

The space suits are already designed, and choreographers are in place to train space tourists how not to bump into each other as they soar or somersault around the padded cabin during the journey's 2.5 minutes of weightlessness. A personal video camera mounted on each traveler's headgear "records your space flight experience to share with friends at home," says the company's electronic brochure (at www.spacevoyages.com).

Vela Technology Development Inc. of Herndon, Va., is designing, developing and testing the Space Cruiser for Zegrahm. Along with prime contractor AeroAstro, also of Herndon, and the National Test Pilot School in Mojave, Calif., Vela and Zegrahm are one of 14 teams across the globe trying to become the first successful commercial space tourism venture.

Besides bragging rights, the team that successfully makes two trips with passengers within two weeks in the same vehicle will win a $10 million purse put forward by the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation. It's an incentive much like the $25,000 Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won for his first solo trans-Atlantic flight.

Many of those competing for the honor are more interested in potential profits from shipping cargo and people around the globe than in turning earthlings into astronauts. But the perceived market for space travel is so great that Shimizu Corp., a Japanese company, is already planning a hotel in space that would sleep 100.

The Zegrahm project is expected to cost $150 million for three pairs of Space Cruisers and Sky Lifters. Each connected pair takes off horizontally, like a plane. The Sky Lifter launches the cruiser from about 50,000 feet; from there, the cruiser rockets to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers), about where pioneering Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard made his historic flight.

"The thrust and power you have to have is minimal compared to rockets and having to break the bounds of the Earth," Fitzsimmons explains.

Zegrahm's target launch date is, appropriately, Dec. 1, 2001, and the work is still on schedule. So far 250 passengers - mostly Americans, Japanese and Europeans - have spoken for seats; 50 have paid a deposit, and about 15 have gone so far as to pay in full (Visa, MasterCard and American Express are all accepted.) The space-flight brochure invites travelers "to take a journey to the threshold of forever. ... Space is Available."

But hold the countdown a minute. Who's licensing this venture? Who's insuring it?

Two insurance carriers have told the company that they want to be involved in the project, Fitzsimmons says. Licensing will be the biggest challenge, though the process is under way with the Federal Aviation Administration, which has already had 10 meetings with Herndon's Vela Technology.

Pat Kelley, executive vice president of the Virginia company, said eight to 10 people are employed on the project now.

"We're still in the computer-design stage, with some preliminary engine testing for the rocket engine," he said. "We're about seven or eight months away from any kind of products." That's a little behind schedule, but the initial launch date is still doable, he said.

Outer space is just the latest frontier for Zegrahm, whose patrons have been just about everywhere on Earth during the company's eight years in the adventure-travel industry.

(Inner space is on the agenda, too: another planned trip will take people in deep-diving submersibles 350 feet beneath the Arctic ice pack for a look at the sunken HMS Breadalbane, which went down in 1853.)

Back in the 1980s, Society Expeditions, another Seattle company that Fitzsimmons and Zegrahm president Werner Zehnder were involved with, also planned commercial spaceflights. But after the explosion of NASA's Challenger, the project fizzled. Fitzsimmons, 38, says he remembers watching the first spacewalk, and is surprised that commercial space travel hasn't yet become a reality.

"It will happen in our lifetime," he says. "The question is, who is going to do it first?"

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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