From the Wall Street Journal on-line edition July 31, 1998
Space: The Final Frontier for Adventure Travelers
Since she was 10 years old, Katherine Smith has wanted to be an astronaut. Not long ago, she got her chance.
Strapped into the front cockpit of a Russian MiG-25 jet, the 42-year-old was a long way from her job as a program manager at Intel Corp. Afterburners aflame, Ms. Smith's jet took off at full power and was soon flying at 2 1/2 times the speed of sound, scraping the stratosphere at 80,000 feet. The sky grew darker and darker, above the emerging curvature of the earth. "It was the closest I could get to John Glenn," she recalls.
With Sen. Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth 36 years ago, scheduled to return to space this fall aboard the Shuttle, the rush is on to ride his jet tail into the great beyond. Several hundred Americans, in fact, already have signed up with Buck Rogers-type tour operators that offer everything from zero-gravity flights to a ride on Russian MiG-25 jets into the atmosphere's end. It is even possible -- for a few million dollars -- to board the Mir space station for its last few days. And a couple of civilians already have.
The sojourns aren't for everyone. They require a trip to Russia, since NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration frown on any U.S.-based exploits, and all visitors must obtain a security clearance before they are allowed on the Russian air base. The trips are expensive (the low end: $5,500 for zero-gravity flights) and markedly brief, some trips ending after half an hour. And those with heart trouble, problems with motion sickness or other health issues are better off renting "Lost in Space."
"Space flight is not without risks," says a spokeswoman for NASA. "They're higher than just getting on a plane."
The brochure for travel operator Incredible Adventures Inc., Sarasota, Fla., looks like a typical glossy tourist flier. But instead of selling tours of Fisherman's Wharf or the Alamo, the company pitches, for instance, a $27,000 "Top Gun" package. It includes flights on four Russian jets, five-star accommodations in Moscow, and a custom-made Russian flight suit. The company also offers more conventional adventure trips, such as around-the-world train trips and hot-air ballooning in the Sahara. But through its relationships with the Russian Space Agency and the Gromov Flight Research Institute, Incredible Adventures has access to the once-top-secret Zhukovsky Airbase, an hour outside Moscow, and has put about 300 clients through a variety of near-space escapades.
Short of a rocket trip, the zero-gravity flights are perhaps the closest thing to space. Any ordinary jet can do the maneuver, which involves streaking rapidly to a high altitude, then dropping suddenly, to produce weightlessness. FAA regulations prohibit such stunts in the U.S. (That hasn't stopped a few people, the Doobie Brothers, for instance, from trying; the back of the rock group's 1978 album "Minute by Minute" shows the band in midfloat on board their jet. "We did it about six times," recalls band member Jeff Baxter. "It was awesome, until the photographer barfed.")
Far From State of the Art
The Russians have been happy to take up the demand, though customers say the space program is far from state of the art. Short on cash and no longer in a space race, Russian facilities "look kind of shoddy," says Chad Schnuelle, an Omaha broker who flew in a Russian jet last year. He noticed peeling paint in the control room and tired-looking jets. "The tires were kind of bald," he recalls.
Still, he says, he felt like a real astronaut. Like most tourists floating in zero-gravity, Mr. Schnuelle felt a bit woozy his first trip. On board a modified Russian cargo jet swooping in parabolic arcs over the earth, the Omaha broker's stomach sank as the plane soared to 40,000 feet. All of a sudden, the jet leveled off, and Mr. Schnuelle, along with a dozen others on board, was doing somersaults, bouncing off the ceiling, and feeling adrift. Thirty seconds later, the plane descended -- fast -- and his kidneys dropped somewhere below his knees.
"Maybe I was too cocky," he says. "I thought I'd never get sick." On the eighth pass, he did. Lucky for him, Mir astronaut David Wolf was on board to lend a hand. "He was supernice," says Mr. Schnuelle. "He said astronauts throw up all the time."
'Worth Every Penny'
For a few thousand dollars more, Incredible Adventures will put thrill seekers on board a MiG-25, the Russian jet used for high-altitude reconnaissance missions. But they can also be used for more festive purposes. To celebrate her 61st birthday, Beverly Fogle rode a MiG-25 in June of last year. A financial planner in Vancouver, Wash. -- and a certified pilot herself -- Ms. Fogle took her seat in the front cockpit, perched over the jet's nose. After the pilot executed several high-altitude corkscrews at 75,000 feet, Ms. Fogle got some "stick time" herself. Flying at around 700 miles an hour, Ms. Fogle took command and sent the jet into a "high-speed power dive to the runway." Says Ms. Fogle of the $11,000 flight: "It was worth every penny."
If that's not far enough out there, there's always orbit. Though it isn't widely advertised, seats are still available on the Mir space station. Operated by RSC Energia, a private Russian firm, the Mir has already hosted at least two paying civilians. In 1991, Helen Sharman, a 27-year-old British chemist, climbed aboard after beating out 13,000 other applicants in an "astronaut wanted" contest. Moscow Narodny Bank, London, reportedly paid about $10 million for her eight-day trip. In 1990, Japanese journalist Tokohiro Akiyama flew on Mir for nine days after the Tokyo Broadcasting System paid $12 million for his spot.
Prices are a bit steeper now. "It can be arranged for anywhere from $10 million to $20 million, depending on what you want to do," says Jeffrey Manber, managing director of Energia's U.S. operations. A space walk, for example, would add "a couple million" to the total. The trip isn't just the Mir, of course. Ersatz cosmonauts would start with six months of training in Russia, including schooling in the Russian language, before climbing aboard a Soyuz rocket for the 250-mile ride up. "This isn't Disneyland," says Energia's Mr. Manber. "Given the high cost and the training, there's a reason we don't have a waiting list." Act fast. With the Mir scheduled to return by next summer, the window is closing quickly.
There's also a reason all these excursions take off from Russia. Pressed for cash, its space program can use the extra millions potentially coming from properly trained tourists. As Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation puts it, "The Russians are much more entrepreneurial when it comes to space." Indeed, Mr. Manber says that when the International Space Station, a joint venture of more than a dozen countries, is scheduled to launch later this year, the Russian modules could also be available to deep-pocketed tourists. NASA, on the other hand, eschews such arrangements. "That may be something they're willing to do," says a NASA spokeswoman, "but we do not accept tourists."
With prices for such trips running into the millions of dollars, it's a moot point for most people. Even at its comparatively reasonable rates, Incredible Adventures has put less than 100 customers on its zero-gravity flights and about 200 others on the MiG-25 flights, says President Jane Reifert. (Customers have included motivational speaker Tony Robbins and a Midwestern grandmother.)
Excitement With all the Risks
For all their excitement, these trips have a matching level of risk. The Mir's troubled history has been well-chronicled, and the MiG and zero-gravity flights carry their own caveats. The MiG, for instance, goes through a series of high-altitude rolls and other potentially dangerous high-speed maneuvers that are too risky for the FAA to allow in the U.S.
Such hazards are part of the allure for passengers such as Ms. Smith. "It's exciting; that's why I wanted to go," she says, adding that "these Russian pilots don't want to die any more than I do." For her part, Ms. Reifert says prospective clients are screened for high blood pressure, kidney stones and heart ailments. Each client must also be in good health, submit to a thorough physical and sign a round of legal waivers. And all customers go through requisite training. MiG-25 passengers, for instance, learn to operate an ejector seat before they take off. That's part of the fun, but it also helps stretch the experience out a few hours, which is important when the big event is so brief. For the MiG-25, the flight itself lasts only 40 minutes, or about $265 a minute. The zero-gravity flight lasts an hour and a half, but only five minutes or so are spent in actual weightlessness.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of real space travel isn't how to get there; it is what to do once there. On board the Mir, for example, there's not much to do except "float around and enjoy a really great view," as John Spencer of the Space Tourism Society acknowledges.
Such inactivity makes traditional adventure travelers bristle. "Adventure travel is doing something, not just looking out the window," says Britta Schaa of Wanderlust Tours & Travel, a Florida agency that books safaris and rafting expeditions.
But with traffic jams clogging Mount Everest each spring, Mr. Spencer suggests space travel offers something those other adventure activities lost long ago. "You can brag that you went," says Mr. Spencer, noting that only 300 or so earthlings can say they have gone into orbit. "That may be the biggest deal of the whole thing."
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