- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

For most people, Christmas morning means new socks, electronics or perhaps gift certificates to their favorite clothing store. Randy Rule’s present a couple of years ago was a chance to strap into the world’s fastest, highest-flying fighter jet and blast across the edge of space.

Mr. Rule, a partner in an Atlanta-based private equity firm, received the gift from his wife. It was through an Arlington-based company called Space Adventures that, according to President and Chief Executive Officer Eric Anderson, aspires to be the “company that can take people to space, to open up space over the next 10, 20, 30 years. To make space available — no pun intended.”

Space Adventures is about six years old, and it has already had a number of spectacular accomplishments. Most notable was the flight that brought millionaire Dennis Tito to the International Space Station (ISS) in March 2001. South African Internet millionaire Mark Shuttleworth followed soon after. But Space Adventures also offers other flight experiences that more than 2,000 people have taken advantage of, such as Mr. Rule’s MiG-25 flight.

Between the high-ticket trip to the ISS and the relatively low-end supersonic flight are the “zero-G” and suborbital flights. Customers are flown in a converted cargo plane, a Russian Ilyushin-76, to about 30,000 feet for the zero-G flight. The Ilyushin flies upward at a 45-degree angle and then powers back the engines. The resulting glide over an arc — the parabola — gives passengers the sense of weightlessness for 30 seconds. This maneuver is repeated 10 times during the flight.

Suborbital flights are still at the planning stage. They would involve taking a rocket a hundred miles into space and coming back down. As the name implies, this isn’t a trip around the world, but it’s high enough to experience true spaceflight.

With recent news that the Bush administration is considering putting lunar exploration back on the national agenda, and the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, Space Adventures is poised to capture the popular imagination and be a leader in commercial space travel.

“I think the next 100 years of aviation is going to be about spaceflight,” Mr. Anderson says. “The first hundred years of flight has been about aviation, and now we’re going to see the next 100 years dominated by spaceflight.”

Dreams aside, a coupon for a rocket flight makes a great stocking stuffer. “It’s a great gift. It’s unique. It’s fun. It’s an experience for a lifetime. You’ll never forget it,” he says.

For Mr. Rule, it was a very special gift, indeed. He immediately went to the computer and looked up Space Adventures’ Web site and signed up for several experiences. He describes his experiences in Moscow much like one would describe his trip to the end of the driveway to retrieve the morning paper. But this plain-spoken man waxes poetic when describing the experience of touching space.

He said: “I’ve slipped the surly bonds of Earth and reached out and touched the face of God. Those kinds of words sort of come to mind when you’re up there.”

After “touching the face of God” in the morning, he flew in the MiG-29 later that afternoon. The most aerobatic of Russia’s fighters, it is also, Mr. Rule says, “the one that worried our military so much.”

“We went up and actually did some flat turns where we were pulling 8 G’s. Then you’re in a full-G suit, which is compressing your thighs and stomach. That was pretty good.”

He said the Russian test pilot, Alexander Garnaev, then “turned the controls over to me and I flew the plane for about 20 minutes. I did about every maneuver I know, and he showed me a tail slide, which this plane does a lot better than almost any other plane that ever existed.”

He wrapped up his trip with some time in a Soyuz simulator, which astronauts use to practice docking with the ISS, a zero-G flight and a tour of Star City, Russia’s formerly supersecret space facility. He was there at the right time to witness Mr. Tito’s launch from Kazakhstan to the ISS.

At $5,000, $15,000, $98,000 and $20 million — for supersonic, zero-G, suborbital and ISS flights, respectively — these adventures are prohibitively expensive for most people.

Both Mr. Anderson and Mr. Rule agree that the time is right to become a space-faring people again, but their ideas of the future of space tourism diverge.

Mr. Anderson is optimistic: “I think the suborbital flights over the next 20 or 30 years will eventually become the cost of air travel now. Fundamentally, it’s not that different from flying in an airplane. It takes less fuel, it’s the same kind of vehicles. In fact, to fly on a suborbital vehicle from Washington to, say, London takes less fuel when you go by space than it does by airplane.”

Mr. Rule said Mr. Tito was smart to take the ISS flight when he did. “I think it’s the deal of the century, $20 million to go there. … I don’t think it will be that cheap for another hundred years.”

He cites the growing Russian economy as a major reason for the future price increase. “Most Russian engineers [in Moscow] make less than $200 a month. That is considered top wages because the average wage for, let’s say, a factory worker, is $45 to $50 a month.”

As Russia’s economy improves, “all these things we’re able to buy for almost nothing over there are going to be priced normally. If you priced what it cost to pay every one of those man-hours it takes to put one of those rockets up, that rocket trip would probably cost $40 [million] to $50 million.”

But there’s no reason why spaceflight won’t become commonplace within the next generation. “Imagine,” Mr. Anderson said, “in 1961, the first person went in space. It was Yuri Gagarin. In only eight years, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. So, over a period of eight years, we basically went from having nothing, to space, to having landed people on the surface of the moon.”

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