Bon voyage. "Space helicopter" in the works at Rotary Rocket Co. in Redwood Shores, California.

Space Tourism Near, Study Says

The day is fast approaching when thrillseekers hot for high G's, weightless nights, and an unobstructed view of the stars will be taking rockets to orbital hotels, according to a report released this week by the Space Transportation Association (STA), a private lobbying group in Springfield, Virginia.

The report, which received input from the aerospace industry as well as hotel and tourism groups, indicates that even at ticket prices of a half-million dollars, up to 1000 people a year will bite. "The market is enormous," says study author Ivan Bekey, former director of NASA's now-defunct office of advanced concepts. "There's no reason ordinary citizens can't go into space, enjoy the view, and float around."

Although the study was co-authored by NASA manager John Mankins, both STA and NASA agree that any civilian space bonanza should be left to the private sector. "There are few subjects I've ever been near that are more controversial" than low-cost--and potentially high-risk--efforts to get the public into orbit, says Mankins. Still, he says, NASA could stand to gain from the endeavor if it sparks enthusiasm for the space program or leads to cheaper ways to climb out of Earth's gravity well.

Space tourism "will happen some day; the only question is when and at what cost," says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. A couple of companies are already selling up-and-down trips by 2002 offering a view of Earth from 96 kilometers up, and the Russians have just started marketing visits to the Mir space station. The report asks the federal government to lay the legal groundwork for flights as it has done for the airline industry.