Headlines > News > Space tourism set to take off in Japan

Space tourism set to take off in Japan

Published by Rob on Wed Apr 20, 2005 12:20 pm
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The Yomiuri Shimbun

TOKYO – (KRT) – The U.S. space shuttle program, suspended since the February 2003 Columbia accident, will resume next month.

At the same time, private sector moves to make commercial space travel, which will allow paying passengers to take flights more 100 kilometers above Earth, a reality are gaining momentum.

It was Takafumi Horie, president of Livedoor Co., the Internet portal operator involved in a public battle with Fuji Television Network Inc. for the control of radio broadcaster Nippon Broadcasting System Inc., who boosted Japanese public interest in fledgling space tourism.

Horie flew to the United States on April 10 to take part in the inaugural directors meeting of the X Prize Foundation, which has been promoting space travel using private-sector technology and funds. Horie recently became a member of the foundation’s board of directors.

Established in 1995, the foundation has an array of prominent figures on its board, – including the chief executive officer of Space Adventure, a U.S. adventure travel firm; a cofounder of the Google Internet search engine; and a grandson of aviation pioneer Charles Lindberg as well as scientists and former astronauts. It established the X Prize in 1996 to encourage the development of space tourism.

In October 2004, SpaceShipOne, a privately built three-person craft, successfully soared to 112.2 kilometers above Earth, exceeding the 100-kilometer distance necessary to win the 1.1 billion yen X Prize.

It was the first time a manned space flight had been accomplished without government involvement.

In the wake of the success of SpaceShipOne, Britain’s Virgin Group, a travel, communications, finance and entertainment conglomerate, announced it would commence flights into space in 2007, with tickets selling for about 22 million yen each.

Commercial space travel has taken place using Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft bound for the International Space Station.

In 2001, American billionaire Dennis Tito became the first tourist in space, paying $20 million to travel on the Soyuz-ISS. A South African business tycoon was the second tourist the following year, while a third, Daisuke Enomoto, a former Livedoor executive, is scheduled to take-off in 2006.

However, prohibitively high costs make space travel only a dream for most people.

A parabolic flight pattern, as used by the X Prize-winning flight team on SpaceShipOne, is expected to solve the price problem and pave the way for commercial space travel.

Rather than orbiting Earth, space flights following parabolic flight patterns fly to 100 kilometers above the Earth, the entrance to space, temporarily counteracting Earth’s gravity and creating weightlessness for several minutes.

For three minutes or so, a passenger can enjoy the fun and exhilarating sensation of weightlessness, an experience previously available only to astronauts, analysts said.

As this mode of space travel does not require orbiting Earth, it is far less costly and technically easier, according to the analysts.

Technology and cash for funding commercialized space travel are already in place: Business start-ups in areas such as space and information technologies are vying to launch space tourism businesses.

In the United States, a number of former experts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and NASA-related enterprises have established new firms to commercialize zero-gravity flights.

They reportedly are confident that they, unlike NASA, which is seen as relatively inefficient because of the absence of market pressures, will be able to introduce affordable space travel quickly.

Venture companies that made profits from IT businesses have made capital investments in the space tourism firms.

They brush off arguments by some experts that parabolic flights are not space travel in the true sense of the term.

A cofounder of the U.S. software giant Microsoft Corp. is believed to have invested at least 2 billion yen in the SpaceShipOne team that won the X Prize.

In yet another move, the founder of major Internet retailer Amazon.com has reportedly established a new firm for the development of commercial spacecraft.

The U.S. government adopted a policy of encouraging private-sector initiatives for space travel with a view to expediting progress in the space industry.

Washington revised last year the Commercial Space Launch Act to simplify authorization procedures for parabolic flights.

In addition, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, in charge of securing safety and advancement of civil aviation, recently compiled a set of guidelines for space travel services.

Among items cited in the guidelines are requirements for space travel companies to provide sufficient explanation about risks of space travel to their customers and to adequately train pilots.

The fledgling industry also has begun developing operational safety standards.

The Japan office of Space Adventures says the company has been accepting reservations for its parabolic-flight space trips, charging about 11 million yen per passenger.

Although a date for the company’s space business to commence has yet to be set, more than 100 people, including seven Japanese, have already made reservations, it said.

Some Japanese companies are considering using space travel as a feature of their corporate celebrations or as customer prizes in sales promotions.

Mitsue-Links, a major Tokyo-based company that integrates computer systems, plans to let one of its employees, Kazuhito Kitachi, 31, undertake a space flight as part of events commemorating the company’s founding.

Although some problems, including ensuring safety and setting the launch date for services, have to be cleared, dreams of zero-gravity space travel continue to expand.

© 2005, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Visit the Daily Yomiuri Online at http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/index-e.htm/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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