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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016

Space isn't quite safe for tourists yet

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Hidden somewhere in this week's news headlines was the story that at least two companies are beginning to launch private rockets to take ordinary citizens into space. Well, ordinary citizens who have at least $200 grand for the brief adventure into weightlessness.

Virgin Airlines billionaire Richard Branson is among the prominent names entering the space tourism business. He thinks that private rockets will take paying customers into space within the next three years. And Branson has launched his operation in New Mexico. He hopes his rockets reach about 70 miles into space and offer tourists a spectacular experience for their high-

priced tickets.

Branson even unveiled an interior mock-up this week to give potential passengers a view of what they will experience. His spaceship will hold six passengers in a spacious cabin with reclining seats and large portholes. The passengers, of course, will have ample room to float around the cabin during some of their flight. And Branson is building a $225 million facility to launch his spaceships by the end of this decade. To no one's surprise, some well-

heeled folk have already sent their checks to be among the first "ordinary" citizens launched into space.

All of this seems well and good to me. I personally have no interest in forking over money I don't have to experience a few minutes in outer space. But for the adventuresome, go for it!

There is a bit of - shall we say concern - over these private flights. It seems that on Monday of this week, the first rocket launched to test the spacecraft wobbled and dropped back to earth in a thud that would make even a brave person think twice.

The first rocket launched from the new commercial spaceport lasted just minutes before something went wrong. The rocket wobbled, then corkscrewed and then disappeared from the clear skies above. As of today, the spaceport officials are still looking for parts of the missing spacecraft. Instead of 70 miles in space, the rocket made it about seven miles before it failed.

So there you have it. The future lies in commercial space flights for those among us who can afford to experience something few people will ever achieve. And perhaps, if you listen to the experts, someday we'll all have access to cheap spaceflights. They clearly hope the next new horizon for tourism lies among the stars.

But before you hand over your retirement fund, you might want to consider the first attempt this week. I can't imagine anyone expressing great interest in a highly experimental spaceflight after the first attempt apparently fizzled into a disaster.

Branson may be right. Someday people may routinely take spaceflights just as they travel today from city to city. But it seems to me that a few successful flights might give the public a safer feeling about this brave new adventure. Otherwise, there's going to be a $225 million facility in the deserts of New Mexico that is up for sale in the not-so-distant future.

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Michael Jensen
Michael Jensen