http://mv-voice.com/print/story/print/2008/03/07/zero-gravity-yes-zero-dollars-no


Mountain View Voice

- March 7, 2008

Zero gravity yes, zero dollars no

Space tourism tickets can set you back $20 million — or $4,000 for a weightless ride at Moffett

by Angela Hey

Last month, the Computer History Museum hosted Charles Simonyi, a former Microsoft executive who paid $20 million for a vacation on the International Space Station. In the form of a play-by-play recounting of his adventure, he gave some fascinating, personal insights into space travel.

First, the training: Simonyi spun in centrifuges, practiced wearing a spacesuit and was examined by numerous doctors. He also had to learn wilderness survival techniques — just in case the Soyuz capsule landed in a remote place that couldn't be reached easily by a ground crew. Having learned Russian in school, Russian language lessons came naturally.

Then, liftoff: Simonyi recounted how the launch feels more gradual than it appears to observers, who are used to seeing a fiery blastoff. When the countdown was at 10, he began to hear fluids flowing in the ship, even through his space helmet and earphones. Shudders and vibrations preceded a gradual liftoff.

Once he got to the space station, Simonyi was engrossed in experiments and out-of-earth experiences. For example, the surface tension on a drop of water makes it more like a cream that you can spread on your face. He showed the audience how an astronaut caught a ball of apple juice in his mouth.

For the descent back to earth, Simonyi said, he was asked to clutch some books, while strapped into his seat, as there was no room to stow them. (His seat had been specially molded to protect his body from the shock of landing.) Fortunately, they had an uneventful landing and the ground crew rolled the space capsule around, avoiding the hot base, so that he could crawl out.

Find out more about Simonyi's adventures on www.charlesinspace.com. You can also find out when the International Space Station is visible in the night sky at www.jsc.nasa.gov/sightings.

Also last month, Sir Richard Branson announced that "2008 really will be the Year of the Spaceship," and that his Virgin Galactic company (www.virgingalactic.com) is a step closer to taking astronauts into space. The company will test its White Knight Two mothership this summer, and launches SpaceShipTwo, which is currently about 60 percent complete, at Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites firm in the Mojave Desert.

More than 80 of its first passengers already have been through centrifuge training and medical examinations, the company says, adding that more than 200 potential astronauts have signed up with Virgin Galactic, and about 85,000 people have registered interest in going into space. Tickets cost $200,000 with deposits beginning at $20,000.

For some, the closest experience to a space adventure is a zero-gravity flight. Zero Gravity Corporation (www.gozerog.com), also known as ZERO-G, is a leader in entry-level space tourism. In a promotional move, the company gave weightless flights last month out of Moffett Field, and plans to return on July 26.

The cost for a ticket is about $4,150 (including tax) for a 90-minute flight in which ZERO-G's "G-Force-One," a customized Boeing 727-200, will do about 15 parabolas. For each one, riders experience half a minute of weightlessness. The plane can take over 30 people at once.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was among the passengers on last February's Moffett Field flight. Even wheelchair-bound Professor Stephen Hawking has taken a flight — in a specially padded plane and with an entourage of medical staff. Although passengers can take motion sickness prescriptions from their doctor beforehand, most do not need it, and find the experience enjoyable, according to the company.

And if all those options are out of your budget range, don't forget there's a free NASA Ames Exploration Center at Moffett Field with wonderful space exhibits.

INFORMATION:

The NASA Ames Exploration Center at Moffett Field is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. To learn more, call (650) 604-6274 or (650) 604-6497.

To book a zero-gravity flight with ZERO-G, visit www.gozerog.com

Angela Hey can be reached at amhey@techviser.com.

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