Putting Nevada in the space race

A company planning space flights for tourists looks to Nevada for a launch site

Got to <a href="http://www.spaceadventures.com/">www.spaceadventures.com</a>, and you’ll see a brave new possibility for Nevada.

Got to www.spaceadventures.com, and you’ll see a brave new possibility for Nevada.

A company planning commercial space flights has announced it’s considering Nev-ada for a “space tourism spaceport.”

Space Adventures Inc. (SAI) said in a prepared statement that it “is currently exploring several locations around the world for construction of a space tourism spaceport. Current sites being considered are located in Australia, the Bahamas, Florida, Japan, Malaysia, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Singapore, and Dubai…Operations at the spaceport will include sub-orbital flights, a space flight training center and other activities.”

The statement quoted Tim Franta, a former Florida economic development official, as saying, “This is an ideal economic scenario for local communities. The building and then operation of a Space Adventures spaceport will undoubtedly bring tens of millions of dollars in the short term and hundreds of millions in the long term to the local economy through the increase of jobs and of tourists to the area …” (The statement did not make clear whether Franta is formally associated with SAI.)

Additional information on the SAI project is hard to come by. The phone number on the SAI Web site for company publicist Tereza Predescu supplies a recording that says she is out of the office for a month and refers callers to a number in Romania. Attempts to reach her at that number got another recording. An e-mail inquiry to the company’s general purpose address drew a message from Stacey Treane of the public relations firm Crosby Volmer that said, in part: “Space Adventures is working with the state of Nevada on a potential location for a spaceport.” But when asked in a follow-up message who in the state the firm was dealing with, she responded, “I am not at liberty to disclose who Space Adventures is working with in the state of Nevada.”

Nevada economic development director Robert Shriver says he has not been contacted by SAI. His most recent dealings with commercial space ventures, he says, was with Kistler Aerospace’s plans for using the nuclear testing ground in southern Nevada for private satellite launches. He says Kistler’s plans have languished for some time. “They still need to get FAA approval,” Shriver says. In 1998, Kistler signed an agreement for prospective use of the test site, but the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last July.

Kistler’s plans drew harsh criticism from Earth Island Journal, a leading environmental publication, for the dangers posed by its inland launch corridors “to thousands of rural and city residents.” Space.com, which closely follows commercial space developments, called the criticism of Kistler’s Nevada plan “a warning flare to those advocating the spread of commercial spaceports around the United States and abroad.”

There are a number of companies involved in trying private space launches. SAI apparently acquired one of the better known, Zegrahm Space Voyages Inc., which in the mid-1990s booked a few dozen businesspeople on future flights at $98,000 a pop. Zegrahm’s one-time launch date of Dec. 1, 2001, came and went.

Nevertheless, breaking the NASA monopoly remains a popular idea to some. The X Prize Foundation of St. Louis has offered a $10 million prize to the first privately financed team that builds a spaceship which travels 62 miles into space and does it twice in two weeks (the foundation also requires that all the contenders name their spacecraft “The New Spirit of St. Louis"). The foundation says the prize is intended “to jumpstart the space tourism industry through competition between the most talented rocket experts in the world.”

At least 16 companies from seven nations have registered with the foundation for the competition. One application, from a Hungarian firm, was denied on grounds that its superconductivity theory for space travel is technically unfeasible. In her first message last week, Treane wrote, “Nevada is currently vying for the X Prize cup—the competition is between Nevada, New Mexico and Florida.” An e-mail message seeking confirmation from the X Prize Foundation went unanswered.

Shriver, after examining SAI’s web site, said, “They may be looking at the same test site concept [as Kistler], which makes sense.”

Shriver said he remembers one company promoting private space flights that used the slogan, “The first mile is free!”

That recalls a 1950s routine by comedian Bill Dana, who portayed astronaut “Jose Jimenez” being interviewed about his upcoming flight:

Interviewer: Where will your space capsule come down?

Jimenez: In the state of Nevada.

Interviewer: Will they provide any way to break your fall?

Jimenez: Yes—the state of Nevada.