In March, McLean resident John Jacquemin underwent a zero-gravity astronaut training exercise. Jacquemin, however, is not an astronaut, but the founder and CEO of the local Mooring Financial Corp., and he was accompanied by his then-13-year-old daughter Olivia.
Jacquemin bought the experience — at a cost of $3,750 per person — from the Vienna-based company Space Adventures, which had just moved into the Tysons Corner area from Arlington that month.
What he and his daughter got were a series of about a dozen parabola maneuvers in a Boeing 727 flying out of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. It is an exercise that is used to train NASA astronauts. During each loop, on the way up, passengers experience about two G's of pressure, meaning they are pressed to the floor at about twice the pull of gravity. "You feel like you're plastered to the floor," said Jacquemin.
As the plane rounds the peak of its course, "all of a sudden, you get released from the floor you were plastered to, and you're floating around," he said. "You could hold onto a bottle of water and let it go, and it stays right in front of you." Before the plane levels out again, passengers are warned to get their feet under them. "The first time around, I was too busy trying to be weightless," he said. "After that, I learned."
Each loop allows passengers about 30 seconds of weightlessness. "I can see why they suggested Dramamine," said Jacquemin, who had declined medication. Nonetheless, he said he enjoyed the experience, and his daughter was "thrilled" to learn she was the youngest girl ever to have undergone the exercise.
"It was expensive, but it was something most people in the world will never experience, so I think it was worth it," he said. He added that he is considering taking one of the fighter jet flights offered by the company.
SPACE ADVENTURES, representing the newly born space tourism industry, offers aeronautic experiences ranging from walks in zero-gravity tanks to stays on the International Space Station. It is the only company to have sent paying customers into space and has announced that it will soon offer walks in space and orbital flights around the moon.
Most of the adventures are not yet attainable to the middle-class American. A flight to the space station, of which there have been three, runs $20 million, and the space walk will cost an additional $15 million. Two seats will be available for the lunar orbit flight, with each going for $100 million. The company will soon offer suborbital flights costing about $100,000 for space enthusiasts of more limited means. These trips will offer five to 10 minutes at a 62-mile altitude, far enough from the earth to provide weightlessness but not far enough for the vehicle to fall into orbit.
"Eventually, we see the suborbital flights being $10,000, but do we forecast when that will be? No," said Space Adventures' Vice President of Communication Stacey Tearne. "When computers were introduced, they were the size of a conference room and cost millions of dollars," she reminded.
As technology advances and costs become less prohibitive, the company expects to offer increasingly exotic options, she said. "Once we have consistent lunar orbital missions, there will be lunar landing missions," said Tearne. "Eventually, there will be a settlement on the moon. And after the moon, the next step is Mars."
All space flights and many of the other programs available are offered through partnerships with the Russian space program. Flights to the space station are taken on the Russian Soyuz rocket, and many of the training options are offered at Star City, the Russian space training site.
In Russia, "the fall of communism was eye-opening for a lot of government programs," said Tearne. "When a capitalist opportunity opens up, they're open to it."
Plans are also in the works to utilize fleets of suborbital vehicles flying from future spaceports in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
NASA SPOKESMAN Allard Beutel noted that, as a U.S. federal agency, his organization is prohibited from engaging in commercial ventures. "The Russian government doesn't have the same mandate that ours does," he said.
However, specific agreements have been laid out to allow the U.S.'s partners in space exploration to offer programs such as a vacation on the space station. "The guidelines assure that it's done safely, that it won't have a safety impact on the shuttle, the crew or the mission," said Beutel.
He also noted that NASA does have an interest in encouraging commercial space travel. Commercial flights can transport NASA cargo and crew and can also offer opportunities for scientific experimentation, he said. He mentioned current examples of public/private partnerships in the U.S. space industry, including the use of a NASA runway at the Kennedy Space Center for commercial flights such as the one Jacquemin took, as well as the assistance offered by corporations in constructing and launching shuttles and satellites.
"We're encouraging it, as long as it's done safely," he said of space tourism.
THE LAST CUSTOMER sent into space was Greg Olsen, founder and CEO of the New Jersey-based Sensors Unlimited Inc., who visited the space station last October. "I had a great time," he said. "After the birth of my daughter, it was the greatest experience of my life."
Included in the price tag for his mission were 900 hours of training at Star City, where he spent last summer in a dormitory. "It was like being in college again, but with a military base," said Olsen.
Tearne said all passengers on the Soyuz must undergo training that includes but is not limited to physical exercise, acclimation to the ship's instrumentation and learning Russian, which is the official language on the shuttle.
Training, even for a zero-gravity simulation aboard a 727, also includes instruction by at least one experienced astronaut, several of whom sit on the company's advisory board.
Olsen said learning Russian was the most difficult aspect of the training. "I can make a little bit of small talk," he said. "But I'm definitely not fluent."
During his eight days on the space station, he said, he did a lot of photography and also was the subject of some medical experiments for the European Space Agency. One of these was regarding the motion sickness that often accompanies weightlessness. The crew, he said, was trying to determine what causes nausea in about half of the people who experience weightlessness. They attempted to provoke Olsen to motion sickness, but to no avail.
In fact, he said weightlessness was what he enjoyed most about his trip. The "roughest part," he said, was re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. "But I was trained for it, so I knew what to expect."
All of this was made available by a man who is about to celebrate his 32nd birthday.
ERIC ANDERSON had always wanted to be an astronaut, but his eyesight was too poor for aeronautics, said Tearne.
Via e-mail, Anderson said he came to this realization in high school and "researched other options to pursue my interests." At the University of Virginia, he cofounded the school's chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, which allowed him to network with other students and alumni of a similar bent.
A few years after graduating at the top of his class, Anderson gathered enough personal acquaintances and leaders in the aerospace, entertainment and mainstream travel industries to found Space Adventures, of which he is now the president and CEO. "The idea was attractive enough to them that I believe it sold itself," he said in the e-mail. In 2000, the company was able to negotiate a deal with the Russian Federal Space Agency to sell seats aboard the Soyuz.
Anderson still has not made it into space, but Tearne said he will finally achieve his goal when he goes along on one of the upcoming suborbital vehicle test flights.