Would you pay $20 million (USD) to visit space? Gregory Olsen, Ph.D., a U.S. scientist and millionaire reportedly did just that. He, and an American-Russian crew aboard Russia’s Expedition 12, set off for the International Space Station yesterday, making Olsen the third non-astronaut to visit the station. They are due to arrive tomorrow (Monday).

Although Olsen would rather be called a "space flight participant" than a "space tourist," in many ways that is actually what he is. Olsen’s trip was brokered by Space Adventures Ltd., a "space experiences company" based in Arlington, Va., the same company that organized trips for the first two space tourists: Dennis Tito, a businessman from California, visited the space station in 2001, and Mark Shuttleworth from South Africa, went in 2002.

And these aren’t necessarily the interested few. Market research has found that the interest in space tourism is substantial — but as a genre traveler, you probably already knew that! In 2001, Space Adventures surveyed 2,022 people selected based on income, education level and location (U.S. and Canada). 86% showed an interest in traveling into space for leisure and tourism. Studies have also been conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, all with similar positive results.

Funds for Space
On Friday, Olsen told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he hoped his flight would help "make space flight more routine." It is certain, however, that his money is helping the under-funded Russian Space Agency, which has turned to space tourism as a way to generate extra funds. According to SpaceFuture.com, space tourism may be the only way to make space activities a profitable, commercial endeavor, as well as take much of the burden of space exploration off the shoulders of taxpayers.

What Is Space Tourism?
Space tourism is defined as "members of the public traveling to and from space by buying tickets like an airline," according to SpaceFuture.com. But, it really isn’t that easy. There are physical and medical requirements for anyone traveling into space, primarily due to the g-force the body experiences during lift off.

Still, the dream lives on. According to Eric Anderson, president of Space Adventures, Olsen "has really brought out a lot more people who are very interested in this." As he says, "The third time is the charm."

Space Adventures offers a variety of programs for potential space tourists, such as Zero-Gravity and MiG (micro-gravity) flights, cosmonaut training, spaceflight qualification programs, reservations for future suborbital spacecrafts and DSE-Alpha. The latter is the first in a series of lunar missions to be featured in Space Adventures’ Deep Space Expeditions program, expected to begin as early as 2008. (Two commercial seats are available at $100,000,000 (USD) each.)

Space Commercialism
Although Olsen rejects assertions that space tourism is leading to the commercialization of space, commercialism is joining him on his journey. In addition to about 50 scientific experiments to be conducted during Expedition 12, a television commercial for Nissin Food Products’ Cup Noodle instant noodles will be shot. A cosmonaut will star in the commercial shot using a high-definition camera sent along by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. The commercial is scheduled to air sometime in November.

Space Tourism for Everybody
Right now, the only way for space tourists to get into space is aboard the space shuttle or the Russian Soyuz – both rather inefficient and expensive. But that may not be the case forever. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin suite of companies including Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic, formed Virgin Galactic in 2004, with the goal of becoming the first commercial space tourism operator. This happened on the coattails of SpaceShipOne’s successful flight on June 21, 2004.

"We’re going to space," Branson promised at a Sept. 27, 2004, press conference. That day, he announced "plans to build – and launch – within three years the first of Virgin’s fleet of Spaceships – the VSS Enterprise. A spaceship designed to carry fare-paying pioneers on a journey to the stars."

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