‘Space Camp on Steroids’ Trains Space Tourists

A company offering a training regimen for would-be space tourists that the proprietor describes as ?Space Camp on steroids?opened for business May 1 at the Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport inTampa Bay, Fla.

Aurora Aerospace offers enhanced gravity and microgravityaircraft flights and other astronaut training services for paying customers,who would then be prepared for more expensive suborbital or even orbital flights. About adozen clients have sampled the services to date, although none has signed upfor the full training regimen, Howard Chipman, Aurora?s founder, president andchief executive, said May 27 here at Space Investment Summit 6.

The complete program includes an aerobatic ride in an L-39trainer, a two-seat aircraft built in the Czech Republic that is?the same type of aircraft used by Russiancosmonauts in their training. The aircraft performs various aerobatic andhigh G-force maneuvers, according to Aurora?s Web site.

It is ?a fantastic aircraft ??it?s easy to fly, but not tooeasy. I?ve never had anyone pass out on me. I can fly as smooth as an airlineror I can make you pass out,? says Chipman, a medical doctor and certified pilotwho flew the aircraft in air shows before starting the?company. He also owns a Rockwell twin-engine propeller plane, which provides customers with periods of weightlessness lasting about 15 seconds in acabin big enough to float around in.

Other elements of training include flying a ground-basedsimulator that can be programmed for several different types of aircraft andspacecraft, experiencing a multiaxis disorientation device,?and a unique exposure to the effects of hypoxia ? or oxygen deprivation ? with a breathingapparatus of Chipman?s own invention. The Reduced Oxygen Breathing Deviceallows Chipman to gradually substitute nitrogen for oxygen in the breathing mixto simulate the lack of oxygen at high altitudes. The customers can fly thesimulator while breathing through the device, and experience how oxygenstarvation affects their?performance.

Chipman, an aspiring spacetourist who has gone through cosmonaut training in Russia, says the $8,000 price tag of his complete two-day course compares very favorably withthe much higher cost of that overseas training. Although the U.S. FederalAviation Administration has no formal certification for physiological readinessfor spaceflight, Chipman says his course should qualify his customers forsuborbital flight. Most people will have no problem with the physicalrequirements, he says. He has been able to take children as young as 10 yearsold for flights in the L-39, he said.

According to the company?s Web site, Aurora hasless-expensive offerings including the so-called Full Package minus the L-39flight, which costs $5,000, and various a la carte activities ranging in costfrom $1,500 to $3,500.

Chipman said he financed the company?s infrastructure out ofhis own pocket, which is one financing solution in a capital market that one ofthe other panelists at the summit described as ?economy reset.?

Entrepreneurs who cannot afford to self-finance are findingit much more difficult to get access to capital this year. ?You have to have a very, very, very compelling case to get a hearing today,? saidBernie McShea, vice president for business development at Space Florida, agovernment-sponsored organization that promotes aerospace activities in thestate.

McShea pointed to deficits ranging from $450 million to $6billion in the budgets of all the states with?spaceport operations during the next two years, and told the audience that cash incentives from state governmentsare out of the picture for the time being. Space Florida had championed a spacebusiness incentive package built around tax credits that failed to pass theFlorida legislature this year, but the organization has hopes for it next year. Tax credits may be possible because they have no upfront coststo state government, McShea said.

Financing is not the only problem space tourism start-ups face, said Steven Blum, senior vice president for engineering at Universal Creative,Universal Parks and Resorts. The generation raised on ?Star Wars? and othersuch science fiction movies ?has a perception of reality that?s not constrainedby physics. They have an expectation that is pretty much separated from reality,?he said.

William Moore, chief operating officer of the NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, noted that while people of his generationall wanted to grow up to be astronauts, ?they [young people] don?t say thattoday. They don?t say it at all. That?s a problem for our industry.?

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