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Space tourism gets down-to-earth

Spaceport Singapore

This is one concept for an integrated visitor center and spaceport in Singapore.

The most popular destinations for space tourism won't be in outer space itself, but right here on Earth. Already, an estimated 1.5 million people stream through Kennedy Space Center's visitor complex every year, and that rate is expected to tick upward after today's opening of the Shuttle Launch Experience, the center's virtual space ride.

In the years to come, a new generation of space-themed attractions could morph into working spaceports - where crowds of tourists can watch real-life space fliers as they train for the trip of a lifetime.

At least that was the vision set forth on Thursday by Michael Lyon, managing director of Spaceport and president of Lyon Capital Inc. Lyon gave a progress report on the plans for space centers in Singapore as well as the United Arab Emirates during the Space Venture Finance Symposium, a warmup for this week's International Space Development Conference in Dallas.

Spaceport has partnered with Virginia-based Space Adventures and other backers to develop actual launch facilities in Ras al-Khaimah, one of the emirates, and in the island nation of Singapore. Eventually, the spaceports would serve as the home bases for suborbital spaceships yet to be built - but even before the first liftoff, they could offer Earth-based activities that give visitors a feel for the final frontier.

This new breed of integrated space center would have spaceship simulators, interactive exhibits and displays of rocket replicas, just like today's space museums. But you could also take a ride on a zero-gravity airplane flight. If that isn't hard-core enough, you could go through a realistic space camp, complete with underwater training and circuits on a high-G centrifuge. And if that's too hard-core, you could simply take the tour, stopping off to look through the window while someone else goes around on the centrifuge.

Those types of experiences are something you just can't get at today's space museums, Lyon said. "There's no real place to see a centrifuge as a tourist," he noted. (That's not quite true: For the right price, you can get the Russians to show you around the centrifuge and underwater training tank at Star City.) 

Once the space center becomes a true spaceport, private-sector astronauts would be playing space camp for keeps. Tourists could catch glimpses of their preparations for flight, then sit in the stands to watch them take off, rise to space and return to Earth. Someday, some of those same tourists may well return for their own training and spaceflight.

Why are Lyon and his partners concentrating on Singapore and the Arab emirates? Lyon said both areas are interested in giving a boost to their tourism industry. Singapore, for example, has just opened the way for casinos to take root on its shores in 2009 or so - which is currently the same time frame for getting suborbital space tourism off the ground. Emirates such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, are getting into the resort business in a big way.

Wherever you find resorts or casinos, you'll find tourist attractions as well. Witness Las Vegas and Orlando. Because Singapore and the United Arab Emirates are anxious to add such attractions, those areas offer openings that you can't find in the United States, where the theme-park marketplace is more saturated, Lyon said.

Lyon emphasized, however, that the spaceports will be more than just fun and games. "We're not a theme park," he told me. "Everything we do is based on authenticity."

Building a space-themed center that can handle "everything under 40,000 feet" - that is, the visitor center plus a zero-gravity airplane operation - should cost about $60 million, Lyon said. Once the funds are available, it would take two years or so to get to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Conducting actual spaceflights from the space center, or from a nearby launch facility, would take more time due to the regulatory and technical requirements. It would take more money as well: Last year, Space Adventures said the cost of building a full-fledged suborbital space operation was around $115 million for Singapore alone. The price tag for its global spaceport development plan was $265 million.

Even though Ras al-Khaimah's ruling family is willing to kick in millions of dollars toward the investment goal, Lyon said coming up with the rest of the capital is a challenge. "It's hard, because we are doing something for the first time," Lyon said.

Investors in Dubai and the rest of the emirates love to go in for the biggest and the best, whether you're talking about hotels or golf courses. But they don't love to go first, Lyon said. Instead, they typically they see how big projects succeed in other areas of the world, then super-size them. Because no one has yet built an integrated space center like the one Lyon is talking about, he can't show Arab investors a working example.

Singaporean investors tend to be similarly hard-headed when it comes to big projects, Lyon said. They won't take on a project just because it's fun. "They're going to do it to make money, or they're not going to do it," Lyon said.

That's not to say local investors aren't interested in the spaceport concept. Lyon said they're willing to participate, but on a "minority investor basis."

So, Lyon and his partners continue to work on the financial proposition as well as the regulatory and technological challenges - and expect that the next couple of years will tell the tale. Hmm ... come to think of it, that same outlook applies to private-sector spaceflight in the United States as well.