Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is just the latest name to be dropped as someone who's supposedly interested in buying a multimillion-dollar spaceflight. Microsoft itself says it "makes it a practice not to comment on rumors or speculations," but the report naturally leads us to speculate on who else who's famous has been interested in going up to the final frontier - and why they won't be going up anytime soon.
So far, the most famous (or at least the richest) person to fly to the international space station is the guy who's up there right now: software executive Charles Simonyi, who oversaw the development of Word, Excel and other programs for Microsoft. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Microsoft is a partner along with NBC Universal in the MSNBC.com joint venture, and that I wrote some of the background material for Simonyi's mission.)
To the general public, Simonyi is probably best known for the company he keeps: He's been socially and romantically linked with lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, who attended last week's launch in Kazakhstan and continued to follow the flight from Russian Mission Control. A story in today's London Telegraph says that Stewart "has managed to steal the limelight" from the space mission itself.
Through the years, quite a few notables have dropped big hints that they might like to take the kind of trip Simonyi is taking. "Titanic" director James Cameron reportedly passed the initial medical exam for cosmonaut training and was negotiating with the Russians to film a movie on the space station.
That deal fizzled out, however, as did a reality-TV project to put 'N Sync pop singer Lance Bass in orbit. (If Bass had gone up on schedule, he might have become the world's youngest space flier and the first cosmonaut to acknowledge publicly he was gay.)
Other big names who have reportedly considered orbital spaceflights include actors Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise, as well as singer-actress Madonna. In fact, Russian legislators tried to push through a space reservation for the now-maternal "material girl" - and I suppose some of Madonna's detractors wish they had succeeded. The list of celebs planning suborbital flights is much longer, ranging from primetime-soap actress Victoria Principal and "Alien" film star Sigourney Weaver to wheelchair-using physicist Stephen Hawking.
"Star Trek" captain William Shatner, in contrast, has backed away from the idea. "I'm interested in man's march to the unknown, but to vomit in space is not my idea of a good time," he famously told The Sun, a British tabloid. "Neither is a fiery crash with the vomit hovering over me."
Shatner may not be on deck for a spaceflight anytime soon, but others are perfectly willing to take the risk. Virginia-based Space Adventures, which booked the flight for Simonyi and the four millionaires who preceded him into orbit, is due to announce its next spaceflight client "in the coming weeks," company spokeswoman Stacey Tearne told me today. That client would fly to the international space station on a Soyuz craft in the fall of 2008, she said.
"We secured seats for '08 and '09," Tearne said.
Meanwhile, the head of Russia's space agency said today that one of the country's governors might go on an orbital space tour in 2009.
Tearne said Space Adventures hasn't heard anything from Gates, and she acknowledged that the clients so far haven't fit the celebrity profile some had thought would dominate the space tourism market. "But I wouldn't discount having that kind of individual in the future," she said.
Most people who are rich and famous have to think twice about committing themselves to an orbital flight - and not just because of the $25 million price tag. That usually isn't the sticking point, Tearne said.
"It hasn't been about the cost," she said. "It's about the time and the availability."
The training schedule requires spending about six months at Russia's Star City cosmonaut complex, and it's hard to get business done or shows made while you're stuck out in the countryside near Moscow.
If you're trying to put together a celebrity deal, the challenges are even harder - as the promoters of Bass' trip found out. Celebrities are used to being paid for their time, rather than having to pay out millions for a TV-worthy experience. The Russians are used to being paid in advance for the training and eventually for the flight itself. But would-be sponsors usually want to see what they're paying for before the checks are signed. They're understandably skittish about paying up front to have their name attached to a potential catastrophe.
Fortunately for Space Adventures, there are lots of people who are rich but not necessarily famous. The company has said it has plenty of prospects for future orbital flights, and Tearne said the offering of a flight around the moon and back for $100 million per seat was attracting interest as well. In fact, Space Adventures is hoping to announce its first round-the-moon client "by the end of this year," she told me.
In the longer run, the outlook for the availability of Soyuz seats gets hazy - due to the scheduled retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet in 2010. The demand for seats aboard Russia's Soyuz craft would likely increase, and it's not clear how many of those seats would be available for Space Adventures' paying passengers.
After 2009 or so, it could well be that the best opportunities for orbital flights will come from private-sector suppliers.
Will the first honest-to-goodness celebrity go up on a Soyuz or on a SpaceX Dragon, or a Rocketplane transport, or a PlanetSpace Silver Dart, or a t/Space CXV, or a Russian-built Explorer? Will Bill Gates or Madonna be able to choose between the international space station and a Bigelow-built space module? Those propositions are what the infant spaceflight industry is all about. Lay down your predictions now in our comments section, and we'll find out who's the best prognosticator sometime in the 2010-2015 time frame.
Update for 9:30 p.m. ET April 12: In a previous post about Cosmonauts Day (a.k.a. Yuri's Night), I mentioned that pinot noir might be a good match for the six-course meal that Simonyi is serving on the space station. But then I realized that I knew a real expert on food and wine: Jon Bonné, a former MSNBC.com colleague who is now wine editor at The San Francisco Chronicle. Here are Jon's e-mailed recommendations:
"Pinot, perhaps a fuller-bodied one from California or Oregon, would suit the quail quite well. Though of course a good 10-year Madeira wouldn't be a bad option either. Or a fleshier Syrah.
"The other pick, given the chicken, is a Rhone-style white, perhaps a St. Joseph Blanc, a Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc or a white Chateauneuf. Mostly depends on the preparation."
Space gourmets, take note.