Ashton Kutcher in Space?
On March 19th, Ashton Kutcher became the 500th person to throw down $200k on a ticket for Richard Branson’s space tourism outfit Virgin Galactic. Kutcher joins the likes of Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Pharrell Williams, Russell Brand (unless Katy Perry took his one-time birthday present back in the breakup) and others who will have to wait until at least 2013 for their approximate six minutes of weightlessness.
This year, the only star tours of any stripe are happening across the pond, where on October 15th, the Russians are sending up a complement of cosmonauts and astronauts to relieve the crew of the International Space Station. Since the Space Shuttle program ended, Russia charges NASA $43 million per seat to send American personnel up in Soyuz, and my guess is that you’d have to at least match that if you simply can’t wait another year to eat astronaut ice cream in the mesosphere.
There is, however, a much more affordable consolation prize. In the week leading up to the Soyuz launch, a private firm named the MIR corporation (no relationship to the space station) is hosting a “near-space experience” in Russia. True, you won’t get the photo opportunities that Branson’s trip promises, but for your $13,995, with an additional $1395 if you’re traveling alone and don’t take a roommate, your ten days in Russia will give you an experience that’s quite a bit longer, with a training program that’s perhaps at least as intense.
The first full day of the trip includes a visit to the Yuri Gargarin Cosmonaut Training center in the once-classified Star City, where anyone who wants to experience the optional cosmonaut training activities will undergo a thorough physical exam. I can only guess what this might entail, but I don’t see why you’d come this far and not want to do what this allows. You’d experience up to 4 Gs on the world’s largest centrifuge, and get a ride on a parabolic zero-G simulation flight, experiencing zero gravity for at least as long as a ride on Virgin Galactic can offer you, for less than a tenth the price.
You’ll also get to wear an Orlan space suit, the extremely heavy (models weigh up to 265 lbs.) and semi-rigid getup worn on spacewalks. While wearing the suit, participants will also be trained to do the sort of tasks that cosmonauts have to do when floating in space outside of the station, while suspended from a boom to simulate the zero gravity conditions. My guess is that it’s all somewhat harder than it looks.
Led by American Dr. Steven Lee, a Cornell-educated planetary geologist who is now a department chair at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the rest of the trip is a cavalcade of all things Russian and extra-planetary. At the moment, the other non-travel days include museum & historical tours, lectures, confabs with actual former and future ISS crew, a visit to Mission Control, and a VIP seat to the Soyuz launch. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included every non-travel day, but there are no menus or specifics, which, depending on your taste, may not be a plus if you’ve been to Russia. Then again, seledka pod shuboy might be a real experience at zero gravity, and if you’re a vegetarian trying to get by on svejie ovoshy alone, MIR seems willing to help arrange culinary (or any other kind of legal) expeditions pre- or post-itinerary, if you so desire.
Americans who still can’t/shouldn’t/won’t shell out $14k for 10 days among space junkies in Russia can be patient. Extant programs like Adult Space Academy at Space Camp in Alabama already offer a vastly simplified version of astronaut life for $549 apiece, and it’s possible that someday Branson will open his more intense multi-day training program for people who just want the terrestrial experiences. For now, though, MIR’s program looks like the one to beat in 2012 for real space-related activities in the context of an actual mission. Since the Russians put Dennis Tito in Soyuz TM-32 for $20 million back in 2001, they’ve had the edge in the space tourism race, and least for this year, that’s not going to change – no matter what Ashton Kutcher can buy.
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