Spacewalks for Sale

Hey! You with the extra change! Want a chance to walk in space? It'll only cost you, say, $15 million! Plus airfare, of course.

Space Adventures Ltd., the Virginia-based firm that brokered the privately paid for space flights of Dennis Tito and two other multimillionaires, today announced that it's expanding its offerings. For $20 million, Space Adventures will get you a ride to the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. For an extra $15 million, you can now go on a 90-minute spacewalk.

Just imagine. You climb into a Russian-made Orlan spacesuit, slowly depressurize the airlock, open the hatch, and then you and a cosmonaut partner float out into the void. For 90 minutes (about $10 million an hour) there is nothing between you and infinity but the gold-tinted visor of your suit. Tethers are included so you don't float away.

Think it over. You don't have to answer right away.

"It's one step in a long walk to make space access affordable," said Stacey Tearne of Space Adventures. The firm, she said, has made arrangements with Russia's Federal Space Agency to train potential clients for spacewalks, and put them through physical and psychological testing to make sure they would come through the experience in one piece. "We're discussing it with our clients."

So far, there are no publicly announced takers. A Japanese entrepreneur, Daisuke Entomo, is preparing for a flight that is currently expected to take place in September. Tearne said he might have been interested in a spacewalk, but there was not enough time left for the additional training and testing needed.

"I think someone who does this will be getting their money's worth," said Thomas D. Jones, a NASA astronaut who flew on four space shuttle missions and made three spacewalks in 2001. "You want to be on a promontory of the space station where the view is the best. Actually, from the Pirs docking compartment" - the Russian airlock, one of two on the station - "you have a great view out to the side and down at Earth," Jones said. "And by moving just a few tens of feet, you can probably get a great view out toward open space, too."

Jones, who retired from NASA after his 2001 flight, is now, among other things, an unpaid adviser to Space Adventures. He is the author of "Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir," which begins, ironically, with the cancellation of his first scheduled spacewalk, in 1996, when a space shuttle hatch wouldn't open.

NASA's public affairs office said it had not been told of Space Adventures' plan to sell spacewalk opportunities. While the cash-poor Russian space agency has been happy to sell extra seats on its spacecraft, NASA does not.

There was considerable tension in 2000 when NASA objected to Russia's launch of the multimillionaire investor Dennis Tito; since then, the two countries have worked things out so that Russia can bring paying customers, and the United States has veto power if there are safety issues or other problems.

Space Adventures also arranged flights for Mark Shuttleworth, a South African Internet entrepreneur, and Gregory Olsen, owner of a New Jersey firm that makes electronic sensors. Both were launched by the Russians without American help.

For now, the issue is moot until Space Adventures has a client for a spacewalk. The ultimate issue might be whether those clients like what they pay for.

While many astronauts say they've been wowed by the experience of an EVA (extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalk), a few, such as American Jerry Linenger, have confessed to terrible feelings of disorientation. In his memoir, "Off the Planet," Linenger described a "dreadful and persistent sensation" of falling. "White-knuckled, I gripped the handrail on the end of the pole, holding on for dear life."

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