Market is small for $150 million ride

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Warren Buffett could afford it. So could the Sultan of Brunei. But so far, there’s no word that either plans to spend $150 million on the ultimate getaway being offered by Fairfax County-based Space Adventures: the first-ever commercial trip around the moon.

Not surprisingly, Space Adventures President Tom Shelley describes the target market for this far-out vacation as “small,” but he says he needs only two takers, and that he already has one (whose identity is confidential). If a second commits by year’s end, as Shelley anticipates, liftoff could be in three or four years. The flight would be the first manned circumlocution of the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, although it will not include a landing.

Space Adventures will manage the mission in conjunction with the Russian space agency, which will provide the spacecraft, the booster rockets and the cosmonaut pilot. The moon mission will last either seven or 17 days, depending on whether the Soyuz spacecraft stops at the International Space Station.

The two amateur astronauts will undergo 900 hours of training, some of it at Star City, the facility outside of Moscow where Yuri Gagarin, the first human being in space, prepared for his historic flight.  “It’s a myth that you have to be a superhuman [to travel in space],” Shelley says. “Regular people can do it.”

In the past decade, Space Adventures has managed eight orbital missions. For a reported $25 million to $30 million apiece, its customers flew aboard the Soyuz and sojourned on the space station. Cirque du Soleil founder Guy LaLiberte went up twice.

Richard Garriott flew in 2008. This son of an astronaut is a hang glider, skydiver, explorer and a co-founder of Space Adventures. The most impressive aspect of his trip was looking back at Earth and realizing “how finite it is,” he says. “It was an epiphany. If just one percent of humanity could see” what he saw, he maintains that “it would change the world.”

But, given the $150 million price tag, a trip to the moon is out of the price range of all but an infinitesimal fraction of humanity. Space Adventures, however, is working on a far less expensive suborbital flight that still would soar into weightless territory 100 kilometers above the Earth. No date has been set for the program, but Shelley says he already has a couple hundred reservations.

And the fare? A far less astronomical $110,000, which is just a little bit more than the $102,499 median income in Fairfax County last year.

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