When the Earth Is Not Enough

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, center, trains in zero gravity above Northern California.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin, center, trains in zero gravity above Northern California. (By Steve Boxall/AP)
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By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

First there was Google Earth. Now its co-founder wants to take on the universe.

Sergey Brin, the 34-year-old president of technology for the search-engine company, has put down a $5 million deposit for a seat aboard a Russian spacecraft, tourism company Space Adventures said yesterday.

With a launch date set for 2011, Brin will join an exclusive club of the super-rich who have used their fortunes for the ultimate in adventure travel.

"I am a big believer in the exploration and commercial development of the space frontier, and am looking forward to the possibility of going into space," Brin said in a statement released by Space Adventures.

It's the quintessential dream of young boys and girls, but only a few dozen in a generation become astronauts. But then there are billionaires like the creator of Microsoft's Office software, Charles Simonyi, who dig into their deep pockets to help make those zero-gravity dreams come true.

In all, Space Adventures, a Vienna company, has sent five wealthy people into outer space since it opened its office in 1998 with $500,000 in seed investments. And there are more eager cosmonauts lined up, including the creator of the Ultima video games, Richard Garriott, who is to enter a Soyuz TMA-13 aircraft with the Russian space agency in October and travel to the International Space Station, floating in orbit.

For the 2011 space flight, Space Adventures bought two of the three seats on the Soyuz and said the passengers will carry out a scientific mission during the flight.

"It's like we chartered an airplane, only in this case it was a rocket," said Eric Anderson, founder of Space Adventures.

Brin's trip will cost more than $35 million, Anderson said. On his two-week voyage, he'll orbit the earth about 150 to 200 times. He will also carry out a mission, such as pharmaceutical testing or experiments on computer circuit boards.

Most likely, however, he will not dine on Tang and shrink-wrapped NASA meals. It seems the affluent tend to eat better in space, too. Anderson said one of his clients brought a five-star seven-course meal prepared by a celebrity chef to share with members of the International Space Station.

While unthinkable just a decade ago, space tourism has become an attainable fantasy for the rich. And some are trying to cash in on what they believe could be big business in the future.

Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic, which, at $200,000 a ticket, may become the first commercial airline to reach space. Budget Suites hotel chain founder Robert Bigelow has developed inflatable space stations and expects to launch spacecraft designed for tourists by 2010. PayPal founder Elon Musk started SpaceX, a company that builds vehicles to someday carry cargo and people to space stations.

And Google has sponsored its own space research program, called Google Lunar X Prize, which gives $25 million to the winner of a competition to land an unmanned craft on the moon.

"There's nothing we love more than ambitious research with world-changing potential, and space exploration and research have long produced much of the scientific community's most ambitious, even audacious work," Google says on its Web site.

Though still far from accessible to the average earthman, space travel is brought a step closer by the increased interest, said Howard McCurdy, a professor of international space policy at American University.

"I'm hopeful that the private sector will achieve this long-sought goal," McCurdy said.

But if that $35 million ticket is too steep, Anderson suggests a more affordable option: zero-gravity flotation in one of Space Adventures' simulators for $4,000 and a simulated spaceflight and landing for $15,950.

Can't you get on one of those at Disneyland?

© 2008 The Washington Post Company