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Jewish World Review March 30, 2001 / 6 Nissan, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Spring Break's final frontier -- DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. The Russians are trying to out-capitalist us. At least in space.

NASA says the space station will not to be open for spring break. But an American multimillionaire took his business to the Russians and offered to pay $20 million for a space jaunt.

Dennis Tito, an investment-fund manager, was slated to be aboard the Russian Soyez capsule next month when it docks with the international space station. He was offered this because his Mir trip fell through, according to Rosaviakosmos. Rosaviakosmos usually is called "the cash-strapped Russian space agency" as though that were its name in English. It's a description that goes a long way toward explaining the trip.

NASA, the cash-strapped U.S. space agency, says it doesn't want Tito up there. The Russians said they had a deal and like unhappy ballplayers, Russian astronauts didn't show up for training to protest NASA's purist attitude. This left NASA wondering whether it would need to train the first bouncer in space to keep tourists out of the station.

NASA does have a point. It's expensive to build a space station and send someone up to visit it. Even at $20 million, the Russians may be selling their services -- and ours -- at a loss.

And what would this guy do once he's up there? You can only stare out the window so long.

NASA has been caught unprepared to amuse space tourists. A zero-gravity roulette wheel or slot machine has yet to be perfected. Nor have we trained America's first card-dealer in space. I won't even get into the regulatory issues.

Before we can have a creditable tourist in space program, we must get a cash-bar in space program underway. The technological challenges of a zero gravity frozen-margarita machine is formidable. Not to mention development of a miniature paper umbrella that won't float away and poke someone in the eye during reentry. Still, the prospect of selling $6,000-a-glass novelty drinks could make this worth the effort. (Of course, customers would be allowed to keep the souvenir glass.)

Boat drinks, the brightly colored alcohol bombs celebrated by Jimmy Buffett, could reach a new level of evolution in space.

Anyone in the hospitality business will tell you the big money is in the extras, not in the price of admission. Even at $20 million.

To charge admission without this necessary infrastructure is asking for trouble. As anyone who lives in a tourist town can testify, visitors get dangerous when they have nothing to do. They trash the rooms, fall off balconies and call the front desk with complaints.

I can hear the communications with Mission Control now:

"I pay $20 million and the towels are thinner than a dot-com profit margin! What kind of outfit are you running here!"

"I pay $20 million and room service took three weeks getting here last time I called."

"I pay $20 million and there's no mint in my bunk! And no boat drinks! Rosaviakosmos is going to get one scathing comment card."

The Russians are asking for trouble. If you plan to send the first tourist into space and you need to send the first bus boy into space, too. I'm willing to volunteer even though it pays only minimum wage and tips. Room and board would be included and the view could be worth it.

Unfortunately, I doubt the space station is big enough for a lot of support staff. Despite stiff competition to be the first bartender in space, I suspect NASA would merely cross-train.

"A prizewinning astrophysicist and rocket scientist and she can make a blue martini that can boost you into geostationary orbit! That's some crew you got up here, Captain. Now put down that damn crystal-growing experiment and take a picture of me here by the air lock, willya?"

NASA may be standing firm on this one, but they should read over President Bush's new space budget. A few more years of this, and we may be shooting gazillionaires into space ourselves.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

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© 2000, M. R. Lane