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Tuesday, April 27, 1999 Published at 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK


Expensive ticket to ride

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

If the western businessman Peter Llewelyn is confirmed as having bought a ticket to Mir for $100 million, he would be the saviour of the Mir space station programme which desperately needs the money to keep going.

Russian space officials have said they need only about $100 million per year to keep it operational.

But if Mr Llewelyn really is going up, he is paying way over the odds for what would admittedly be the trip of a lifetime. Such a fee could involve Mr Llewelyn being the first space tourist to perform a space walk.

However, he would not be the first private fare-paying civilian to go. Two others have already visited Mir. In 1989, the singer John Denver considered an offer to go to Mir and even had a Nasa medical. But he decided that the cost, $12 million was too high.

At that time, the USSR offered to fly several American celebrities to Mir for an undisclosed fee. The US government took a dim view of the deal, as did UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when a ride on Mir was offered on condition that no cruise missiles were stationed in Britain.

In 1990, the Tokyo Broadcasting System, a Japanese TV company, paid $12m for one of its journalists Toyohiro Akiyama to spend a week on Mir. The mission was not a great success as Akiyama was often sick and produced uninspired reports from Mir.

Space competition

In 1991, UK cosmonaut Helen Sharman spent eight days on Mir. She was selected after a national competition involving 13,000 applicants. Her flight was to have been paid for by sponsorship but very few British companies were interested and for a while the project folded.

At the time, there were strong rumours that the British entrepreneur Richard Branson was willing to step in and pay £25 million to go to Mir himself.

Eventually, the Moscow Narodny Bank paid $10 million for her flight. In effect the former USSR paid up to avoid embarrassment.

In 1997, the international broadcasting company CNN held what it called 'preliminary' discussions with Russia to send its space reporter John Holliman to Mir for a reported $5 - $15 million. The negotiations never led anywhere and Holliman was tragically killed last year in a car accident.

All this is evidence of how hard Russian space officials have tried to sell a seat on Mir down the years. If they have managed to do a deal this time, and for such a high price, they will be delighted.

But even if you cannot afford a flight to Mir, it is possible to book a ride on other types of flight that mimic the microgravity experienced on space stations like Mir. This can be done on a Russian cargo plane that flies on a series parabolic arcs that make you float out of your seat. The cost is about $6,000.

Or what about a trip in a Mig 25 'Foxbat.' For around $27,000, you can be taken to 80,000 ft. This is almost the edge of space and the curvature of the Earth is obvious and the sky is black.

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