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Join the 225-Mile-High Club

By Christopher Kemp · April 13th, 2000 · Science & Technology
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You can't afford Italy. You didn't like Vegas. And Tijuana still reminds you of contracting dysentery. So, where do you go on vacation this year?

You know you're taking a gamble wherever you go. She likes the beach, you like the mountains. You get the idea.

But there's a new destination for us all to consider -- the depths of space.

Man has dreamed of space travel for as long as he's walked the Earth. Thousands of years ago, the Ancients mapped out the stars and named the constellations for us. Science fiction has captivated us all with promises of the impending colonization of space. More recently, eccentric millionaires have grabbed news headlines by offering large sums of money to realize their dreams of space travel.

Enter Walt Anderson.

He is one such millionaire. Last week, Anderson invested in MirCorp to the tune of $20 million. The Netherlands-based company will be using the money to turn the Mir space station into an orbiting hotel in space. MirCorp has held the commercial lease for the aging Russian space station since signing a lease agreement in London on Feb. 17.

"Mir's orbit offers a unique environment that is free of the constraints of gravity and with unmatched views of the Earth and heavens," states the MirCorp Web site (www.mirstation.com). "Looking through the glass portal, you don't even care what is going on in your house, in your city, in the entire world. MirCorp will make that dream possible."

Well, they'll be making it possible for everyone who can afford it.

MirCorp was established in 1999 by the Gold and Appel Transfer S.A. holding company and RSC Energia, Russia's oldest space technology company. According to the site, "MirCorp brings Western financial support and management expertise together with Russia's unmatched experience in the operation of manned orbital space stations."

OK, so are they all mad?

Well, maybe. But they're very serious about it. Two Russian cosmonauts took off for Mir on April 4 from a Kazakhstan launch pad.

Sergei Zalyotin and Alexander Kaleri are responsible for cleaning the 14-year-old space station as best they can before it's adapted for tourism and commercial research projects.

Both cosmonauts were ruled healthy April 3 and were last seen entering a Soyuz PM-30 rocket with a broom, a bottle of Clorox, two mops and a bucket. They were expected to dock with Mir two days later and spend the next 45 days renovating and restoring the station. According to press reports, MirCorp will invest up to $200 million to secure Mir's commercial success, though plans are dependent upon the condition of the station. There are also plans to use Mir as an advertising tool, leasing its exterior panels to interested sponsors.

The core module for the Mir space station was launched on Feb. 20, 1986. Other modules were added so that, by 1996, there were five in total. The station orbits the Earth every 92 minutes at an altitude of roughly 225 miles. It regularly hosts two or three astronauts of various nationalities and can accommodate up to six people for one-month periods.

It's functional. It's cramped. And it's a Soviet Cold War memento. So, don't expect a cabaret.

In recent times, the Mir space station has been beset with technical problems. Two years ago, ignition of an oxygen cartridge caused a fire on board. In June 1997, a cargo spacecraft collided with Mir, damaging a solar panel and depressurizing the station. Two months later, Mir suffered computer failure and power outages. But neither Mir's cramped conditions nor its technical shortcomings will scupper MirCorp's intentions.

Mir has been unmanned since August 1999 and, without necessary funding, would have remained that way. The cost of its upkeep, its design faults and its numerous technical problems have proven prohibitive to any further use of the station by the Russian space program. Eventually, Mir would have been left to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and probably burn up in the process.

If the Russians breathed a sigh of relief when they realized they could lease Mir to loony businessmen, they must have stifled hearty guffaws when they realized it was to become the first orbiting space hotel.

Despite being thoroughly insane, MirCorp's plans to open "a new realm of possibilities at the dawn of commercial space travel" are very exciting. Adaptations made to the space station over the next 45 days are intended also to allow for scientific experimentation and industrial production. Many scientific projects that NASA's limited agenda never addressed will finally be given an opportunity for study.

The limits are endless, provided academic institutions and private corporations can secure enough funding to lease the new and improved Mir. Research of everything from the physiological effects of space travel to the behavior of molecules in a weightless environment will benefit everyone. Commercial industry will be eager to try and increase the efficiency of production systems in a new environment. Astronomers will no longer observe the universe through the distortion and refraction of the Earth's atmosphere. There are many possibilities.

At the time of writing, Mir's new owners have not said how much a stay in the space hotel might cost potential visitors. Neither have they stated whether passengers will need to undergo special training before they're allowed to use the station. No dates have been set for Mir's inaugural commercial mission either.

So the world waits. Mir drifts. Walt Anderson plans. And, 225 miles above us, Sergei and Alexander continue to scrub Mir clean.

Soon, the restoration process will be complete and we'll all be able to visit Mir. Forget Cancun. Deep space is the ultimate destination for the adventurous. And it'll be the perfect romantic weekend. She can see the beach, you can see the mountains, everyone's happy.

Whatever happens, it won't be cheap. So you might want to start saving now.

 
 
 
 

 

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