Start-up Company Offers Customers Astronaut Training Services

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ORLANDOFla. — A company offering a training regimen for would-be space tourists that the proprietor describes as “Space Camp on steroids” opened for business May 1 at the Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport in Tampa BayFla.

Aurora Aerospace offers enhanced gravity and microgravity aircraft flights and other astronaut training services for paying customers, who would then be prepared for more expensive suborbital or even orbital flights. About a dozen clients have sampled the services to date, although none has signed up for the full training regimen, Howard Chipman, Aurora’s founder, president and chief executive, said May 27 here at Space Investment Summit 6.

The complete program includes an aerobatic ride in an L-39 trainer, a two-seat aircraft built in the Czech Republic that is the same type of aircraft used by Russian cosmonauts in their training. The aircraft performs various aerobatic and high G-force maneuvers, according to Aurora‘s Web site.

It is “a fantastic aircraft – it’s easy to fly, but not too easy. I’ve never had anyone pass out on me. I can fly as smooth as an airliner or I can make you pass out,” says Chipman, a medical doctor and certified pilot who flew the aircraft in air shows before starting the company. He also owns a Rockwell twin-engine propeller plane, which provides customers with periods of weightlessness lasting about 15 seconds in a cabin big enough to float around in.

Other elements of training include flying a ground-based simulator that can be programmed for several different types of aircraft and spacecraft, experiencing a multiaxis disorientation device, and a unique exposure to the effects of hypoxia — or oxygen deprivation — with a breathing apparatus of Chipman’s own invention. The Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device allows Chipman to gradually substitute nitrogen for oxygen in the breathing mix to simulate the lack of oxygen at high altitudes. The customers can fly the simulator while breathing through the device, and experience how oxygen starvation affects their performance.

Chipman, an aspiring space tourist who has gone through cosmonaut training in Russia, says the $8,000 price tag of his complete two-day course compares very favorably with the much higher cost of that overseas training. Although the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has no formal certification for physiological readiness for spaceflight, Chipman says his course should qualify his customers for suborbital flight. Most people will have no problem with the physical requirements, he says. He has been able to take children as young as 10 years old for flights in the L-39, he said.

According to the company’s Web site, Aurora has less-expensive offerings including the so-called Full Package minus the L-39 flight, which costs $5,000, and various a la carte activities ranging in cost from $1,500 to $3,500.

Chipman said he financed the company’s infrastructure out of his own pocket, which is one financing solution in a capital market that one of the other panelists at the summit described as “economy reset.”

Entrepreneurs who cannot afford to self-finance are finding it much more difficult to get access to capital this year. “You have to have a very, very, very compelling case to get a hearing today,” said Bernie McShea, vice president for business development at Space Florida, a government-sponsored organization that promotes aerospace activities in the state.

McShea pointed to deficits ranging from $450 million to $6 billion in the budgets of all the states with spaceport operations during the next two years, and told the audience that cash incentives from state governments are out of the picture for the time being. Space Florida had championed a space business incentive package built around tax credits that failed to pass the Florida legislature this year, but the organization has hopes for it next year. Tax credits may be possible because they have no upfront costs to state government, McShea said.

Financing is not the only problem space tourism start-ups face, said Steven Blum, senior vice president for engineering at Universal Creative, Universal Parks and Resorts. The generation raised on “Star Wars” and other such science fiction movies “has a perception of reality that’s not constrained by physics. They have an expectation that is pretty much separated from reality,” he said.

William Moore, chief operating officer of the NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, noted that while people of his generation all wanted to grow up to be astronauts, “they [young people] don’t say that today. They don’t say it at all. That’s a problem for our industry.”