Image: Guy Laliberte
Mikhail Metzel  /  AP
Canadian billionaire philanthropist Guy Laliberte, a crew member of the 21st mission to the International Space Station, gestures prior to the launch of a Soyuz-FG rocket at the Russian-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/6/2009 8:05:48 AM ET 2009-10-06T12:05:48

In space, they say, no one can hear you scream.

Ever notice that they never say anything about laughing? After all, nothing fills up an empty space like a good guffaw. Just ask Guy Laliberte, the fun-loving founder of Cirque du Soleil now making headlines as “the first clown in space.”

As you probably know, Guy (rhymes with “glee”) is currently gamboling around outer space, having paid $35 million for a 12-day trip to the International Space Station (ISS). Astro-antics aside, his mission — technically, it’s a Poetic Social Mission — is to highlight the need for clean water down here on Earth.

Of course, if he also manages to raise space travel’s profile along the way, so much the better. With apologies to Neil Armstrong, that would be one small step for a clown, but one giant leap for space tourism.

Filling the vacuum
There’s certainly nothing funny about the current state of the U.S. space program. Last month, a White House panel released a preliminary report questioning NASA’s ability to pursue manned space flight in the years ahead. Among the findings: the proposed retirement of the space shuttle next year would lead to a seven-year gap in the country’s human-launch capability.

In fact, the agency has already ceded much of its launch capability to others. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, now handles most launches to the ISS, including those of the seven “space tourists” who have made the trip so far. Of course, with limited seats and a price tag of tens of millions of dollars, the program is unlikely to become what you’d call a volume business.

So, what’s an aspiring space tourist with less substantial assets to do? Set your sights a bit lower with a sub-orbital flight with one of a handful of companies that hope to begin offering commercial service in the next few years. In the new race for space, their trips’ shorter duration and (relatively) lower price tags make them the astro-equivalent of budget travel.

Got $200,000 to spare? If so, consider booking a flight with Virgin Galactic, the five-year-old brainchild of billionaire-adventurer Sir Richard Branson. You won’t go into orbit or get to the ISS; then again, you won’t have to travel to Star City, Russia, for several months of training, medical testing and three squares of borscht and jellied meat, either.

Instead, you’ll undergo three days of training before joining two pilots and five other passengers for a 2.5-hour flight on SpaceShipTwo, which will be carried to an altitude of 50,000 feet by a mothership known as WhiteKnightTwo. At that point, the former will disengage from the latter, fire up its engine and climb another 300,000 feet or so to an altitude of roughly 68 miles above Earth.

Well above the generally accepted boundary of space (62.5 miles), passengers will be afforded 1,000-mile views of the planet, its thin ribbon of atmosphere and the inky vastness of space. They’ll also be able to unbuckle their seatbelts and experience several minutes of weightlessness before returning to their seats and terra firma below.

According to the folks at Virgin Galactic, the company already has 300 reservations and $40 million in deposits. And while they won’t commit to a first-launch date, they’re hoping to unveil SpaceShipTwo by the end of this year, complete testing in 2010 and make their own giant leap sometime in 2011.

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Not as far, but half the price
Then again, if “two hundred large” is too much, you may want to hitch a ride on the Lynx, a sporty two-seater developed by XCOR Aerospace. Working in conjunction with RocketShip Tours, the company is offering hour-long trips to “the edge of space” — about 200,000 feet (roughly 40 miles) above the ground — for just $95,000.

And it’s no bare-bones experience, either. It starts with five days of orientation at the Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa outside Phoenix. Medical screening, aeronautical education and, presumably, all-around luxuriating are included.

The flight itself consists of a horizontal runway takeoff, a Mach 2 ascent to 200,000 feet and a few minutes of weightlessness at apogee. You won’t be able to unbuckle your seatbelt and float free, but you do get to sit in the copilot’s seat, which is probably the next best thing to flying the craft yourself. The provisional start date for service is October 1, 2011.

In the meantime, about the closest most of us will come to high-altitude adventure will be by following along as First Clown in Space Guy Laliberte floats overhead. Sure, there’s a bit of hype and self-indulgence in his antics — a related globe-spanning webcast is scheduled for October 9 — but you have to give the guy credit for bringing energy and excitement to an endeavor that the U.S. government seems intent on abandoning.

In fact, between his promotional skills and his out-of-this-world imagination, the guy would probably make a great NASA administrator.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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