(STAR) CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren - Spaceport Singapore to rise soon." I was dumbfounded as I read that Space Adventures, Ltd., together with a Singapore-based consortium, announced that it plans to develop an integrated spaceport in Singapore. The facility will offer suborbital spaceflights, as well as run training facilities for future astronauts along with facilities for public education and an interactive high-tech visitor center!

I was an avid follower of the space race and grew up with Gagarin, Glen, and all those cosmic white knights all the way up to Armstrong, Aldrin and beyond. My first wide-screen movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I figured I would be in my 40s when that year came up and pondered the possibility of commercial space travel featured in that film. Then there was Star Trek and travel at warp speed.

Well, reality has come around slower than the warp barrier. The handheld communicators used by Kirk and Spock are everyday objects now, but phasers and space travel have been an elusive and expensive undertaking, up to now.

A few years ago a competition was launched to encourage the first private vehicles into space. The Ansari X Prize offered $10 million to the first team to launch a piloted vehicle a hundred kilometers above the earth (considered the threshold of space – where you start to float and the curvature of the planet is evident). The feat had to be done twice in a single week for the win. In October 2004, pilot Mike Melvill in a Burt Rutan-designed, Paul Allen-funded SpaceShipOne did just that. The frontier of space was opened to ordinary folk from that day on.

Not long afterwards, Sir Richard Branson boasted that he was going to offer space rides on his Virgin Galactic in 2007. But even he has been slow to jump on the rocket wagon. The company Space Adventures had already put billionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth into space. The two, however, had to pay millions of dollars each for their jaunts via the Russian Soyuz rocket. Recently, American woman Anousheh Ansari, also armed with hundreds of platinum credit cards, took to space. I figured I’d wait till the price came down a bit and for the spaceport to be built for a re-usable space-worthy craft. I did not think that it would come that soon and this close to the Philippines.

Singapore is only two degrees from the equator. Every school kid that grew up in the heady years of Voshtok rockets and Apollo spacecraft knew that it takes the least energy to escape the earth’s gravitational pull at the equator. Besides, Singapore already has the world’s best airport in Changi. It is also one of the busiest, channeling 40 million passengers and tourists to Asia from everywhere else in the globe.

The proposed Spaceport Singapore will focus on the simpler suborbital spaceflights – at least to start with. As the suborbital space craft reaches its maximum altitude of 100 kilometers, passengers on board will experience up to five minutes of continuous weightlessness, while gazing out at the wonder of space and the gentle curve of Mother Earth below.

Not surprisingly, this fantastic venture is supported by the Singapore Tourism Board. The STB realized that there is enormous commercial potential in space tourism and with the backing of the government, went all-out to look for the best company to invest in the business. The market potential for suborbital spaceflights alone has been conservatively estimated at over a billion dollars a year.

For those who have not saved enough for a suborbital ticket, Spaceport Singapore will offer exciting alternatives, high-altitude experiences and a taste of astronaut training. Parabolic flights that will allow passengers to experience the magic of weightlessness, G-force centrifuge training, and simulated space walks in water tanks will also be a blast. For real flight, visitors can suit up and zoom off in a number of cool-jets aircraft, There’s also close-to-real flight simulators and the usual interactive exhibits – or you could just have a jet-boosted latte at the center’s Starbucks.

The actual suborbital transport system is designed by Myasishchev Design Bureau, a renowned Russian aerospace company. Its vehicle, named Explorer, can carry five people into space in comfort and safety. Other systems are being developed along with all the support software and hardware to make it all possible.

The estimated cost of Spaceport Singapore is over $115 million. It will be partially funded by the private sector in Signapore, Singapore itself, along with Space Adventures’ global partner, His Highness Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Crown Prince of Ras Al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates. Additional funds are being raised in Singapore by KPMG Corporate Finance. The company’s advisory board is made up of astronauts like Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, shuttle astronauts Kathy Thornton, Robert (Hoot) Gibson, Charles Walker, Norm Thagard, Sam Durrance, Byron Lichtenberg, Pierre Thuot and Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott. Spaceport Singapore is due to open in 2009.

Everyone is excited. Pretty soon we may be hearing news that Singapore Airlines will go sub-orbital, too. Studies are already being undertaken that will cut hours off trans-oceanic flights via short hops into space. That’ll surely be the greatest way to fly.

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