Sometime between the end of the Apollo missions and the shuttle disasters, space lost its shine.
Instead of Capt. Kirk boldly going where no man has gone before, space shuttle launches barely cause a media ripple. The most recent indignity was the headline-grabbing misadventure of a diaper-wearing, lovesick astronaut.
Now, all that may be about to change.
Companies are angling to cash in on space, hoping that wealthy adventurers, who think nothing of plunking down big bucks for art and wine, will fork out $200,000 for four minutes of zero gravity and an awe-inspiring view of the Earth.
Already, 200 rich daredevils have bought seats priced well below the $20 million that tourists such as Dennis Tito and Anousheh Ansari are paying for stays at the International Space Station.
Los Angeles billionaire Edward Roski Jr. bought ticket No. 128 on Virgin Galactic, one of the companies chartering the out-of-this-world flights.
It's the next logical trip for the 68-year-old real estate mogul. The part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Kings and Staples Center has already conquered earthbound extremes, such as hiking 28,251 feet to base camp at Mt. Everest -- three times -- and contracting a Russian research vessel to take him to the wreck of the Titanic, 2.5 miles beneath the ocean's surface.
"It's got to be a real thrill to go up there," Roski said. "I jumped at it immediately. I said, 'Sign me up!' "
His travel agent, Craig Buck of Montecito Village Travel, didn't even have to break a sweat. "It didn't take a whole lot of selling," Buck said
This fresh space race is fueled by teams of ambitious engineers and affluent businessmen that are developing lunar landing vehicles, rocket racers and spacecraft that will whoosh travelers from Sydney, Australia, to New York in an hour.
"Right now, it's just a fantastic time," said John Spencer, president of the Space Tourism Society. "It's at the birthing phase where these really wealthy, smart people are seeing enormous opportunities."
Even astrophysicist Stephen Hawking plans to hop a flight on Virgin Galactic, the private company with the only reusable, manned spacecraft that has successfully flown to space and back.
Not everyone is sold. Space historian Roger Launius said real space tourism -- weeklong vacations in space and not fleeting moments -- was decades off.
The suborbital tourism proposed by Virgin Galactic might appeal to only a tiny fraction of the population, he said.
"It's obviously going to require people who have a fair amount of disposable income," said Launius, curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. "They're not like Aunt Mable and Uncle Ed who go to the beach for a week. These people exist, but it's not a large community and never has been."
Skeptics aside, a team of 47 "space agents" from the luxury Virtuoso travel network has begun peddling tickets after completing two days of training last month in Cape Canaveral.
The agents were schooled in space aviation history, the company's spaceship technology and what exactly $200,000 would buy. (One suggested pitch: It's not just four minutes of weightlessness; it's a three-day, perspective-altering experience that almost no one else has had.)
As he stood quoting Socrates and spewing technical jargon about G-forces and flight plans, chief pilot Alex Tai charmed them with his British accent: "If you want to be an astronaut, you have to dress like one. So we're going to have the coolest, sexiest pressure suits you've ever seen in your life."
Some agents swooned: Who wouldn't want to go to space with Tai behind the controls?
And why not be there to witness a story of true love? Over glasses of wine, George and Loretta Whitesides held court as agents inched in close enough to hear.
"When I was 11," George Whitesides recalled, "I remember looking up in the night sky and promising, 'I'm going to go up there.' "
Bad vision killed that career, but science fiction kept feeding the desire. His future wife shared the same dreams, and they crossed paths in Austria, at a space conference. They started Yuri's Night, an annual World Space Party, and fell in love. On Valentine's Day, they launched the website www.spacelove.org to document their quest to be the first honeymooners in space.
Together, they watched SpaceShipOne -- designed by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft Corp.'s Paul Allen -- capture the $10-million Ansari X Prize in October 2004, by becoming the first reusable, manned spacecraft to enter space twice in two weeks. Surrounded by crowds of cheering enthusiasts in the Mojave desert, SpaceShipOne suddenly brought space within reach of private citizens.
"We're going to give back this dream to the world," said George Whitesides, now the executive director of the National Space Society, a space education and advocacy group. Paying for that dream is "a stretch for us," he said, describing their financial status as "definitely middle class."
In a darkened room at Kennedy Space Center, the agents watched footage of that same historic flight: the view of the Earth, the jubilation, and awestruck test pilot Mike Melvill stepping off SpaceShipOne with a new perspective on the world.
"It blew me away, it really did," Melvill said. "You really do feel like you can reach out and touch the face of God."
By the time the lights came back on, the agents had become converts. They were hushed, reverent. Some wiped away tears.
"It made me have chills all over my body," Atlanta-based agent Jennifer Campbell said. "It's breathtaking, heart-stopping."
After graduating in the shadow of the Apollo Saturn V rocket, they proclaimed themselves modern-day Magellans.
"It's like being a pioneer in travel," said Jay Johnson, owner of Coastline Travel in Orange, noting that this was way more exciting than selling seven-day cruises to the Mexican Riviera.
The 200 aspiring space tourists who have signed up with billionaire businessman Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic hope to fly in 2009 on SpaceShipTwo, a larger spacecraft that Rutan is building that is capable of ferrying six tourists and two pilots. Most have paid in full or put down hefty deposits for spots at the front of the line.
The venture produces a sense of deja vu. In the 1960s, airlines with equally lofty goals took reservations for the moon from more than 90,000 aspiring space travelers. Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Walter Cronkite were among the card-carrying members of Pan Am's First Moon Flights Club.
"Space was wrapped in every part of pop culture back then," George Whitesides said. "Now, I see it coming back."
Branson isn't the only one actively pursuing space.
Budget Suites of America founder Robert Bigelow dreams of opening an inflatable space motel. Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos is building a Texas spaceport and a suborbital vehicle that will take off and land vertically. Xcor Aerospace is developing speedy rockets for the aerospace sports venture Rocket Racing League.
"Twenty years ago when you talked about space tourism, you got laughed at, literally," said Spencer of the Space Tourism Society. "Today, people are asking, 'How do I get involved?' "