Peninsula chemist buys a ticket to space

The opportunity to escape the earthly bounds of gravity is usually a right reserved for only a handful of well-trained astronauts.

For 75-year-old Marjorie Balazs all it took was a casual dinner conversation and enough cash to secure a spot on the Virgin Galactic.

Balazs, a retired chemist who lives in Los Altos, has laid down $175,000 to take part in the first-ever suborbital space service for regular citizens, made possible by Virgin Galactic, a company owned by British billionaire Richard Branson.

With her deposit, Balazs will travel on the SpaceShipTwo, a specially designed craft that will bring its six passengers 62 miles above Earth’s surface so they can feel the effects of weightlessness.

The total cost of the flight is $200,000. By putting nearly all of the cash up front, Balazs has secured a spot among the first 200 travelers and likely will go up in space by 2010.

Balazs first heard about the program earlier this year, while dining with her friend Mary Cardoza, a Palo Alto-based travel agent who at the time had recently completed her training to be an accredited “space agent” — a title created to cater to Virgin Galactic flights.

After hearing about the opportunity to travel to the internationally recognized edge of space, Balazs didn’t hesitate for a minute before declaring her intentions to go.

“I always wished I was younger, so I could have taken part in the NASA space program,” said Balazs, who founded Balazs Analytical Laboratory in 1975, before selling the business in 2000. “When Mary mentioned this, I just came off my seat. I didn’t have to think for a minute, because I knew I wanted in.”

The entire duration of the suborbital flight will last two hours, and passengers will feel weightlessness for only five minutes. But Balazs said the experience is well worth the cost.

“I can’t wait to get up there,” she said.

Balazs will go through a series of training exercises before the flight, including one program that will simulate the six G’s of pressure she will face when she blasts off for space. Although she doesn’t know when her regimen will start, Balazs can expect to get plenty of helpful advice from Cardoza, who has already completed several training programs so she can describe the effects of suborbital space travel to her prospective clients.

“We went to [a NASA training facility in Philadelphia] to understand what six G’s feels like,” Cardoza said. “It was quite the experience, but I’m confident Marjorie can handle it.”

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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