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The wooden sign above the window of Japan Travel Associates, at 17th and U Streets NW, promises vacation options unto the infinite: “USA, Asia, Africa, World, Space,” it reads in black and white. A second sign, over another window, elaborates on the theme: “Hotel, Air, Amtrak, Car, Cruise, Rocket.”

Walking in on a late-winter Monday morning, a would-be space traveler confronts a less–than–Space Age display. Dirt-cheap used Levi’s are strung up for sale in one corner; every available tabletop and bookshelf overflows with napkins, towels, and other merchandise emblazoned with teddy bears, cottages, and similarly cozy themes. More traditional travel-agency fare—posters of Mexico and France, model airplanes—occupies the walls.

Ikuyo Chisaka, a co-partner in Japan Travel’s parent company, Galaxy Systems Inc., is handling phone calls and drinking green tea from a Styrofoam cup while another woman sits in front of a computer, eating noodles and instant-messaging in Japanese. Asked about space travel, Chisaka gestures toward the back. “I don’t know anything about it,” she says. “You’ll have to ask Mr. Nakamura.”

Not too many people ask, says Tadahiko Nakamura, founder of Galaxy Systems. Nakamura, 60, sits in an orange-curtained back room thickly stacked with Japanese and English books about philosophy, poetry, international politics, and science. An aquarium gurgles nearby.

Nakamura,wearing a plaid shirt, with a pocket watch, says that he tells the two or three souls a month who inquire about space travel that the sign is an expression of his confidence in the future of off-Earth transportation. In five to 10 years, he maintains, anyone with $10,000 to $50,000 to spend should be able to launch into outer space.

“That is big money,” Nakamura says, emphasizing the last two words. “But compared to $10 million, it’s accessible to rich people.”

The current rate for space tourism is closer to $20 million, the price that financial tycoon Dennis Tito paid in 2001 for a flight to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz shuttle. And Japan Travel is not, at the moment, in a position to book a flight even at that price.

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Nakamura’s space connection is with a Netherlands-based space commercialization company called MirCorp, which claims credit for Tito’s flight. Thus far, Nakamura has connected MirCorp with two Japanese media organizations that were seriously interested in sending a journalist into space; daunted by the price, as well as the bureaucratic hurdles, both clients eventually withdrew. And Kim Shepherd, Tito’s publicist, says that although the multimillionaire did sign a contract with MirCorp for a planned flight to the now-defunct Mir space station, it was a different company, Arlington-based Space Adventures, that finally succeeded in getting Tito aloft. “Technically, [MirCorp] didn’t put him in space. They did assist in making introductions in Russia,” she says.

“Whoever comes with money, Russia will take it,” Nakamura says, though he refuses to concede credit to Space Adventures for Tito’s flight. Either way, the point is currently moot: Since the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated last year, halting U.S. space flights until 2005, the Russian shuttles are completely occupied by supplying the International Space Station.

Nakamura says he has been fascinated by outer space ever since his high-school years in a suburb of Tokyo. One of his school friends, television journalist Tohiro Akiyama, became the first commercial space tourist by taking a trip to Mir in 1990.

Despite its name, though, Galaxy Systems had terrestrial interests when he founded it with a group of fellow D.C. residents 25 years ago. “I didn’t know what the company was going to do,” Nakamura says. “But I told them, ‘Let’s just create our own jobs.’”

Galaxy, which has an office two doors down from Japan Travel and another in Tokyo, ended up encompassing the travel agency, a now-defunct limousine service, a division called RoboTech, which exports bulletproof body armor and helicopter panels to the Japanese military, and a media-monitoring service for Japanese businesses. Admitting that the travel industry is “slow and hard” these days, Nakamura bubbles with more schemes: sending Japanese students to India for higher education, expanding the Mongolian travel industry.

The unifying theme, Nakamura says, is global harmony. (The exported military equipment, he notes repeatedly, is all defensive.) He is writing a doctoral dissertation about the end of the nation-state for Catholic University’s political-science department. “The whole world will eventually be integrated,” he says. This, he explains, will be necessary to “protect Earth against external attackers.”

In the meantime, rival Space Adventures says it plans to announce the identity of a new space tourist later this month. A group called the X-Prize Foundation is offering a $10 million prize for the first private company that can launch a suborbital flight, which involves experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness at 62 miles above the Earth. Space Adventures says it has marketing agreements with several of the competitors and has taken 100 reservations and deposits from people who want to ride on the first suborbital flight.

X-Prize spokesperson Ian Murphy says that suborbital flight is 25 times safer and less expensive than orbital flight. “You have to do it in stages,” Murphy says.

But Nakamura disdains suborbital flight. “Even monkeys can do that,” he says. He’s still trying to get someone up to the International Space Station, hoping to connect Japanese businesses with MirCorp. “Russia has all the experience and equipment,” he says. “But that was in the past. Now they have no money. In Japan, the project belongs to the future.”

Nakamura says he has also talked to Chinese and Indian investors. “I am talking with the past and with the future,” he says. CP