The final frontier has been breached, and orbital tourism is on its way
SPACE tourism is being touted as the next big thing in travel, although commercially viable lift-off is long overdue.
It’s been 13 years since US entrepreneur Dennis Tito be-came the world’s first paying space tourist when he bought an eight-day holiday for a rumoured$US20 million aboard the Inter-national Space Station.
Tito’s intergalactic travel agent, Space Adventures, which boasts of being “the only company to have sent private citizens to space’’, is offering an eight to nine-day mission to circumnavigate the moon in 2017 for a cool$US150m ($166m). As his former travel agent is not selling flights to Mars, Tito is also aiming to send humans on a voyage of about 1207 million kilometres to Mars and back in 501 days.
Although his sights are yet to be set on the red planet, champ-ion of the people Richard Bran-son has his own cosmic hurdles. But with about $US70m in deposits taken from 580 would-be passengers for his Virgin Galactic flights, finance is not one of those problems. Just $US250,000 will buy you a seat on SpaceShip Two with five other passengers and two pilots.
You’ll travel up to 15km, then be dropped from an attached plane. The rocket power will then launch you to 92.6km (the official threshold of space).
Once you’ve had a glimpse of the edge of the planet and savoured those precious few minutes of weightlessness, it’s time to head back. And there will be no fighting over window seats. Everyone will have two windows, one at the side, one overhead.
I ask Andy Thomas, the Australian astronaut who flew his first mission into space in 1986, if he thinks the suborbital flight will be worth the price tag. “Virgin Galactic’s product is really a high-altitude plane ride,’’ he says.
“You get to feel weightless for a few minutes, not the genuine feeling of being in orbit and hav-ing permanent weightlessness.’’
Thomas adds: “You’re not going to get the whole breath-taking view of Earth. The real space experience will be when hotels are in orbit.’’
He believes this could be just 10 to 15 years away, with guests staying for weeks at a time.
Orbital Technologies, a Russian company, is developing an orbiting hotel, about 350km from Earth’s surface, slated to be ready by 2016. A five-day package with flights on a Soyuz rocket will cost about $US1m and include micro-waved gourmet food.
There will be no food, TV screens, cabin crew or toilets on Branson’s no-frills operation. So will passengers cross their legs for the 2½-hour journey or will de-signer diapers be the new trend?The Maximum Absorbency Garment — an adult nappy with extra absorption — was popular with NASA astronauts.
Branson will give each passenger a helmet with built-in micro-phone and headphone, and space suits resembling the original costumes worn in Moonraker.
Angelina Jolie (who will travel without Brad; his name is down for the second trip); Leonardo Di-Caprio; Justin Bieber and his manager; Kate Winslet and family; Ashton Kutcher; Russell Brand and Katy Perry (let’s hope they’re not seated together) have already signed up for the flights, along with Princess Beatrice, who says she is planning to be “the first royal in space’’.
How will all these egos cope with the voyage and the after-math? Thomas says he’s concerned about passengers feeling crowded. “Space travel on Virgin Galactic could be a free-for-all with people bumping into each other,’’ he says.
Being crowded is an issue, but being injured is even more concerning. There are no insurance options (yet) for space travellers. Allianz Global Assistance is considering offering insurance but won’t cover injuries caused by G-forces, zero gravity and hearing damage.
Says Thomas: “Space flight is inherently dangerous. If the air-craft is depressurised — say, the cabin had a leak — I don’t know what safety measures they would have on board to protect people from that. It is like a controlled explosion, everything has to work properly.
“If there is an accident, it could set the industry back years.’’
He concurs that Branson has made a step in the right direction because the space tourism mar-ket has to begin somewhere. But, Thomas adds: “You cannot eliminate the risk.’’
Even once you are safely back, you may not be in a state to enjoy your free champers offered by Virgin Galactic at Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport in Sierra County, New Mexico.
Thomas had to train hard for his flight but Virgin Galactic travellers may not be in the same shape. There are no established protocols in place to judge a per-son fit for making the trip.
Virgin Galactic’s website reads: “Although we don’t expect many medical restrictions to pre-vent people from flying, we will not jeopardise your safety if we believe you are at risk.’’ There are also issues with permits, and no launch date has been set.
Virgin Galactic is not the only company offering space flights. XCOR Aerospace has created Lynx, not a deodorant but a two-seat, piloted rocket plane that will offer half-hour suborbital flights to 100km for $US95,000.
Australian company Adrenalin will take you into the stratosphere more than 20km above sea level in a MiG 29 fighter jet for only $24,440.