Once just a fantasy of the Star Trek crowd, space travel for the masses has long seemed like a pipe dream.
But guess what’s coming down that pipe now? You guessed it — private spaceships.
A number of private companies are gearing up to offer travelers the chance to leave the Earth behind, with regularly scheduled suborbital space flights predicted to begin in 2010.
Of course, space has already seen its first paying tourists. In April 2001, New Yorker Dennis Tito became the first space tourist (though Tito prefers the term “independent researcher”) when he flew to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.
For the privilege of his six-day journey, Tito paid about $20 million to the Russian space program and the Space Adventures company.
In just a few weeks, on April 7, 2007, Dr. Charles Simonyi will take the same journey as the fifth paying space tourist.
Unfortunately, at a cost of $20 million, these long spaceflights will probably remain out of reach for all but the wealthiest travelers for a long time to come. However, a new option is emerging, one that costs about 1% of what these extended spaceflights cost.
This option, known as a suborbital flight, is much shorter (lasting hours instead of days), and doesn’t offer nearly as much time in space. Still, most proposed suborbital flights do offer at least a few minutes of weightlessness, in addition to the chance to view the Earth from space.
Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin conglomerate has long been an aggressive promoter of space tourism, with Virgin Galactic preparing for commercial space flights in 2009. A $200 million+ spaceport facility that will serve as one of Virgin Galactic’s primary launch pads is already under construction in New Mexico. While “Spaceport America” is being built, Virgin will launch its first flights from a temporary base near Edwards Air Force base in the Mojave desert.
Another spaceport at Esrange, Sweden is also in negotiations with Virgin Galactic. The Swedish spaceport would enable Virgin spacecraft to fly through the aurora borealis (aka- the Northern Lights) on their way out of the atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic has already begun taking reservations and claims to have hundreds of customers ready to shell out $200,000 or more for the voyage into space. The VSS Enterprise, named in reference to the “Star Trek” spaceship, is slated to begin flying in late 2008 or early 2009, pending the successful conclusion of test flights. The VSS Enterprise will be a suborbital flyer, soaring into space to give its passengers several minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth. But Virgin Galactic isn’t relying on the Enterprise alone — it has ordered five space-capable vessels for its fleet.
For more information, visit Virgin Galactic
The only company to have successfully put paying customers into space thus far is Space Adventures, which arranged the trips for Tito and Simonyi, among others. Currently, Space Adventures is preparing to offer a wide array of, well, space adventures… orbital and suborbital flights, zero gravity training, spacewalking, and even a trip around the moon.
Space Adventures has two spaceports slated for construction: the Ras Al-Khaimah Spaceport in Dubai, and Spaceport Singapore. Both are being constructed with millions in funding from their respective governments. But Space Adventures is already using the Baikonur Cosmodrome (the Russian Cape Canaveral) as a de facto launch pad and spaceport; all three of its space tourists blasted off from here. Despite the international flavor of its spaceports, Space Adventures is actually an American company headquartered in Virginia.
For more information, go to Space Adventures.com
THE SPACE HOTEL
Las Vegas hoteliers are not traditionally known for their restraint, or their failure to think big. Robert Bigelow is certainly no exception. The Budget Suites of America owner is planning to launch a series of inflatable space habitats that would function as hotels for space tourists.
Bigelow Aerospace has already successfully launched the Genesis I, which unfurled solar panels and expanded it to its 15′ by 8′ cylindrical shape. Though inflatable, the walls of the Genesis (and planned future models) are 16 inches thick and made of puncture-resistant materials like Kevlar. The so-far-successful test of the Genesis I means that at this point, Bigelow Aerospace is on track to have a functioning space hotel ready to accept visitors by 2015.
The full-size project would be composed of a collection of larger Genesis-like pods and is currently slated to hold a maximum capacity of about 100 visitors, plus a staff of about 50. Rooms with a view of the Earth are slated to go for a cool $1 million, with Bigelow investing roughly $500 million of his fortune to help make his dream a reality.
For more information on this project, visit Bigelow Aerospace
Interested in more crazy adventures? Don’t miss Thrill-Seeking Proposals.
Although simply jumping in a rocket ship and heading for the moon might sound like fun, today’s space travelers must complete a training program before being allowed to go to space. While early space tourists underwent months of training to prepare for their relatively long voyages, suborbital space tourism generally requires only about a week of training.
Training exercises can include everything from G-Force training to psychological evaluations. Also included in most programs are meetings with astronauts or cosmonauts in an attempt to give the traveler a first-hand account of the experience, and what it’s like to look down at the Earth. Obviously, a standard physical exam is required before beginning the training routine, though surprisingly, age isn’t necessarily a huge factor. In fact, Dennis Tito and another space tourist, Gregory Olsen, were sixty when they blasted off for their seven-day missions. For suborbital flights of a few hours, such as those proposed by Virgin Galactic, the physical challenges are significantly reduced.
While the high price will, for now, keep space travel limited to the very wealthy, there’s a strong possibility that as more and more travelers leave Earth, prices for doing so may begin to drop — much as they did with airplane flights. So while space travel may still seem like part of some science fiction fantasy future, it’s a future that has almost arrived.
Does space travel still sound impossible? Check out Alternatives to Space Travel.