Space Tourism Takes Off

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Space Tourism Takes Off

Words by Ms Jenny Southan

4 April 2018

Forget the Côte d’Azur or Tulum, you could soon be travelling to infinity and beyond on holiday.

Fewer than 550 people have been into space and, until 2001, all of them were professional astronauts. The first space tourist was 60-year-old Californian financier Mr Dennis Tito, who paid $20m to spend a week on the International Space Station. Upon his return to Earth, he told reporters, “I just came back from paradise.”

Ten years on, he was still dreaming about it. In 2011 he told BBC News, “Eight minutes and 50 seconds [after lift-off], you experience your last of the three Gs, and then zero Gs when the engine shuts down – that is the most spectacular moment of the entire flight. At burn-out, you become weightless. Out of the window, I could see the blackness of space and the curvature of Earth. I cannot ever duplicate that euphoric feeling that I had at that moment. I hope that tens of thousands of people can experience what I experienced, for five per cent of the cost.”

It looks like this could become a reality. Members of the public are now able to buy tickets for the ultimate extra-terrestrial getaway. Depending on your budget – and how brave you are – there is a range of short- and long-haul excursions to choose from, and a number of entrepreneurs eager to make your space-age dreams come true.

If you’re a thrill-seeker, two companies are promising sub-orbital joy rides with views of our planet from more than 60 miles up, as well as a few minutes of weightlessness. Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is probably the best known, and hopes are pinned on an inaugural launch this year from the world’s first commercial spaceport in the New Mexico desert. So far, more than 600 people have paid $250,000 for a ticket.

Virgin Galactic says in its mission statement: “In time, we expect to be operating a variety of vehicles from multiple locations to cater for the demands of the growing space-user community, whether that be transporting passengers to Earth-orbiting hotels and science laboratories, or providing a world-shrinking, transcontinental service.” The latter refers to using rockets to catapult people around the globe via “sub-orbital hops” that reduce the journey time from, say, London to Sydney, to a couple of hours.

Meanwhile, Amazon founder Mr Jeff Bezos is working on his own spaceline, Blue Origin. There has been no mention of pricing yet, but the first customers could be blasting off as early as next year. Up to six astronauts can be strapped in to its New Shepherd circular capsule, which will be propelled into space with a 60ft-tall reusable rocket, before gently floating back down with a parachute. Inside, there will be enough room to do somersaults, and huge windows offering magnificent vistas (imagine the Instagram likes you’d get).

If you want to follow in the tried-and-tested footsteps of Mr Tito, you can book a 10-day voyage on the International Space Station with US company Space Adventures, which will arrange for Russia’s Soyuz shuttle to whizz you 250 miles up. Astronauts have been doing shifts on the ISS for almost 20 years and, so far, almost a dozen tourists have paid for the privilege of joining them.

Travelling at 17,500mph, the ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, and has an internal capacity roughly the same as a Boeing 777 plane. At the moment, visitors have to sleep in crew pods, but by 2022, Roscosmos, the Russian state corporation for space activities, is planning to open a hotel on the ISS. At 15.5m long, it doesn’t sound five-star to us Earthlings, but in space, its four private cabins, Wi-Fi, workout machines and “hygiene stations” will be positively luxurious. One- to two-week stays will cost about $40m. You can add another $20m to your bill if you want to do a space walk.

In other news, billionaire US hotelier Mr Robert Bigelow wants to launch an inflatable space hotel ready for reservations in 2021. Before you dismiss it as a total moonshot idea, one of his inflatable Bigelow Space Operations pods is already attached to the ISS. It seems the Budget Suites Of America founder’s no-frills accommodation model translates well to off-world conditions. It’s just a shame the rates won’t be similarly affordable – rooms will be available for “low eight-figure sums”.

This year should be the first time since the early 1970s that humans have travelled beyond low-Earth orbit. If all goes to plan, in a matter of months, Mr Elon Musk’s SpaceX will be sending two paying tourists (we don’t know who they are or how much they’ve paid) on a one-week round trip around the Moon in its Dragon 2 capsule.

If you regularly complain about the lack of legroom on planes, spare a thought for these guys. They will spend the duration of their flight in a capsule no more than 3.5m wide. The good news is they will be able to take off their bulky spacesuits after exiting the Earth’s atmosphere and change into more comfortable holiday garb (Hawaiian shirts and shorts, perhaps). The piña coladas might be in short supply, though.

This trip won’t allow for a stop-off on the Moon itself, but another US company, Moon Express, is dedicating itself to this endeavour. It aims to send tourists there within a decade, and founder Mr Naveen Jain has suggested tickets could sell for as little as $10,000. So far, Moon Express has raised $450m in funding and has backers including Mr Pharrell Williams and “We believe that it’s critical for humanity to become a multi-world species, and that our sister world, the Moon, is an eighth continent holding vast resources than can help us enrich and secure our future,” the company says.

Inter-planetary travel may be some way off, but it’s not out of sight. British astronaut Mr Tim Peake recently predicted that humans could be setting foot on Mars within 20 years. Dutch organisation Mars One is advertising for volunteers to go on a one-way voyage to establish a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet by 2032. Once there, they will build homes, install solar panels, construct greenhouses and plant crops and trees. There will even be Wi-Fi so they can communicate with friends and family back home and catch up on the latest Netflix shows.

Mr Musk also wants to set up a colony on Mars and make it hospitable for visitors. He’s been working on designs for a BFR (“big f***ing rocket”), which will transport crew to Mars from as early as 2024 at speeds of up to 18,000mph. The journey will take about seven months, though, which means you’ll need to book a considerable chunk of time off work if you want to join them. “The ships from these initial missions will also serve as the beginnings of our first Mars base, from which we can build a thriving city and, eventually, a self-sustaining civilisation,” says SpaceX.

Illustrations by Mr Tom Froese