To Infinity and Beyond
If the mention of a month-long Mediterranean cruise results in an involuntarily yawn, or you simply feel like you’ve traveled everywhere you want to on earth, then maybe it’s time to look a little further afield. And we’re not talking about packing your bags for a new “city-of-the-moment” or the next big “undiscovered” destination. We’re talking about heading up and away to an altogether different dimension, where very few tourists have ever gone before — Space.
Space travel may seem like a distant fantasy, but companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are investing heavily to make the extraordinary happen. In fact, while it will be astronomically expensive and inaccessible to the everyday traveler for several years, tourism to the outer limits looks set to arrive in our lifetime.
Here are some key trends and predictions to keep an eye on as you fantasize about snapping that ultimate travel selfie some 62 miles above Planet Earth.
The Age of Consumer Space Travel is Closer than You Realize
Although some American space organizations have promised that their first flights are imminent, most experts are divided about just how soon it’ll be before you will be able to log onto a space travel site and book your ticket to the stars.
The first companies competing in the most recent commercial space race are expected to start taking people into space as early as 2018 — but it’ll take some time before prices aren’t only within the reach of multi-millionaires.
Much like the commercial airline industry, which started out as the domain of the well-to-do traveler and now consists of no-frills flights for a (relative) handful of change, prices aboard space-bound crafts won’t drop for a while. And even then, in the foreseeable future, tickets will still be priced in the high thousands.
Reserving a Seat Won’t Come Cheap
So exactly how expensive are we talking for the privilege of space travel?
Most companies are remaining mum about exact flight costs, but there are some indications that starting points will price most out of the market. NASA, to take one example, currently pays the Russian space agency around $80 million for individual tickets aboard their Soyuz capsule. There are also various options — with journeys into deep space costing significantly more than sub-orbital spaceflight.
Some companies have hinted at possible prices for other variations; Virgin Galactic is taking deposits of $250,000 for their first flights. Still, it’s safe to say that given how many variables there are at play in the commercial space race, these are little more than entry-level estimations.
You Won’t Need to be a NASA-Trained Astronaut
Traditional astronauts go through a grueling training regimen, and that’s after they’ve earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering, mathematics, physical science, biological science or computer science.
Although many commercial space companies are working towards automated crafts, according to NASA it can take two years to become a fully trained and qualified astronaut — culminating in the “NASA long-duration astronaut physical.” That’s because rocketing into space, and then manning the craft and handling any complications that arise, requires extraordinary stamina, skill and presence of mind.
Fortunately, if you’re just looking to take a quick flit into space as a tourist, you won’t need to undergo a program quite as rigorous. You’ll likely still need to undergo an extensive medical evaluation and training, but the requirements won't be astronaut-level intense.
It Won’t Necessarily be a Tranquil Experience
If you think the entire experience will be akin to peering wistfully out of a spacecraft window watching the earth float on by, you’re in for a bit of a disappointment.
The technology that the leading commercial operators are currently trialling may be state of the art, but you’re still working hard against gravity in order to reach extraordinary heights.
The reality is that if you’re intent on experiencing weightlessness in space, and getting an incredible perspective of earth, you will have to endure g-forces pressing down on your chest, both there and back. As a result, you may well have a few moments when you wonder what the hell you've gotten yourself into.
Still, when you hit that weightlessness, and get to peer out that window, it’s likely you’ll forget all about your woes.
The Future is Private
Space tourism isn’t actually a new concept. Although we currently have a handful of prominent businessmen to thank for pioneering the concept as a mainstream form of tourism, we also have the United States to thank for putting an end to it.
In the early 2000s, Space Adventures flew nine paying passengers into space courtesy of Russia's Federal Space Agency. The trips, which cost in the region of $20 million, allowed a handful of wealthy travelers to float aboard the International Space Station. This all came to a screeching halt when NASA ended its Space Shuttle program in 2011, and any vacant seats aboard the Russian Soyuz were taken up by actual astronauts.
Though it’s unlikely that any government-backed organization will lead the way, the new space race for commercial flight will likely be dominated by a handful of companies. According to Space.com, there are six private companies that lead this race — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Orbital Sciences, Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace, SpaceDev and Virgin Galactic.
You May Not Board a Traditional Rocket
If you have visions of strapping into a small seat aboard one of those old-school Kennedy Space Center rockets, you might need to choose your space travel company carefully. That’s because many of the private companies leading the tourism space race have done away with some of the traditional designs, and are instead using utterly futuristic-looking vehicles to launch you skyward.
Virgin Galactic will use a winged “rocket plane” that will be carried into the sky by a separate aircraft and dropped some 50,000 feet above the earth’s surface. Arizona-based World View has a similar plan, except they intend on using a helium balloon to lift passengers to 100,000 feet, where they’ll remain for up to two hours before returning to earth.
If you’re set on a vertical take off, you might have to wait for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to get off the ground — the company is investing its money into a slightly more traditional rocket, topped by a small passenger capsule. SpaceX is following a similar approach with Dragon 2 and Falcon Heavy.
Although the jury is still out on the best approach, with each offering its own benefits for both company and tourist, one thing is patently clear — the crafts launching tourists into space will be among the most futuristic vehicles imaginable.
Journeys Might just Last a Few Minutes
It’s easy to imagine that a journey to space will require a long-term commitment, and if you intend to venture out on SpaceX’s missions to Mars and beyond, it certainly will. However, most commercial operations seem to be focusing on short turnaround times, with some promising several flights per day.
If Blue Origin’s dummy test flight from last year is anything to go by, you could go from earth to space, and back, in a rapid 11 minutes. Although short, the journey will certainly be sweet — in those 11 minutes, you’ll still get to experience weightlessness, and see the earth like few before you ever have.
Paying Passengers Might Orbit the Moon this Year
In February last year, SpaceX announced that they would fly two private citizens around the moon in late 2018. These two unnamed citizens have already put down a “significant deposit” to climb aboard the Dragon 2 and blast into space.
The flight will take off from the historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral — the same location for the launch of the famous Apollo Lunar missions — and it is expected to be the starting point for the next phase of extreme commercial space travel. It will be the first time in 45 years that humans have returned from deep space, and will mark a crucial milestone in SpaceX’s goal of transporting humans to the surface of Mars.
You Might Have to Settle for 'Almost Space’
Much of the current hype around space travel is focused on SpaceX’s intention to fly tourists around the moon and back on an epic 300,000-400,000-mile trajectory. Until this announcement, most space tourism operations aim to take tourists on low-orbit trips.
If you’re not dead-set on a cruise around the moon, then your next best bet might in fact be a trip to “almost space.” World View Enterprises will take paying passengers up to an altitude of 100,000 feet in a gondola-type setup suspended beneath a helium balloon. According to the strict definition, “space” is above the Kármán line at 62 miles, so this isn’t quite space. But it’ll still be a remarkable experience — from that altitude, you’ll see the curvature of the earth.
The trip would be a six-hour return journey and include two hours of cruising. It would also be a somewhat more relaxing experience than blasting off with the aid of rockets — the gondola will have in-flight service, a large photo-friendly window, and, of course, Wi-Fi. It’s also likely to come in significantly cheaper than other options — individual tickets are rumored to cost in the region of $75,000.
Or Maybe just Opt for a Weightless Experience
If the above options all sound a little pricey for your liking, or you just can’t stand the wait, then your next best bet might be to get all of the weightlessness, with none of the spaciness, on an airline that takes you through some seat-raising parabolic maneuvers.
Zero Gravity Corporation has modified a Boeing 747 that will take off in a traditional manner, and then dive steeply back down towards earth once at a safe altitude. The process simulates weightlessness as you might feel above the Kármán line, but at a significantly lower price point — tickets aboard the “vomit comet” cost in the region of $5,000.
Space Hotels Could be on the Horizon
Russia’s space agency is aiming to take the space experience a few steps further with the development of a luxury "space hotel" aboard the International Space Station. Popular Mechanics recently learned of plans to create a five-star experience in the sky, complete with big-windowed cabins, private bathrooms, Wi-Fi and exercise equipment. As part of the experience, tourists will be able to suit up and venture out for a space walk with a cosmonaut.
The experience forms part of Russia’s plans to commence the space tourist programs halted in 2011. Unsurprisingly, it won’t come cheap — the one-to-two week trip will cost approximately $40 million per person, and if you want to add in a space walk, you'll need to drop another $20 million to stay for a month.
Commercial Space Stations are Coming
There’s a good possibility that commercial space stations, which will allow shuttles to dock and passengers to alight, will become a reality sooner than many people think. As companies develop technology to be self-sufficient in space, starting with things like growing food and generating water and oxygen, it’s likely that costs will start to come down.
Visitors would then be able to visit these space stations for leisure purposes, and companies like NASA and Boeing envision these being stopovers for longer missions to Mars or the moon.
Before commercial space stations become a reality, however, there are several hoops to jump through. The Federal Aviation Authority requires that the risks involved for members of the public are within an acceptable limit, and they will also have to consider factors like international law and various treaties.
Flying to Space Will Come at a Cost to the Earth
As the world’s wealthiest all vie to become the first to jet paying passengers into space, it’s easy to get lost in the romantic notion of viewing the earth in all its fragility from above. However, the strange irony in the whole concept is that leaving earth on a journey into space comes at a huge toll to the environment.
Although companies like Virgin Galactic claim to have built clean spaceships that emit less carbon dioxide on a flight to space than some commercial airlines do on daily routes, there’s little evidence to back this up.
At the moment, much of the response to concerns about the environmental impact of space travel are being handled at a public relations level, as commercial space travel companies attempt to position themselves and future clients as concerned environmentalists, rather than as self-indulgent travelers looking to tick another item off their lists.
It Will be a Truly Humbling Experience
However you choose to venture into space, be it on a trip around the moon with SpaceX, or suspended beneath a balloon or craft of some kind, all companies are focused on one thing — giving you a glimpse of the earth in a way that those who’ve experienced it describe as a truly humbling, almost religious, experience.
It’s Neil Armstrong’s comment, when he gazed back at earth from Apollo 11, that seems to be driving many regular earthlings to yearn for a trip to space, and might just have the world’s wealthiest travelers doing a reality check of their own from several hundred thousand feet:
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”