Tourism’s Final Frontier

The Sun-Herald | 13 November 2008


Xcor's spaceplane

Notch up your frequent flyer points, Terry Smyth writes, because suborbital tourism is the next chapter of the space age.

IN APRIL 1961, in Kazakhstan, two farm workers looked up to see a man in a bright orange suit and white helmet parachuting to earth. When the man landed, they rushed to him and asked: “Have you come from outer space?”


“I certainly have,” said Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, grinning from ear to ear. In a cramped capsule, for one hour and 48 minutes, Gagarin had boldly gone where no one had gone before, completing an orbit of the planet. Since that first space flight, only 443 people have emulated Gagarin’s experience. To leave this world, you had to be a Russian cosmonaut, a NASA astronaut or, most recently, a billionaire. But that’s soon to change.

Space is becoming the final frontier of tourism, with several companies busily designing commercial passenger craft, each convinced suborbital tourism has the makings of a nice little earner.

Space is becoming the final frontier of tourism, with several companies busily designing commercial passenger craft, each convinced suborbital tourism has the makings of a nice little earner.


Of the projects on the drawing board, Canadian company PlanetSpace is developing craft based on the World War II German V2 rocket. British firm Reaction Engines has high hopes for a craft designed to burn air like a jet plane at low altitudes, then burn oxygen at high altitudes. This will enable it to take off directly from the runway into orbit rather than ride piggyback on a rocket or aircraft, like the space shuttle.


Projects with similar aims but varying spacecraft designs are under way in the U.S. by XCOR, SpaceX, Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin and Space Adventures. First off the mark, Space Adventures has launched the first two – and so far the only – space tourists. Tycoons Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth each paid $26.5 million to hitch a ride on a Russian Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station.


However, in the new space race, the target market won’t need such deep pockets. Space Adventures is taking bookings for a $138,000 space flight, while Virgin Galactic, backed by British entrepreneur and adventurer Richard Branson, has so far signed up 175 passengers, including three Australians, at $280,000 a ticket. Virgin Galactic flights, to be launched in late 2008 from a space port in New Mexico, will last two hours, including seven minutes of weightlessness.


So let’s say you’ve managed to cough up the readies for a Virgin space flight – what might you expect? According to Virgin Galactic and a little imagination, it could be something like this: you arrive by shuttle jet at the space port resort in New Mexico, which will serve as your accommodation during the six days prior to launch. Thus far, the experience is much the same as an airport-to-hotel transfer – but not for long.


Virgin Galactic’s launcher aircraft carries the VSS Enterprise rocket in the middle

Each morning, a helicopter takes you to a training centre for medical tests, G-force tolerance training and experience in a flight simulator. Your training might also include a ride in a jet aircraft so you can get the feel of negative Gs. Closer to the day of your flight, solid foods will be taken off the menu to lessen the risk of space sickness. Throwing up in weightlessness is not a good look.

Closer to the day of your flight, solid foods will be taken off the menu to lessen the risk of space sickness. Throwing up in weightlessness is not a good look.

On launch day, you arrive at the space station and wait for the boarding call just like any passenger at an airport – except that you’re wearing a jumpsuit, carrying no luggage and don’t have to join a long queue because your spacecraft carries only seven passengers and two pilots.

It’s boarding time at last and, out on the runway, there she is – the V.S.S. Enterprise – attached to the belly of White Knight, the jet aircraft that will carry the Enterprise aloft before setting it free to roar into orbit.


The Enterprise is a scaled-up version of SpaceShipOne, designed by American aircraft builder Burt Rutan, winner of the $18 million Ansari X Prize, awarded by U.S. billionaire Peter Diamandis to the designer of the first privately built spacecraft to make suborbital flights. In 2004 Rutan’s ship completed two flights 112 kilometres above the Earth to claim the prize.


Inspired by Rutan’s work, Branson bought into the space project, and the Volkswagen-sized SpaceShipOne design was redeveloped as a larger craft. Still, it could hardly be described as roomy and there’s no point asking for an upgrade to business class. However, the cabin has been cunningly designed so that everyone gets a window seat.


As you strap yourself in, you note there’s no cabin crew to trundle a drinks trolley down the aisle. Not that there’s an aisle anyway. Nor is there a toilet, which explains the high-tech astro-nappy you’re wearing. Then again, the flight only lasts a couple of hours so holding on is hardly a big ask.


Artist's impression of a Virgin Galactic passenger floating in zero gravity

Taxiing now. Here we go! Take-off and it’s goodbye New Mexico. Climbing now. And climbing – to almost 17,000 metres. Grateful for those days of training, you brace yourself for the acceleration to 4Gs as the spacecraft is released.


Five, four, three, two, one, engage! There’s an almighty roar and a gut-wrenching lurch as the Enterprise’s rockets kick in and, free of the mothership, you blast into space at three times the speed of sound . . . faster than a speeding bullet.


You look out the window and it’s goodbye Earth. In less than 90 seconds, the daylight is gone and suddenly it’s blacker than black. Space.

You’re 112 kilometres above the Earth. The rocket engine cuts out and all is silent – or would be were it not for you and your fellow passengers yelling things like: “Is this bloody fantastic or what?”


Weightless, you float about the cabin, making the most of seven precious minutes of a sensation unlike any other. But the main attraction is the blue planet curving below, clear for thousands of kilometres in every direction.

Five, four, three, two, one, engage! There’s an almighty roar and a gut-wrenching lurch as the Enterprise’s rockets kick in and you blast into space faster than a speeding bullet.

Space travellers from Gagarin onwards have said the view of Earth from space is beyond exhilarating, spiritual even, and now you know exactly what they were on about.


All too soon, the ship begins its return to Earth. Your seat reclines for the rapid descent but, unlike astronauts in the space shuttle, you won’t be slamming into the atmosphere at the speed of a missile. The glider-like wings of the Enterprise turn upwards, allowing it to flutter back to Earth like a shuttlecock.


Then, at 15,000 metres, the wings turn downwards again and, as a cheer goes up – a mix of triumph and relief – the ship glides to a landing at the space port. Hello Earth, we’re back!


You step out grinning like Gagarin, wishing someone would rush up to you and ask: “Have you come from outer space?” And, like Gagarin, you’d proudly reply: “I certainly have.”


THE ASTRONAUTS


The passenger list on V.S.S. Enterprise‘s maiden flight will include Branson and his father Ted. Rumoured to have booked seats are Star Trek‘s William Shatner, famed as Captain Kirk of the ship’s fictional namesake, and Alien star Sigourney Weaver.

Wilson da Silva, among the first Australians to sign up as passengers on Virgin Galactic

But while Virgin will neither confirm nor deny those celebrity bookings, several Australians will definitely be boarding, including Virgin Blue chief executive Brett Godfrey and journalist Wilson da Silva, who edits the science magazine, COSMOS. As a child, da Silva would gaze into the night sky over Sydney and fantasise about going to space: “It’s one of those things you dreamed would never happen and now it’s happening to you,” he says.


Da Silva admits to being a little nervous. “There’s a 3 per cent non-return rate for going into space. That’s less than for climbing Mount Everest but much higher than for flying in an aeroplane.”


Still, it’s worth the risk and the fare. “It’s a such a technical challenge and something so few people have done,” he says. “The whole of humanity, the whole of human history is going to be down there, and I’ll be looking down at it saying: ‘Wow – I’m one of the few human beings to have done this’.”


Da Silva believes Virgin and other companies will make space travel affordable for many more people within 10 or 15 years. He compares it with the history of aviation.


“In the 1920s, only the very wealthy could afford it. But demand became so high and the technology and safety got so much better that 70 years later you can go 10 times around the world for the price of a car.”


Likewise, he expects the price of space travel to drop as private enterprise creates a market “not just for tourism, but it will open the door for a three-hour flight between Sydney and London”. And no more jet lag.



FIVE QUESTIONS YOU’RE DYING TO ASK ABOUT SPACE TOURISM

Q: How much does it cost?

A Of the space tourism outfits offering flights, the average is $200,000. That’s return, of course.

Q: Are any discount fares available?

A: No. Experts estimate that by 2014 market forces might reduce the price to about $100,000 but don’t expect it to get much lower in the near future.

Q: Can I use my frequent flyers?

A: Virgin is the only airline offering space miles for frequent flyer points. To earn a Virgin Galactic space flight you’ll need to rack up two million miles on earthly flights.

Q: Is there any truth to the rumour that space flight could cause breast implants to explode?

A: The MythBusters program tested the claim and declared it busted, but the only way to know for sure is to give Pamela Anderson a free ticket.

Q: Can I get a drink on board?

A: No, and don’t bother complaining. In space, no one can hear you scream.

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