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Space tourism closer than you may think
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Arrow  Astronauts are not the only ones who’ve soared to the heavens in rocket-powered vehicles: a handful of rich civilian ‘space tourists’ have done the same, but they have paid millions of euros for the privilege. Now, entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic are targeting affordable mass-market commercial flights into space before the end of this decade.

SpaceShipOne approaches Mojave airport; Image © Scaled Composites
SpaceShipOne approaches Mojave airport; Image © Scaled Composites
One of the most famous images in film history involves space travel: Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of humankind’s transition in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ from primitive tool – a bone – to futuristic ‘space-liner’ shuttling between Earth and a geostationary hotel. Though its prediction of routine civilian space travel by the first year of this century was wrong, the 1968 film was not too far off the mark: by most estimates the world will see space tourism developing in a significant way by 2020.

Both European and American entities are now tailoring long-term development plans around the assumption that advances in vehicle design and fuel efficiency, as well as rising demand, will enable a large-scale and profitable space tourism industry.

It won’t be as cheap as today’s air travel – at first. After all, commercial air flight for its first three decades was an expensive mode of transportation used only by the well-to-do. It was only in the late 1950s that the use of large-bodied commercial aircraft became widespread, when lowered airfares brought air travel within reach of a mass market.

Entrepreneurs seize the initiative

Though very few people have the means to shell out €20 million for a trip to the International Space Station, as one American and one South Africa businessman did a couple of years ago, there are enough rich tourists who might pay a fraction of that to do something similar. And to do it a lot sooner than 2020.

The UK’s Sir Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic, is teaming up with legendary US aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, for example, to exploit the technology in Rutan’s SpaceShipOne engine and prototype space shuttle. The unprecedented project was intended to demonstrate the viability of commercial space flight and open the door for space tourism.

SpaceShipOne at forefront

The plane, with its striking nose – a pointed cone covered with small portholes – was designed by Burt Rutan and built with more than $20 million in funding from billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. One 4 October 2004, burning rocket fuel for 80 seconds, SpaceShipOne sped up to more than Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound) and then coasted to its peak altitude, making Melvill weightless.

SpaceShipOne Pilots: clockwise from top left: Brian Binnie, Pete Siebold, Douglas Shane, Mike Melvill; Image © Bill Deaver
SpaceShipOne Pilots: clockwise from top left: Brian Binnie, Pete Siebold, Douglas Shane, Mike Melvill; Image © Bill Deaver
Speaking to reporters, Rutan said, “I absolutely have to develop a space tourism system that is at least 100 times safer than anything that has flown man into space, and probably significantly more than that.”

Branson’s goal is now to launch a space tourism business, dubbed ‘Virgin Galactic’, by 2007. The price for a trip to see the stars won’t be cheap – at least €100,000 – but the British magnate obviously thinks there are enough rich tourists to create a real and sustainable market.

Whether he and others – several US entrepreneurs are now eyeing the same market and timeframe – can make a profit remains to be seen. A lot of thinking still has to go into the design of a re-useable shuttle or space taxi that is safer, more fuel efficient and more manoeuvrable than today’s current generation of space shuttles. Instead of landing on an endless stretch of salt-flats in Nevada, a more manoeuvrable vehicle is needed to glide into smaller and more conveniently located ‘space ports’ closer to major population centres.

Not true outer space, but outer enough

What pioneering space tourists will get in a few years will be the thrill of deep space without the ‘deep’. Early commercial shuttles will be designed to carry passengers to sub-orbital altitudes – just below the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere. The reason is cost: it is prohibitively expensive to hoist tourist payloads into true orbit around the planet, but fairly cheap to reach sub-orbital trajectories.

Though a sub-orbital flight’s duration will be limited, passengers will see the same stark beauty of outer space as astronauts do. They will see the curvature of the Earth and experience the thrill of weightlessness. Frequent flyer miles to be determined.

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