Up Up and Away!

23 January 2012

Fun fact: Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, became the first person to make it into space in April 1961. Gagarin orbited the Earth for just under two hours in the Vostok 1 capsule, and while he might not have been considered a space tourist, he did enjoy the view.Scroll to the bottom of the article for Starting Points related to this article.

Anyone who’s ever watched Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey can’t help but have been struck by how casually the film’s characters board interplanetary spacecraft. They settle back for a long flight, pretty much the way you might do on your way to Florida for spring break.

While the new millennium came and went without Clarke’s vision being realized, the kind of everyday space travel depicted in his classic may not be as unattainable as it seemed just a few short years ago.

Within the past decade, the notion of space tourism has gone from fantasy to reality, at least in a limited way.

After NASA landed on the moon for the last time in 1972, the idea of space travel sort of fell by the wayside. But it was rejuvenated again in the mid-1990s, when the idea for a contest aimed at building the first private space vehicles was born.

The contest stipulated that the winning spacecraft would have to make two successful flights to an altitude of 100 kilometres within two weeks. The X PRIZE, which later became the Ansari X PRIZE, was won in October 2004 by Scaled Composites and their SpaceShipOne craft.

Since then, a number of different companies have been working on building reusable spacecraft capable of sending eager tourists into space – for a price. But the Russians beat them to the punch.

Fun fact: If future space tourists want to really get away and leave it all behind, they’re going to have to buckle and hold on for the ride of their lives. To escape the pull of the Earth’s gravity and get outside of Earth orbit, a spacecraft needs to travel at the incredible speed of 11.2 km/s, or more than 40,000 km/h. The good news: at least you’ll reach your destination in time for dinner.

While it wasn’t exactly A Space Odyssey, Dennis Tito, a 60-year-old California businessman and former JPL scientist, did become the world’s first space tourist in April 2001, when he paid US$20-million for an eight-day visit to the International Space Station.

Originally scheduled to visit the now-defunct Russian space station Mir, Tito’s hefty airfare was a welcome boost to the financially struggling Russian space program. After extensive training, Tito accompanied two cosmonauts on a Russian Soyuz capsule as part of a space station mission.

Since then, the American company Space Adventures Ltd., the only private spaceflight company that’s actually brought paying customers into space so far, has worked with the Russian Aviation and Space Agency and Russia’s leading aerospace company to send another four very wealthy individuals to the space station, the most recent in April of this year.

Those contemplating spending the fortune for a glimpse of the Earth will be happy to know that soon, passengers will have the chance to nearly double their time in space and perform their very own spacewalk. Space Adventures will offer customers the chance to spend 90 minutes outside of the space station while floating 400 kilometres above the Earth – all for a mere $15-million, on top of the $20-million base cost, of course.

In the past few years, private companies have started catching up with the Russians, and while they might not offer the full-fledged space station experience, the suborbital flights they’re planning have their own advantages, too.

One of the leading enterprises is Virgin Galactic. Richard Branson’s plans for a “spaceport” in New Mexico gotFun fact: Famous physicist Stephen Hawking enjoyed a mini weightless vacation in April aboard Zero Gravity’s G-Force One plane, a modified Boeing 727 that lets its passengers experience a few minutes of weightlessness while it makes steep parabolic dives. The company has flown about 2,700 paying customers out of Florida since 2004. the go-ahead in April, with Spaceport America scheduled to start operating by the end of 2009. Virgin Galactic has even chosen a Dubai-based travel agency as its sales agent. Trips will last about three hours and cost about US$200,000 – not exactly chump change, but far more affordable than a trip to the space station.

Other companies are getting in the game, too. Interorbital Systems plans on using a Tongan island for its spaceport and hopes to offer commercial suborbital flights in the next year or two, along with companies like Starchaser, Blue Origin and Rocketplane Limited.

Canada seems ready to jump on board, too. The Canadian Space Agency, along with 13 other organizations, released the Global Exploration Strategy last month, which details the agencies’ shared vision for space exploration in the 21st century. Included in the strategy is the idea of “space hotels” where space tourists can stay while enjoying a vacation on the moon.

But there are no plans for a convenience store yet, so be sure to remember to pack your toothbrush.

Learn More!

Global Exploration Strategy

Virgin Galactic

Stephan Hawking in “Space”

Dennis Tito in Space

Suzanne Taylor holds a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from the University of Toronto and recently began a Masters of Journalism program at the University of Western Ontario, where she hopes to be able to put her sharp tongue and superior wit to use. In addition to astronomy and writing, she enjoys photography, travel, and spending time with parrots.


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