It’s the ultimate experience – an event that will change your life. And whether you’re a billionaire, millionaire or just incredibly wealthy, the space tourism industry has something to offer. So far, only seven space tourists have flown in space but, all being well, over the next couple of years that’s going to change. Big time. And, if you’ve got the money, you could be part of it.
I’m not going to pretend the experience will be cheap but whether you want a quick sub-orbital thrill, a week staring out of the window of the International Space Station (ISS) or a daring mission to the far side of the Moon, it’s going to be considerably cheaper than it was for Nasa.
Neither is it without its risks. Even today, there is nothing routine about spaceflight. Some of these companies are relying on tried and tested Russian spacecraft but the others are stretching new technology to its limits. Just hope you’re not on board when those limits are discovered.
But, if you’ve saved your money and signed the waiver form, here’s what you can expect from a selection of the major players in this fledgling market.
Mission: Space is Virgin Territory
The experience: After a few days of training alongside your five fellow crewmembers, you don your spacesuit and take your seat in the VSS Enterprise rocket plane. Slung beneath the wings of the WhiteKnight Two twin-hulled aircraft, your rocket is carried 50,000 ft (15,000m) into the clear skies over the Mojave Desert. With everything checked out, WhiteKnight releases Enterprise, the pilot hits the start button and you’re thrust back into your seat as the rocket powers into space.
After the engines have cut off, it’ll be completely silent (apart from the exclamations from your fellow passengers) and you’ll have around five to six minutes of weightlessness when you’re free to float around the cabin and peer out of the large windows to the Earth below. Then it’s back to your seat, as gravity takes over and the spacecraft descends– at some speed – to land back on the runway.
What they say: “It has been specifically designed to give as many people as possible, an affordable, fantastic experience,” Virgin Galactic commercial director, Stephen Attenborough, tells me. “It’s the astronaut experience, so it’s the rocket ride to space, it’s having a big cabin that you can float around in zero gravity, it’s got big windows, so you’ve got fantastic views of Earth, it’s all run by Virgin so you’ll have a fantastic experience and you’ll come back an astronaut!”
Wow factor: 8/10
Warped factor: 6/10
Verdict: It’s likely to happen in the near future and is certainly going to be a thrill-ride. But it might leave would-be astronauts wanting more.
SPACE EXPEDITION CORPORATION (SXC)
Mission: A life changing experience
The experience: SXC are working with XCOR Aerospace, the developers of the Lynx suborbital space plane. Equipped with four rocket engines, the plane is designed to take off and land on a runway. What’s neat about these engines is that they can be ignited and shut down at any time during flight. However, the Lynx has yet to fly.
As a passenger on board, you will be strapped into the cockpit at the front alongside the pilot. After take off, the plane will climb rapidly at three times the speed of sound to 58km (36 miles) above the Earth. At that point, the pilot will shut off the engines and let the plane coast upwards for another 40km (25 miles) as you start to descend in an arc back towards the Earth. You’ll experience around 4Gs of force as the plane re-enters the atmosphere, before it glides back for a horizontal landing.
What they say: “I’d offer you a pinnacle life event,” says XCOR chief operating officer, Andrew Nelson when I ask him what they’re selling. “I’d offer you excitement, I’d offer you adventure, I’d offer you some wonderful experiences…but really at the heart and soul of it we’d offer you the opportunity to explore who you are and what you’re made of.” And, he adds, in a gentle dig at his competitors: “you’re not at the back of the bus with windows, you’re right up front…if you get on an airplane and you’d rather turn to the left than the right, then you’re probably a good customer for us.”
Wow factor: 7/10
Warped factor: 8/10
Verdict: Virgin on steroids but you don’t get to float around the cabin. The plane hasn’t flown yet.
Mission: Delivering spaceflight experiences.
The experience: Space Adventures is the only company with a track record in space tourism. So far they’ve flown eight missions and seven astronauts (one person flew twice) to the ISS. Clients fly as passengers in Soyuz spacecraft alongside fully trained cosmonauts. Soyuz is the world’s most reliable – and now only –manned spacecraft.
Before being allowed to fly, you’ll have to pass tough medical exams and undergo months of training for Soyuz and the ISS. You may also have to learn Russian. Assuming you pass the tests, you’ll blast off – alongside two professional cosmonauts – from the historic Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
After a couple of days in orbit, your capsule will dock with the ISS and you’ll get to spend more than a week on board. Participants have used this opportunity to try experiments or work on education projects. Every astronaut who’s flown on the ISS has recommended spending as much time as possible looking out of the window at the Earth. Although you’ll be treated well by the professional astronauts and cosmonauts, Nasa has been quite disapproving of these flights in the past and this may cause you problems. When your time in orbit is at an end, you’ll return in the Soyuz capsule for a bumpy landing somewhere in Kazakhstan.
Space Adventures also offers parabolic “weightless” experiences in specially converted aircraft and is planning suborbital flights, as well as an ambitious mission beyond Earth orbit to circle around the Moon.
What they say: “You’re 250 miles above the Earth, going around the Earth every 90 minutes, an absolutely spectacular experience,” and with that, Tom Shelly, president of Space Adventures, really doesn’t have to add anything.
Cost: $50 million
Wow factor: 9/10
Warped factor: 7/10
Verdict: How much?!? You’ll have to commit to months of training. The only company that’s actually done it.
Mission: Engage, Explore, Inspire
The experience: extraordinary name, extraordinary plans. Excalibur Almaz Limited is a private company based on the Isle of Man – a small island off the west coast of Britain. Here, it has some serious ex-Russian space hardware including two space stations (similar to the Russian modules of the ISS) and four ex-Soviet military reusable space capsules.
This is no ordinary space tourism company, Excalibur Almaz plans to launch the first private space station and, by fitting its habitation modules with engines, to support expeditions around the Moon and even beyond. Each module is six times the size of Nasa’s Orion capsule, which will make them the biggest manned spacecraft ever launched.
What they say: “We’re in the business of private expeditions into outer space,” explains company chairman, Art Duler, who says he wants to make Britain a “spacefaring society”.
“The great discoveries of the 21st Century haven’t been made yet, they will be made in space – there’s no doubt about that.”
The ultimate mission is to travel beyond Earth’s orbit to a Lagrange point – the positions in space where gravitational forces balance out – and then loop back around the Moon. “It’ll take about six to eight months, it’s a real exploration of discovery to specific places that have great scientific interest. This is a bespoke charter mission to beyond the Moon…one for the history books I think.”
Funded by the astronauts who take part, or anyone who wants to sponsor them, this isn’t going to be cheap.
Cost: $100 million a seat (three available)
Wow factor: 10/10
Warped factor: 10/10
Verdict: This is hugely ambitious but, if it happens, it’ll put the world’s space agencies to shame.