Everyone has dreamt about being an astronaut, right? Floating above the Earth, looking down on the oceans, clouds and continents. Kicking up the dust as you bound across the magnificent desolation of the lunar landscape. Marvelling at the vast plains, canyons and mountains of Mars.
Fifty years ago that dream was beyond the reach of everyone except a few elite pilots – super-fit, super-humans brimming with patriotism and self-confidence. But now it seems not a week goes by without an opportunity being offered for a flight to Mars, mission to the Moon or a quick sub-orbital tourist trip.
So just how easy is it to become an astronaut? And do you still need the right stuff or just the right money? If you are currently considering a career as an astronaut, here some options:
1. Fly in a space plane
Following the successful atmospheric test of Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane and the stationary test-firing of rival XCOR Aerospace’s rocket motor the space tourism era is dawning. However, the costs of $200,000 per trip with Virgin or $95,000 with XCOR make this an option only for the extremely wealthy or well connected.
An opportunity to fly in the XCOR space plane was also recently offered in a competition run by the deodorant brand Lynx (known as Axe in the US). This proved more controversial than perhaps the organisers anticipated, after the campaign only targeted men to enter (I should declare an interest, my wife is through to the next UK round after a campaign to encourage women to take part). There are bound to be more competitions in future. Virgin, for example, is currently running one for members of its frequent flier programme, although only extremely frequent fliers need apply.
The obvious problem with space tourism is the amount of money required for a relatively short space experience. The planes will not make it into orbit, so you will only get a few minutes of weightlessness (with Virgin, for instance, you get six). The other issue is whether it really makes you an astronaut. The pilots of these planes are, most definitely, highly skilled, highly trained astronauts. But you are merely a passenger. Just as sitting at the back of a 747 does not make you an airline pilot, then sitting in the back of a spacecraft of these does not make you an astronaut.
The only current space tourism option that comes close to making you a real astronaut is to sign-up with Space Adventures for a 10-day trip to the International Space Station. And that costs $50 million. The good news is that if space tourism becomes successful, then the price of getting into space is likely to go down.
Qualifications: Money and/or luck
2. Join a one-way trip to Mars
Everyone’s talking about Mars One – the Dutch-led group that plans to send humans on a one-way trip to Mars. The project has a wildly optimistic timetable, suggesting establishing permanent habitation on Mars by 2023.
Launching its recruitment programme, the organisation claimed to be concerned with recruiting people for a range of abilities. “Gone are the days when bravery and the number of hours flying a supersonic jet were the top criteria,” said Norbert Kraft, Mars One’s Chief Medical Director. “We are more concerned with how well each astronaut lives and works with others and their ability to deal with a lifetime of challenges.” You will also need to be healthy, fit and probably have some useful practical skills.
If that sounds like you, then join the 78,000 people who have already applied. However, given that advisors include a creator of TV show Big Brother, and the project will be funded through selling broadcast rights of the endeavour, sceptics suggest that people who are entertaining on TV are more likely to be selected.