For nearly 40 years, space travel has been reserved for those with the right stuff. But with advances in flight technology, the idea of going beyond earthâ€™s limits doesnâ€™t seem so farfetched. In fact, sub-orbital flight may be possible by 2003—at least for those who can afford it. "My guess is that space tourism is going to become a reality in our lifetime," says Yoji Kondo, a NASA astrophysicist who is a veteran of the Apollo and Skylab programs.
Why Space Tourism?
Space travel as we know it costs an astronomical amount of money, so a number of companies are in the process of creating a new generation of space vehicles—called reusable launch vehicles—that are cheaper and can be used more than just once. The problem for these companies is that the new spacecraft will still be expensive enough that manufacturing them only for the few satellite launches and space missions that do happen in a year is not feasible. And the most obvious area for profit is that of passenger travel.
The demand apparently is there. A 1997 survey by Yankelovich Partners of Connecticut found that approximately 40 million Americans would be interested in a two-week space shuttle vacation. And approximately 29 million of them would be willing to pay up to $10,000 to do it. The Japanese are even more anxious to venture into outer space: a 1993 study by the National Aerospace Laboratories and the University of Tokyo showed that 70 per cent were interested in space travel.
Even now, people are eager to get a taste of what space travel is like. Thereâ€™s a space camp in Belgium, and companies like Space Adventures in Arlington, VA and Incredible Adventures in Sarasota, FL offer parabolic flights aboard jet aircraft that allow customers to experience brief periods of weightlessness (cost: $4,980). For $11,900, itâ€™s possible to board a Russian MIG-25 Foxbat aircraft and fly more than twice the speed of sound to an altitude of 80,000 feet. (At that level the sky is black and the curvature of the earth is visible.) And for those who like to plan ahead, Space Adventures is currently accepting reservations for sub-orbital flights beginning sometime between 2003 and 2005, at a cost of $98,000.
If that seems like a lot of money, consider that the costs will go down as time passes. According to a study released in 1998 by NASA called General Public Space Travel and Tourism, the cost of a shuttle trip to and from earthâ€™s orbit for 6 people is currently $400 million. But that cost could be reduced by a factor of ten with the next generation of technology and by another factor of ten with the following generation. Prices will keep going down in a trend much like the one seen with the development of commercial aviation. Eventually, at a cost of a few thousand dollars, space travel is expected to be affordable to the average citizen.
If space travel becomes as widespread as some predict, it could become a lucrative business. Considering that the commercial aviation industry is now worth about $250 billion, itâ€™s easy to see the potential for space travel. But even though space exploration has traditionally been controlled by the government, experts, including Kondo, say itâ€™s unlikely that taxpayer money will be the main source of funding for space tourism. Since NASA spends only a small percentage of its budget on reusable launch vehicles—the only kind that will make repeated space travel possible—its likely that private industry will take the lead in commercial space travel.
Although Kondo says sub-orbital flights are easier to achieve technologically, orbital flights will be the key to attracting customers. The X PRIZE foundation of St. Louis, MO is offering a $10 million prize to the company that designs the first private spaceship that successfully launches three people into a sub-orbital flight in two consecutive flights within two weeks. Currently 17 teams from around the world are competing for the prize.
What Should We Expect?
Spaceships of the future may take several forms. They may be triangular like airplanes or cylindrical like rockets, and may take off and land either vertically or horizontally. Some may even be towed by other vehicles to high altitudes.
Space travel may eventually become more than just orbiting the earth in a rocket ship, however. Hilton Hotels announced in September that it was looking into the feasibility of a space hotel, and Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America lodging chain, has formed a company called Bigelow Aerospace (with a committed $500 million) to try and build a space "cruise ship" that would fly to the moon and back. The Shimizu Corporation of Japan plans to have a hotel in orbit by the year 2020.
Activities on such ships might include zero-gravity sports, space gardening or space walks. But once youre up there, its likely youll find that just looking at the Earth and beyond will suffice. "Once you get up there your whole world changes," says William Burrows, author of This New Ocean. "Astronaut after astronaut, including Buzz Aldrin, have made the point that you can see so much more in terms of stars and the greater universe from beyond the Earthâ€™s atmosphere." If space travel research proceeds as quickly as predicted, soon we may no longer have to take their word for it.How much would you pay to travel in space?
Let us know Elsewhere on the web:
Info on space tourism from Space Future
Info about NASAâ€™s space launch initiative
The Space Frontier Foundation
The National Spaceflight Training Center
Space Tourism Initiative