With an early crop of pioneering commercial explorers offering tourism options that are truly out of this world, our dreams of conquering space are no longer a million miles away. We take a look at how realistic this adventure is
First, the sky turns a dark blue, then a deep purple and, finally, a velvety black. Now the roar of the rocket engine, situated behind the craft’s passengers, draws to a halt while the hissing sound of the atmosphere, swishing along the spacecraft’s exterior, fizzles away into nothingness. Pouring in through the portholes that are embedded in wall and ceiling, the sun’s rays convey a cosmic calm. No sound exists outside of this cramped and manned capsule. Space is quiet. Inside, people are already floating above their seats while Earth rises on the horizon, or so journalist Richard Scotts describes the effect in his riveting BBC video.
Fifteen kilometres above our home planet marks the cruising altitude of intercontinental aircraft. Once SpaceShipTwo undocks from its carrier, it fires up its rocket engine and shoots straight up at a speed of 3,500 km/h – a literally breathtaking take-off in mid-air. A force of 300 kilogrammes punches the passengers into their seats before this oppressive sensation is replaced by soothing, exhilarating zero gravity.
This is how today’s private space travel begins. For 200,000 dollars, and after three days of intense physical training, you are ready to enter a six-person spacecraft to experience our planet from 110 km above in its inestimable size and glory.
This new class of travelling is currently extolled and advertised by firms like Virgin Galactic or SpaceAdventures. After NASA’s abandonment of the Space Shuttle programme, more and more private companies are starting to get in on the act of manned space travel, often in cooperation with experienced pioneers like, among others, Boeing. At the time of writing, a total of eight private space ports in the USA are vying for future travellers, while imposing structures like New Mexico’s Spaceport America already hint at and herald the mission’s exciting reality.
But what is behind this yearning for the incredible infinity of space? After all, the universe is nothing but emptiness; mainly vacuum filled with a few smaller and larger aggregations of hot gases and rocks. For most of us, it is the thought and sensation of space itself that fascinates, the way it opens up in the guise of the Milky Way’s twisted band of stars and saturates the air with adventure.
Reaching for the stars has become synonymous with fantastic human undertakings. Now we are truly within reach of these celestial bodies, short of actually touching them. Mavericks like Virgin’s Richard Branson and Burt Rutan, developer of the first ever private spacecraft SpaceShipOne, have opened up a new market that is bound to leave its mark on our everyday existence in the next few years. In this, the acceleration of technological developments as well as the establishment of a network of space ports make for a necessary first step…before we take the suborbital shuttle from New York to LA in 12 minutes – shorter than the average subway ride.
At the same time, this phenomenon transcends mere examples of technological excellence. It all boils down to bona fide innovation, accompanying a new way of thinking and motivated by a modern world view that could become the concept, motto and mantra of a future culture: “It is not good enough for us to have generations of kids that…look forward to a better version of a cell phone with a video in it. They need to look forward to exploration“, or so Burt Rutan explains as part of his popular TED talk.
In a way, the success of this industry could determine the future of an entire species. Already, countless of research groups, some of them from the realm of biotech, are frequent names on the flight roster of today’s private spacecraft companies. Zero gravity helps biologists to observe certain steps of cell division en detail and thus allows them to get a few decisive steps closer to identifying and understanding the causes of serious illnesses like cancer. Science in general expects to make rapid advances thanks to this newly accessible research environment. Even Google aims to land its own Rover on the moon, while intrepid historians want to use the technology – with a little help from NASA – to conserve the Apollo 11 landing site for posterity.
Meanwhile, improved visibility and thus increased and growing demand, leads to a fall in ticket prices. While the first eager passengers had to shell out several million dollars to enjoy a moment or two in orbit, today’s prices hover around a “mere” 200,000 dollars. A clear trend, but “there is no magic wand out there to wave and reduce the cost of space access by a factor of 10 or 100“, adds Jeff Foust, analyst at Futron Corp, in an article by Space Travel magazine. In an interview with the BBC Matt Stinemetze of the space travel company Scaled Composites adds: “I think that in the first year or two, the goal of this programme is to carry maybe thousands of people into space. So, it is just a game changer. Everybody will know somebody who has been into space in the next 20 years!“
En route to space, however, an unknown number of dangers await; dangers associated with lengthy stays in zero gravity. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for example, considers space travel inherently dangerous. Nevertheless, firms like Boeing and Bigelow are currently developing medium-sized space stations modelled on the ISS for later commercial use. Scattered throughout near-Earth space and in constant orbit around our planet, they will form a loose ring of high-tech research centres that could also double as unofficial space hotels. As of 2016, life promises to get easier – well, lighter – for overtaxed hotel pages while free-floating utensils might become the nightmare of onboard cleaning crews. To accommodate space getaways, the entire industry requires a radical rethink: In zero gravity, serving a simple bowl of rice or adding sugar to a cup of coffee calls for culinary and scientific extravagance. At the same time, space carries the promise of a becoming a veritable anti-ageing oasis – while the ageing process has been proved to progress slower in orbit than on Earth’s surface, the laws of physics make smoking in a weightless environment an impossible feat.
By now, space tourism is no longer the sole domain of the capricious extreme super rich. Experts like Stephen Hawking even consider the colonisation of space a human necessity: In future, cosmic threats, like asteroids crossing our planet’s orbit or interstellar gamma rays, could turn us into involuntary exiles. But until then we get to explore our solar system like history’s brave mariners and seafaring folk – across a sea with no known beginning or end.
For more information about the private space ports in the United States, please visit the website of the Federal Aviation Administration.