Welcome To Near Space

 

Space tourism can be defined as civilian space travel for recreational or, more often, business promotional purposes. Opportunities for full orbital space flight tourism have been few and far between, not to mention very expensive. So far, the Russian Space Agency has been the only organisation to take ‘tourists’ into space, and they seem to have left the market after Guy Laliberté’s £24 million flight in 2009. Russia had announced intention to resume tourist flights in 2013, but none have taken place yet.

The Chinese Shenzhou orbital vehicle is being discussed as a possible route for tourists into orbital space, but as of yet no trips have been announced or even seriously planned, leaving would-be space tourists without a route to orbit. The good news for hopeful private space explorers is that quite a few start-up companies have already sprung up to serve this rarefied market recently.

List of all space tourists so far

Name                              Year Of Trip    Cost                                                Duration

Dennis Tito                       2001                USD 20 million                              8 days

Mark Shuttleworth          2002                USD 20 million                              11 days

Gregory Olsen                 2005                USD 20 million                               11 days

Anousheh Ansari            2006                 USD 20 million                              12 days

Charles Simonyi             2007 & 2009   USD 60 million (total)                   29 days (total)

Richard Garriott             2008                 USD 30 million                              12 days

Guy Laliberté                  2009                USD 40 million                               11 days

 

Suborbital flights

A suborbital flight is one in which the spacecraft reaches space, commonly defined as 100 kilometres or 62 miles above the earth, but does not make one full orbit before returning. No organisation has yet made a suborbital flight carrying a tourist, but the price for this service is expected to be a lot lower than for that of an orbital excursion, so several companies feel that the market is ready for it. Some organisations already offer flights to altitudes around 20 kilometres, and it has been said that it “certainly felt like space” at that height.

Most experts estimate that suborbital space tourism will cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $200,000 or £120,000. At literally 1/20th the price of a Soyuz trip to the International Space Station, they should in fact see more takers.

Most of the early suborbital excursions will be a lot more ‘hands on’ than a jet flight today. Though there are several programs in development, most of them will ferry a single passenger at a time past (most) of the atmosphere, giving them a full co-pilot’s view of the adventure. In fact, you won’t be a ‘passenger’ at all, but rather a trained co-pilot with actual flight responsibilities. After all, for the price of a summer home up north, you’ll want more than a side-facing view out of an 8-inch foggy window.

After the first few trailblazing flights, something more like a luxury passenger service is expected to be available. One of the vehicles to be used, for example, is a proposed design by well-known winner of the Ansari X Prize Burt Rutan that will take six passengers on ‘black sky’ flights to experience microgravity in extreme luxury. It doesn’t have quite the same cachet as suiting up in a Russian vacuum suit and helping to fly the ship, but it does sound a lot more civilised.

Another interesting vehicle uses ultra-high altitude balloon technology to take up to four privately funded astronauts to exclusive heights amidst Michelin-starred meals and a 360 degree view.

Why space tourism is important

It is easy to dismiss recreational space flight as a ‘rich boy’s adventure’, but it serves an important role in the development of private, industrial space travel. Currently, there are perhaps 70 to 80 private, commercial space launches every year. In contrast, more commercial passenger jets take off from Earth’s runways every minute. It is this huge flight volume that keeps air travel inexpensive, and practical for freight and passengers alike.

As space and near-space tourism becomes more common and, one hopes even commonplace, the cost per flight will plummet dramatically. The services offering excursions in planes, rockets, balloons and vehicles as yet undreamt-of will cease to be daring, pioneering ventures and become profit-making enterprises able to support their own experimental offshoots and technological innovations. Only once we, as a planet, develop this kind of access-to-space infrastructure can we become anything like a spacefaring civilisation in fact.

Near space (or edge of space) travel has become a reality in our lifetime!

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