FYI: When will the general public be able to travel into space?
It's nearly 2008, and if Hollywood and many science-fiction writers had got it right we would already be jetting off to the moon for lunar walks and games of zero-gravity tennis.
But paying your way into space is still impossible for all but a few wealthy exceptions. Even the millions of dollars shelled out by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth can buy only a few days on the cramped and clunky International Space Station, hardly a well-heeled traveller's ideal escape.
Flamboyant Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson made headlines with a pledge to launch commercial space flights next year, but they will cost US$200,000 a head and will push passengers into zero gravity for a mere six minutes. The nascent space-tourism industry has also been hit by some high-profile incidents, inviting questions about its viability. Top orbital-vehicle developer Rocketplane just missed out on some crucial funding from United States space agency Nasa and a fatal explosion has cast a pall over Scaled Composites, one of the chief suppliers to Branson's Virgin Galactic project.
Less affluent holidaymakers with their sights set on the stars could be forgiven for consigning dreams of new travel frontiers to the dustbin, but there's still cause for hope. Several well-funded organisations, including the Space Tourism Society and the Japanese Rocket Society, have taken it upon themselves to advance the cause of affordable space travel for the masses. And Nasa is due early next year to pick some private companies to provide it with cost-effective 'commercial orbital transportation' capable of shuttling astronauts - and tourists, perhaps - to the International Space Station and beyond. Moscow-based First Czech-Russian Bank has expressed its willingness to offer special loans to would-be cosmonauts.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for the future of space tourism is that demand is strong and growing. In an online poll by 'extreme holiday' specialist Incredible Adventures, two-thirds of respondents expressed a desire to travel into space. The survey also indicated the business would really 'take off' if the average price of a suborbital flight dropped to a still intimidating US$25,000.
Inevitably, a host of corporations and governments
are beginning to line up for a piece of the action, with 'spaceports' under construction everywhere from Oklahoma to Singapore. A few brave voices, such as Spanish venture Galactic Suite, are promising the first resorts in space within five years and for these to be 'accessible to the general public', well, sometime later. Two Japanese firms, Nishimatsu Construction and Shimizu Space Systems, are known to be looking into the design and construction of hotels and recreational facilities on the moon's surface.
Patrick Collins, a leading academic in the space- tourism field and a senior partner at Space Future Consulting, seems to have settled on 2030 as the year extraterrestrial travel will come into its own, provided a cheapish passenger service to space is launched by 2013 or so. If that happens, Collins believes the result could be 5 million passengers leaving the confines of Earth each year, and a semi-permanent 'orbital population' of 70,000 running dozens of free-floating sports centres, a couple of hotels at the moon's poles, even thriving lunar water export businesses.
But even with all this on the horizon, space probably won't be for everybody. The hefty US$4 million price tag for a three-day stay at Galactic Suite's planned property includes weeks of pre-departure training, emphasising the need for any budding spacemen (and women) to be in peak physical condition.