When the sky is no longer the limit

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 August, 2011, 12:00am


On July 21, the space shuttle Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the last time. After 30 years, 135 missions and countless billions of dollars spent, the space shuttle programme was finally retired.

Each of the four remaining space shuttles; Atlantis, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavour, have been deemed too expensive and important to send to the scrapyard. So they're being dusted down, covered in what one can only imagine as bubble wrap of massive proportions, and carted off to various museums across the US to be gawped at by the next generation of schoolchildren on field trips.

The end of the space shuttle programme comes at a time when governments, the media and the public are starting to question the exploration of space and spending billions of dollars on abstract and incremental scientific discoveries during one of the worst global recessions in history. Yet the crisis has been the occasion rather than the cause of the current disinterest in space travel. The end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union removed the larger impetus for the American space programme, as many realised that the space race wasn't much fun with only one superpower taking part.

Yet all is not lost; the popularity of space programmes continue in emerging superpower nations such as China and India, which are keen to expand their telecommunications infrastructure to cater to the swelling ranks of customers eager for their fix of streaming live Premier League football, Bollywood and 24-hour music channels. The inherent prestige in blasting bits of metal into space is also not lost on the second tier of emerging nations such as Indonesia and Mexico that have got in on the act in recent years.

The real saviour of space travel may be the burgeoning space tourism industry. Derided by Nasa and frowned upon by all but the Russians, space tourism is now with us - provided you have the money.

Space tourism has actually been around for more than 20 years, since the cash-strapped Russian space programme started looking at ways to bridge the funding gap in the 1990s. A joint venture between the Russian Federal Space Agency and the private American company Space Adventures was established and, at the turn of the millennium, began selling flights on the Russian Soyuz aircraft for visits to the International Space Station for reported fares of least US$20 million.

American businessman Dennis Tito became the first paying 'pace guest' in April 2001 when he was taken on board the space station for eight days. Since Tito, six space tourists from around the globe be have paid for a holiday in the heavens, spending up to two weeks on the station, enjoying literally out-of-this-world views.

Space Adventures' flights to the station are on hold until at least 2013 as the available seats to it are taken by real Russian cosmonauts. Space Adventures is still the only company to have sent paying customers into space but the company creating the most noise is Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. Branson appears to have lost interest in balloons and planes and is fixated on making space tourism a cost-effective commercial reality in the coming years. Virgin Galactic has promised much but delivered little thus far with start dates continually pushed back. However, that has not stopped the company taking bookings for its first suborbital flights that reach just over the defined boundary of space - 100 kilometres in altitude - giving the occupants of the craft a few minutes of weightlessness. A ride upon the Virgin space ship (VSS) Enterprise and VSS Voyager ships costs a cool US$200,000 and so far 400 individuals (not just Star Trek nerds) have stumped up the 10 per cent deposit to book their flights, which Virgin Galactic hopes will occur next year.

Not to be outdone, Space Adventures has linked up with Boeing to sell seats on the latter's CST-100 space capsule for prices just north of US$100,000, but again these flights are not expected to happen until next year at the earliest.

The competition between Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures could lead to prices dropping if the demand for suborbital flights proves strong, with some experts believing it could fall as low as US$50,000 - but that still makes suborbital flights the world's most expensive, and short-term, weight-loss programme.

Both space flight operators have big plans for lunar mission flights that could cost up to a whopping US$100 million and last more than two weeks, but launch dates for these packages are sketchy and it may take another decade for plans to become reality.

To many, the idea of paying hundreds of thousands or even millions simply to experience weightlessness and stare into the big black void may seem extravagant, but there is a burgeoning market of mega-rich amateur astronauts just aching to blast off as soon as the technology allows them. And for those of us who still believe in classical economics, upward demand would drive supply up and prices down, meaning that, in future, spending time in the stars might be a real alternative to a relatively humdrum two-week holiday in the Maldives.