Commercial space flights gearing-up for lift-off

Suborbital space flights are just the beginning of a new frontier for the tourism industry, writes Jamie Carter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 August, 2013, 9:42am

Most of us have read "1,001 places to visit before you die" and other such morbidly titled lists. But none of these yet include a trip to suborbital space. Yet space is the travel industry's next big destination - and those suborbital holidays may be starting sooner than you think.

So far Virgin Galactic, part owned by British industrialist Richard Branson, has gathered more than HK$500 million in deposits from 600 people intent on a ride on its SpaceShipTwo. It will carry six passengers at a time on an "out-of-the-seat" zero-gravity experience into the black of space at a cost of HK$1.9 million for a two-hour trip.

That price includes training at a centrifuge facility and zero-gravity parabolic flights. It might sound outrageously expensive, but fewer than 600 people have ever visited space. So doubling that figure, however long it takes, will represent a giant leap for mankind.

Virgin Galactic will become the world's first commercial "spaceline" when its first passenger flight takes off. That may happen later this year. But although it's tempting to do so, don't confuse space flight with a ride in a very high aircraft.

The figures underline the difference; while a commercial airline cruises at 11 kilometres, SpaceShipTwo will breach the 100 kilometre Kármán line - the division between the earth's atmosphere and space - to reach an altitude of 110 kilometres.

It's an expensive place to visit, largely because you have to be travelling at 16,000 km/h to reach it. Testing is still in progress, but in April, Virgin Galactic completed its first rocket-powered flight - which including supersonic Mach 1.2 speeds - from its base at Spaceport America in Mojave, New Mexico.

SpaceShipTwo was launched by piggy-backing on carrier craft WhiteKnightTwo. The two crafts separated at 14,325 metres, and the rocket motor was fired for 16 seconds propelling SpaceShip Two to 16,765 metres. But that's far short of the Kármán line.

Still, it looks likely that the Virgin ticket holders - rumoured to include Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Rubens Barrichello, as well as Branson and his children - will soon kick-start a new trend in travel. If you want to join them, head down to Miramar Travel in Causeway Bay Plaza, an accredited "Space Agent", to buy your ticket.

Virgin Galactic isn't the only company preparing out-of-this-world itineraries. The Space Expedition Corporation, also based at Spaceport America, is charging HK$736,000 per ticket for each of just two seats in its liquid rocket-powered Lynx vehicle. This takes off alone and lands horizontally.

That price includes medical screening and G-force training, even though the Lynx offers a flight of just 45 minutes, which includes just a few minutes in space. It could be visiting space four times a day from next year.

A third option comes from SHIPinSPACE UK, which initially plans to take 48 - and eventually 96 - passengers on a weekly outing to the edge of space in a liquid rocket engine-powered suborbital plane. The design, by three aerospace engineers, features three floors of four pods, each carrying four passengers, at an initial cost of HK$388,000 per passenger.

"We are looking to launch within five years," says Rob Lowe, head of SHIPinSPACE UK (CEO Fabrizio Boer is in charge of the actual vehicle). "We have the technology to host a large number of passengers, and a new space industry will take place after our enterprise."

SHIPinSPACE UK, which is hoping to launch from Britain, is part of a trend in space tourism that's beginning to get noticed. The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) recognised its emergence in its latest annual report on travel trends. "Cost is likely to prohibit this becoming anything but a travel trend for the mega rich in the immediate future," reads the report, "but it is certainly a landmark event for the travel industry."

"Space tourism is going to be worth billions, and to be in at the start is great," Lowe says. "In 15 years' time we'll think nothing of receiving a ticket on Father's Day to shoot us up into outer space and back. There will be no shortage of people who wish to be space tourists, when many high safety and low cost vehicles are available. This is our mission."

Such space tourism does beg the obvious question: why do people want to go? There is nothing in space, hence the name. There's the rarity value; some people love to boast about where they've been, and there is no more exotic a destination than the edge of space.

But the simple answer is the view. All who've left the planet, from the Apollo crew to astronauts on the International Space Station, such as Chris "Major Tom" Hadfield, have said that seeing earth from space provides a lasting memory.

Even bigger plans come from the original space tourist, Dennis Tito, the US rocket scientist and millionaire who spent US$20 million of his own money back in 2001 for a week-long trip to the International Space Station. Twelve years on, his plans to send two astronauts to Mars have been making headlines. The pair will have to fight intense radiation, muscle wastage and the unknown psychological consequences of being adrift in a toilet-sized capsule. Some holiday.

Ditto the much more ambitious and expensive Mars One mission, a US$6 billion plan by the Netherlands-based company that requires expats rather than holidaymakers. Mars One plans to begin colonising the Red Planet in 2023 by sending four astronauts on a one-way mission.

So far more than 100,000 people from all over the world have applied for 40 jobs. This includes 10,000 from the mainland, though only two from Hong Kong. The process is detailed in One Way Astronaut, a HK$23-per-view online documentary produced to help fund the project. Seven years' training in Martian self-sufficiency awaits.

Mars One says that supplies, along with four more astronauts, will be sent every two years until the colony numbers 40.

Space tourism proper promises to be less risky, but no less impressive. "Once suborbital flights become popular, a new launcher can be developed for trips around the moon," says Lowe, who thinks the moon will eventually be colonised.

Before that, trips to space will become longer, and a new private International Space Station will likely become a tourist destination, too. "Maybe Star Trek fans will build an Enterprise up there," Lowe adds.