Technology & Science

Space tourism for the rest of us

Cheaper alternatives are starting to appear that could allow ordinary citizens to experience space.

10 years after Tito, cheaper alternatives for experiencing space are in the works

Ordinary citizens may soon experience space flight through companies like XCOR Areospace. An artist's rendering shows their sub-orbital vehicle concept, the Xerus, in 2007. (XCOR Aerospace/Associated Press)

Dennis Tito made history on April 28, 2001, when he blasted off for the International Space Station and became the world's first space tourist. Several have followed him, although none are "ordinary citizens" — they're people able to spend millions for an off-world vacation — but 10 years after Tito's trip, cheaper ways to experience space are starting to appear.

For more than 50 years, governments have had a monopoly on space travel due to its sheer cost and complexity. Yuri Gagarin was the first human to go into space in 1961. Since then, Russian and U.S. rockets have sent hundreds of trained astronauts into space to do research, build the International Space Station, fix satellites and land on the moon.

The fascination with space travel has transferred to many of those who have watched shuttles launch and seen images coming back from space. Many have dreamed of one day venturing into space themselves, and Tito, an American businessman, was the first to turn that dream into reality. He spent $20 million US for a seat on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and a week in orbit at the International Space Station.

If you have the money, Space Adventures, founded in 1998, is a private company that works with astronauts and cosmonauts to arrange this type of trip. To date all of Space Adventure's participants have flown on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station.

An orbital getaway is still for the world's wealthiest adventurers, though; just seven tourists have had the opportunity to go into orbit with Space Adventures in the past decade. And rather than becoming more affordable with time, the price tag has continued to climb. Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte was the latest visitor to the International Space Station, and he reportedly paid about $35 million US for the trip in 2009.

Space tourist, Canadian billionaire and clown Guy Laliberté smiles sitting inside the Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft shortly after returning to earth from the International space station Oct. 11, 2009. Cirque du Soleil CEO Laliberte spent a week at the station. (Sergei Remezov/Pool/Associated Press)

But that doesn't mean an out-of-this-world experience is completely out of reach of the rest of us. For those who want a taste of space travel, a sub-orbital experience is the next best thing — and there are options that cost a fraction of a trip to a space station.

Gravity experience

The cheapest trip right now is a flight with Zero Gravity Corp., a private space entertainment and tourism company whose "mission is to make the excitement and adventure of space accessible to the public," according its website. This is the only way people can feel weightlessness without actually traveling to space.

Participants board a Boeing 727, which climbs to a high altitude and then dives steeply to give passengers the feeling of weightlessness. The company uses three main flight locations: McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Dulles International Airport in Washinton DC, and Space Coast regional Airport in Cape Canaveral, Fla. There are also occasional flights from Seattle, Los Angeles and New York, and participants can suggest other airports, as long as they can accommodate the Boeing 727-300 aircraft.

The cost of the Zero Gravity experience is $ 4,900 (plus tax). The company offers "team-building" corporate packages, and if you and your significant other are planning to get hitched Zero Gravity also arranges weightless weddings.

Sub-orbital flights

Another option that adventurers may have within the next few years is a sub-orbital flight that takes them to an altitude of about 100 kilometers before returning to Earth.

This type of trip to the "edge of space" flies passengers high enough to see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space, and could offer them a few minutes of weightlessness.

There are several companies already selling tickets and planning to start sub-orbital flights within the next few years.

Sir Richard Branson's company, Virgin Galactic, may be the first off the launch pad.

Science teacher Tracey Dodrill of Scottsdale, Ariz., experiencing weightlessness in the cabin of a specially modified Boeing 727 operated by Zero Gravity Corp., above southern New Mexico. ((Heather Clark/Associated Press))

Virgin Galactic is developing spacecraft for tourism and commercial purposes. Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan founded The SpaceShip Company, and Virgin Galactic owns a majority interest in the joint venture with Scaled Composites.

In August of 2005, Virgin Galactic and members from the State of New Mexico announced the state would fund $200 million for a spaceport in southern New Mexico on 27 square miles of land.

Virgin Galactic is building its service around an updated design of SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in October 2004 for completing two sub-orbital flights within five days. On October 10, 2004 Virgin Galactic completed its first flight of SpaceShip Two.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson prepares for a television interview, Oct. 22, 2010, at Spaceport America in Upham, N.M. Branson plans to be one of the first passengers when Virgin Galactic begins commercial space tourism flights from the spaceport. ((Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press) )

According to the company, "SpaceShipTwo is a rocket-powered space plane and launches horizontally from an aircraft at around 50,000 feet rather than the vertically from the ground as has been normal for space craft of the past."

Although it hasn't started commercial service, the company is taking reservations. The starting ticket price for the flight and a three-day pre-flight training session is $200,000 and the refundable deposit is $20,000.

Another sub-orbital company, Blue Origin, was founded by CEO Jeff Bezos. It's building sub-orbital spacecraft, but has been secretive about its progress.

The company says its service is aimed at giving ordinary people a chance to go into space, as well as scientists and those looking to do experiments.

In 2010 NASA awarded Blue Origin a $3.7 million grant as part of U.S. efforts to promote human space flight. The company has 165,000 acres of land set aside for a spaceport in Texas.

XCOR Aerospace, located in California, was founded in 1999 to focus on "the research, development and production of safe, reliable, reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), rocket engines and rocket propulsion systems."

To the Moon

In September 2007 the Google Lunar X Prize was announced, encouraging anyone with interest in traveling to the moon to create a robot that would land on the moon.

A total of $30 million in prizes is being offered to the first privately funded team that is able to land a robot on the Moon. The robot must travel 500 metres over the Moon's surface and be able to send data such as images back to Earth.

Teams have to be 90 per cent privately funded and there is no limit as to how much they spend.

XCOR has developed two spacecraft. The EZ-Rocket made its debut in 2001, and was the first vehicle built and flown by a private American company without any affiliation with the U.S government. The X-Racer set a record of flying seven sub-orbital flights in a day in 2008.

XCOR is now developing craft to offer sub-orbital flights to people in academia, science, engineering and other markets. The Lynx is a two person commercial launch vehicle that is being designed to take passengers on a half-hour flight, to an altitude of up to 100 km (330,000 feet). A single ticket costs $95,000 and that includes a $20,000 fee for a four-day orientation, medical check-up and G-Force training.

The company announced in March 2008 that it would start test flights of the Lynx within two years, but the Lynx itself has yet to fly.


For those who don't have the cash for a suborbital flight, there is another option: Space burial.

Celestis gives people the opportunity to have their ashes launched into space after they die. The ashes can be launched on a one-way trip into Earth's orbit, or sent into space and then returned for burial.

The company's first launch was in 1997, a trip that included the ashes of Timothy Leary, the 1960s counterculture figure fascinated by LSD, and Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek.

In April 2007, the ashes of James Doohan, who played Montgomery Scott on Star Trek, were launched into space. That spacecraft also took the cremated remains of 185 other people, including a nurse, student and telephone technician. To send their loved ones into space families paid $995 to $5,300.