The new space race
Losing weight is easy – all you need is the right altitude. Escaping the effects of the Earth’s gravitational pull doesn’t come cheap, but space tourism isn’t just about Virgin Galactic. Sub-orbital space is the travel industry’s next big destination, and achieving zero gravity is more competitive than you might think…
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo
Everyone has heard of Richard Branson’s ambitious plans, but it’s all gone a bit quiet since the death of co-pilot Mike Alsbury during a test flight in October 2014. The latest news is that a new version of Virgin Galactic’s six-man SpaceShipTwo – which takes off from a jet-powered White Knight Two cargo aircraft – will be shown off in February 2016, with test flights to follow.
The exact date, or even year, of the wannabe spaceliner’s first scheduled 2.5-hour flights from Spaceport America, New Mexico, USA – complete with five minutes of weightlessness prior to reentering Earth’s atmosphere – remains a mystery, although at $250,000 / £165,000 / AU$350,000 per trip Virgin Galactic is unlikely to become the EasyJet of space travel.
XCOR Lynx Mark I & Lynx Mark II
You can leave a few coins floating in your pocket by opting instead for a supersonic flight with XCOR Space Expeditions, which plans to charge a mere $100,000 / £66,000 / AU$140,000 for a ticket to the edge of space in one of its two rocket-powered Lynx spaceships. Again, they’ll take off from and land at Spaceport America in New Mexico, USA like a normal aeroplane, but they only have two seats.
Sir Bob Geldof and DJ Armin van Buuren are among the 250-ish ticket holders for XCOR’s planned 30-minute flights, which are due to begin in late 2016 after test flights earlier in the year.
airZeroG parabolic flight
The easiest way to experience weightlessness is on a parabolic flight, also known as the ‘vomit comet’. The pilot climbs steeply for 10,000ft at an angle of 45 degrees to create ‘heaviness’ for 40 seconds, which is then followed by 25 seconds of weightlessness as the plane dives back; sudden falls as the effect wears off are prevented by a curved descent that gently increases gravity.
After 25 years performing parabolic flights for scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA), the airZeroG service from Novespace, Avico and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) began in December 2012, and costs $6,465 / £4,245 / AU$9,070 per flight. It flies from Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport in France to a specially assigned air corridor above the Gulf of Gascogne.
S3′s SOAR shuttle
At $2,473 / £1,624 / AU$3,470 for two hours, Swiss Space Systems’ (S3) ZeroG Party Zone is the most affordable parabolic flight of all, although there are 40 of you in the hold of a modified Airbus. Pay three times as much and that’s reduced to 28 passengers – and you also get a Breitling S3 ZeroG personalized watch that doubles as your boarding pass. However, S3 wants to go one better with its Sub Orbital Aircraft Reusable (SOAR) shuttle, which launches into orbit from the back of an Airbus A300. Expect suborbital passenger flights – complete with weightlessness – after 2020.
Go ZeroG also offers parabolic experiences, on board its specially modified Boeing 727-200, G-Force One. For $4,950 / £3,250 / AU$6,945 per trip, the Zero G Experience includes an identical weightless experience to S3′s, but with food (on a ‘vomit comet’?), photos, a video and a ‘certificate of weightless completion’ also thrown in. It takes off from Cape Canaveral and Ft. Lauderdale in Florida, Las Vegas in Nevada, and San Jose in California.
Could you be a ‘bloonaut’? This stab at space tourism without rockets comes from Spanish company Bloon, which plans to use helium-filled balloons to carry a pressurised capsule for four passengers and two pilots to the stratosphere and back.
From 2016 or 2017, and for $119,000 / £78,000 / AU$167,000 per passenger, Bloon will lift off from Virgen del Camino in Spain before dawn, rising 36km in an hour before cruising at the same altitude for two hours. After spending some time with Planet Earth, witnessing a sunrise as well as the planet’s curvature, the balloon will vent helium gas and slowly descend until – boom! – the cord between pod and sail is cut and passengers go into free-fall, with two minutes of weightlessness to enjoy before a para-foil is deployed and the pod stabilises; it’ll then descend slowly for 30 minutes before landing 300 miles from the take-off location.
Ilyushin 76 MDK
Taking off from the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City near Moscow – the home of space travel and where both cosmonauts and astronaut crews train prior to a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) – this huge aircraft has been performing acrobatics in the name of weightlessness since 2002. Over 700 people have experienced the 10 bouts of 25 seconds of weightlessness that the Ilyushin 76 MDK offers during its 90-minute parabolic flights. Tickets are sold by Russian travel agency Country of Tourism, at $4,325 / £2,840 / AU$6,065 a pop.
Only 600 or so humans have ever been to space, and if you want to know how many people are currently visiting go to www.howmanypeopleareinspacerightnow.com, although it’s not likely to be more than five or six, all crammed in to the ISS. Can you join them in zero gravity? Only if you have a whopping $52 million / £34 million / AU$73 million to spare.
That’s about the going rate the world’s least busy travel agent, Space Adventures, charges for an orbital spaceflight to the ISS for ten-or-so days of weightlessness arranged in conjunction with Roscocmos. Singer Sarah Brightman, 54, recently pulled out of her planned trip there, although the agency also has Japanese advertising mogul Satoshi Takamatsu on its books.
Since Russia alone launches astronauts to the ISS, should it come as any surprise that it’s also planning sub-orbital flights for space tourists? Absolutely not – though details are sketchy. Said to be almost ready, Project M-55X is a ‘reusable aerospace system’ whereby a C-21 suborbital module detaches from an M-55X carrier aircraft after launch (much like Virgin Galactic’s design). The five-man crew will experience weightlessness at about 100km up during 10 minutes of orbiting the Earth. Training is ongoing at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City. Price unknown.
Bigelow’s inflatable space station
Arguably just as advanced in its testing as the majority of the supersonic space tourism planes is a privately owned and operated orbital space station. The inflatable Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) from Bigelow Aerospace is currently attached to the ISS for testing, and could form the basis of a standalone space station by 2025.
That’s crucial, because with the ISS due to retire in 2024, space agencies are hoping to instead simply pay for their astronauts to visit private space stations – undoubtedly alongside space tourists who are just after a taste of zero gravity.