Space travel still big business, despite Virgin mishap

There are a number of misconceptions about space tourism, the most significant being that it doesn’t exist yet.

In fact, it’s been around since 2001, when Dennis Tito reportedly stumped up $US20 million ($25.6 million) to tag along on the Russian Federal Space Agency’s ISS EP-1 mission. The NASA rocket scientist-turned-entrepreneur spent almost eight days orbiting the earth.

Another widespread misapprehension is that Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is the only company offering extra-terrestrial travel. As we’ll get to shortly, there is actually a healthy field of commercial space travel companies developing a diverse range of trips.

The good news for aspiring astronauts is that it should soon be possible to travel into space for as little as $75,000. The bad news is  the fare will still translate to a minimum of $250 for every minute spent aloft – and that’s without even considering the inescapable dangers involved.

Three levels of space

Commercial space travel can be divided into three categories: orbital, suborbital and what might be labelled sub-suborbital.

Sub-suborbital travel involves floating to around 30km above the earth in a vessel attached to a tricked-up hot-air balloon. Suborbital space flight involves travelling to at least 100km above sea level (the point where ‘space’ is widely regarded to begin) and orbital spaceflight sees a spacecraft travelling further into space, to an altitude sufficient to orbit the earth.

Virgin Galactic had planned to start offering suborbital flights, involving a 2.5-hour trip featuring four minutes of weightlessness and costing $250,000, from Christmas Day last year. Then the crash of the company’s SpaceShipTwo last October derailed those plans and it’s now unclear when Virgin Galactic’s celebrity ticketholders, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Lady Gaga, will be making their maiden space flight.

Behold the curvature

A spokesperson for World View, the Jetstar of space travel corporations, told Executive Style it was hoping to be offering $75,000 flights by late 2016. The reason seats are such a bargain is because passengers only go up 30km in a capsule attached to a high-altitude balloon.

“Passengers will be among the privileged few to have seen the curvature of the earth with their own eyes,” the spokesperson enthused. “They will be astounded by spectacular views, the blackness of space, the brilliance of stars and the thin veil of atmosphere enveloping our planet – scenes witnessed exclusively by astronauts, until now.

“It takes about 1.5 hours to get to altitude, about one or two hours sailing above the atmosphere along the edge of space, and roughly 40 minutes to glide back down.”

The other companies competing for the space tourist dollar? XCOR is planning on offering suborbital flights on its cosy Lynx spaceships, which only have room for a couple of passengers, for around $100,000 starting next year.

SpaceX, a brainchild of genius inventor-entrepreneur Elon Musk, has plans to offer berths on its cargo ships to members of the public in the coming years, though details are sketchy.

Space Adventures, the company that arranged for Dennis Tito – and a number of other plutocrats – to tag along on Russian spaceflights, has partnered with Boeing and intends to sell circumlunar (around the moon) flights by the end of the decade. The cost is yet to be publicly revealed but the company operates at the premium end of the market, charging customers $US50 million for a 10-day visit to the International Space Station.

An elite indulgence

Timothy Devinney, Professor of International Business at Leeds University and one of the few to have studied this burgeoning industry, says that ascending to the heavens will remain an elite indulgence for the foreseeable future, but could also become old hat fairly quickly.

“The reality is that putting things into even a low orbit is extremely expensive and that’s reflected in ticket prices,” he says. “It took decades for air travel to become accessible to the average person and I’d predict it will be the same with space travel.

“That said, the novelty could wear off quickly. The first space tourists will get to enjoy the thrill and status of being pioneers but I suspect it won’t be long until people are saying ‘travelling into space is so last year’.”

Devinney also wonders if the space tourism operators will be able to provide what their target market desires. “Research shows it’s disproportionately well-educated, high-income younger men with an appetite for risk-taking who are attracted to space travel – the millionaire base-jumper type. I don’t know how interested they’re going to be in a suborbital flight where they just sit in their seat for six hours and look out the window.”

Fulfilling a dream

Nik Halik, a Greek-Australian property mogul, motivational speaker and self-described ‘thrillionaire’, is happy to abide by any rules and pay almost any price to fulfil his childhood dream of being an astronaut.

“I didn’t have a poster of a Lamborghini on my bedroom wall growing up, I had pictures of the Apollo astronauts,” he says. “I’ve already spent millions doing things such as spending time at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre and rocketing to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere in jet planes and I’d be happy to spend much more to join the exclusive club of 500 odd people who’ve been into space. What’s money for other than to fulfil your dreams?

“I can’t go into details but let’s just say I’m planning to be in the cockpit of a spacecraft that will launch well before Virgin Galactic gets off the ground. Space has always held a mystical fascination for me and I’m eagerly anticipating the experience of, as a poet once put it, slipping the surly bonds of earth and putting my hand out to touch the face of God.”