Are we ready for space tourism?

Tamara Hinson

Tamara Hinson examines why space exploration developments shouldn’t just be of interest to budding astronauts—they’re helping to overhaul our holidays, too

In early May 2019 Blue Origin, the space exploration company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, successfully launched—and landed—the rocket Bezos plans to use for space tourism. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has said he hopes to start commercial space flights by the end of 2019. In recent years, international space agencies and private space exploration companies have made huge leaps forward in their efforts to explore beyond planet Earth. Another first was achieved in early 2019, when China's Yutu 2 rover became the first to explore the moon's far side.

This isn't just good news for those of us with a burning desire to visit the Moon, see our planet from space or set up camp on Mars—if you're a keen traveller, it's highly likely you'll eventually benefit from developments relating to space exploration. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, recently pointed out that, by travelling in a spaceship sent into orbit, an eight-hour flight in a cramped aeroplane could become a 30-minute hop, while the entire planet could be circumnavigated in just 90 minutes.

SpaceX Headquarters in Hawthorne California

"It currently takes me 20 hours to get from Houston to Singapore," says Randy “Komrade” Bresnik, a NASA astronaut who recently served as Commander of the International Space Station. "But what if I could hop in a space plane and be there in 45 minutes?" Recent developments suggest such journeys might soon become reality, largely thanks to the number of privately-funded space exploration ventures, like Musk's SpaceX.

"A trip into space will soon be a s simple as a trip to Disneyland"

"It's not just about national space agencies any more—commercial companies all over the world are doing their own thing," points out Bresnik, who admits to being surprised at the developments made in a relatively short space of time. "In the 1900s we had the first flight, and suddenly all these other people were building airplanes. And now, just over 100 years later, there are generations who think it's perfectly normal to simply book a flight on their iPhone. And we're at the same point with space flight—you'll soon be able to go to space without being a professional astronaut."

 

All of these developments—and the research and testing which comes beforehand—serve another purpose. They make getting to Mars—the little red dot our descendants could very well end up living on—much easier, although there are still various obstacles. Bresnik states that he suspects a trip into space will soon be as simple as a trip to Disneyland even if the famous theme park has certain advantages, such as more reliable supplies of food, water, and oxygen, to name a few. But Bresnik also believes these are all obstacles we're close to overcoming, and points out that data-collecting probes have already shown that there's water on Mars. Food is another story, especially given the journey time to Mars is around seven months. Sadly, a packet of Haribo simply won't cut it. "When it comes to Mars, the amount of food and water we'd need for the crew is the biggest obstacle," admits Bresnik, pointing out that one potential solution would be to take seeds instead of food, and use regenerative techniques to reclaim water.

"If our equipment survives on the moon, we've got a good chance of surviving on mars"

So what's the rush? The Sun, to start with. "Right now, the Earth is in that perfect spot—not too hot and not too cold," explains Bresnik. "But the Sun's consuming itself, and one day, you'll need sunscreen with an SPF of 5,000—in the shade. The good news? "Like Earth, Mars has an atmosphere—it has wind and erosion." Unlike the Moon—although Bresnik explains that it makes a pretty good stand-in when it comes to the testing of kit. "The Moon is just three days away, and gives us a chance to learn how to live off-planet—how to live in space suits and how to develop energy on a celestial body. If you're going to go camping, you've got to have the right equipment—you've got to try it out. If you're on the Moon, and something breaks, you can get home and replace it. If our equipment survives on the Moon, we've got a pretty good chance of surviving on Mars."

Yutu 2 Lunar rover descendant of the China`s Chang e 4 lunar probe landed on the surface of the moon on January 3, 2019

 

One issue which applies to both the Moon and Mars is radiation. The Earth is protected from this by something known as the Van Allen radiation belts, which Mars and the Moon don't have—one reason for the spacesuits, which are hardly ideal wear for a lazy Sunday mooching about on Mars. "Colonists on Mars would still have to live in a sealed environment and would have to be fully self-sufficient within it," cautions Professor Chris Impey, a world-renowned space expert at the University of Arizona's College of Science. But when our own planet turns into a frazzled crisp, it's the least-terrible option. "There's no other planet even nearly as habitable as Mars," says Professor Impey. "Venus is an inferno, and the outer Solar System destinations of Europa and Titan are much further away, so extremely hazardous and expensive to reach." So, Mars it is then.

Professor Impey believes our move to the red planet could begin much sooner than many people realise. "It could be as little as 20 years before we have a first small settlement made up of four to six astronauts—not living there permanently, but in rotation," he predicts. "Then around 40 years until there's a small permanent colony, most likely from the private sector. SpaceX says it will be less, but most analysts think this is optimistic. One disaster could set all of this back by up to a decade."

 

However, it's also worth noting that companies like SpaceX have proved sceptics wrong in the past. "The demonstration of fully reusable rockets by both SpaceX and Blue Origins was a game-changer," admits Professor Impey. "This will dramatically lower the cost to orbit per kilo and enable a viable business model of high-end space tourism." It's a great example of how the developments which are helping us make life on Mars a reality are having a much more immediate impact on everyday life. For example, it's common knowledge that hundreds of wannabe astronauts (including Brad Pitt and Katy Perry, if rumours are to be believed) have already paid for a spot on one of Virgin Galactic's first space flights—a snip at £200,000 a pop. One confirmed passenger is Matthew D Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso. Upchurch has paid to be what's known as a Founder Astronaut. "This means I’ll be among the first 84 passengers to experience a flight," explains the entrepreneur. So what motivated him to sign up? "I was never a space fanatic or a thrill-seeker," ponders Upchurch. "I love travel because it takes you out of your comfort zone, opens your mind, and helps you grow as a person. Seeing things from a new perspective is my motivation and everyone who has been to space has said it is life-changing."

 

There's another reason for Upchurch's interest—his company, Virtuoso, is an Accredited Space Agent for Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise—the commercial spaceship which will whisk passengers like Upchurch into space.

"The tickets cost a significant sum of money, but we work in the luxury sector and frequently sell exclusive-use travel—private jets, island and yachts—which command similar price tags," points out Upchurch, who believes ticket prices will inevitably drop. "Virgin Galactic has always had its eye on the goal of making suborbital space travel more egalitarian, and not something reserved for only the super wealthy," adds Upchurch. "Once commercial space flights begin operating on a consistent schedule, efficiencies will naturally occur, driving down costs and ticket prices. The first passengers will pave the way, and the goal is that eventually it becomes something more in reach for others." So, watch this space—30-minute flights from London to New York—and potentially a holiday to Mars—could become a reality much sooner than we think. Just don't forget those compression socks.

 

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