Beam Me Up: Space Travel in the 21st Century
by Susan Kostrzewa
This article was written in August of 1999. Subsequent to its completion, the Space Division of Zegrahm Expeditions was taken over by Space Adventures. For information on the "Space Cruiser" mentioned in the article, contact Space Adventures at the number and addresses at the bottom of the article.
Imagine this: you strap into a space capsule and are catapulted at 2,300 mph beyond the blue horizon. At over 62 miles above Earth and closer to Luke Skywalker than you ever imagined, you and five other travelers proceed to somersault playfully in your comfortable, weightless cabin.
And you thought first-class on a Boeing 747 was roomy.
The term "space cadet" may take on new meaning in the next 10 years as the opportunity for citizen space travel becomes less of a laughing stock and more of a feasible option for cosmic daytrippers eager to blast off. Thanks to a push from the private sector to make consumer space travel a reality, John Glenn wannabes may be taking to the heavens as soon as 2002.
"This is a dynamic time for people interested in experiencing space flight for themselves," says Scott Fitzsimmons, Vice President of Zegrahm Space Voyages. "We think in just over three years, the general public will get their long-awaited chance to go."
We're Not in Kansas Anymore
Ready for a "zoom with a view" that includes a panorama of earth, an orbital sunrise and zero-gravity freedom? A long weekend earth-gazing seems to be just the ticket for many jumpy Jetsons ready for extraterrestrial R&R. Designs and plans are underway for projects that once seemed far-fetched, such as NASA's orbiting hotel and space station, and Zegrahm Expeditions' six-seat civilian "Space Cruiser," fueling consumer demand among those eager to make that first step for Touristkind.
Studies show that over 10 million gravitationally-challenged earthlings are already visiting space museums, NASA centers and space camps annually, generating $1 billion in revenue. Actual space travel is the next logical leap.
"What the public wants is what the public gets," says Fitszimmons. "And research studies say that up to 60 of experienced travelers want to go to space."
The estimate that this current $1 billion industry will skyrocket into a $60 billion bonanza in the next ten years has many starry-eyed private-sector teams scrambling to win the "race for space." That race is being spurred in part by the prestigious X Prize award, a $10 million dollar dangling carrot modeled after the Orteig International Prize won by Charles Lindbergh just 70 years ago, when he became the first person to complete a solo flight from New York to Paris.
Designed by various visionaries, astronauts and dignitaries around the world, the X Prize already has 14 teams reaching for the stars. But the winning requirement is no small feat: the victor must successfully launch three humans into suborbital space, return safely to earth, and do it again in two weeks. In comparison, space shuttles orbit at 120 to 125 miles above the earth, but there are currently no passenger vehicles ready for that ride.
A Feasible Reality
Sound more like oddity than odyssey? In actuality, space travel isn't as far-out a concept as was once imagined. While images of civilian space stations and shuttles a la 2001--A Space Odyssey once suggested a need for extremely advanced (and futuristic) technology, the industry already possesses the skills and hardware to make orbital vacations a somewhat common occurrence, using a modest, two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) or "spaceplane" system, a conservative first step for the industry.
"Spaceflight for the public will be a process," says Fitzsimmons. "First step is . . . to prove the concept is safe."
The only thing grounding this mission is funding. And that's where the consumer market comes in handy. With upwards of $400 million a year in gross revenues fueling the current adventure travel industry, it is clearly Joe and Jane Cosmonaut who will help get these projects into final countdown.
Look Out, Orville
Flights for this everyday E.T. are what Seattle-based adventure company Zegrahm Expeditions plans for 2002. Working with Vela Technology Development, Inc. (a private aerospace firm in Virginia) and its team of former NASA, Air Force and commercial aerospace experts, the Zegrahm Space Voyages division hopes to be slinging people into astronaut altitude (62 miles above sea level) twice weekly by December 2002.
If ideas of airborne tin cans hurtling back to earth are putting you off, think again. Zegrahm's corporate jet-sized "Space Cruiser" will offer a comfortable, airplane-style ride for six passengers who will spend five days in astronaut training at a Space Institute, preparing for their journey to space on Day Six.
Designed specifically for passengers, the two-vehicle Space Cruiser system consists of the Sky Lifter (a twin jet-powered aircraft), and the second stage Space Cruiser, which is held under the Sky Lifter's fuselage. After its release at 50,000 feet, the Sky Lifter returns to the airfield, and the Space Cruiser (with occupants) uses rockets to propel itself to over 62 miles above sea level.
Voyagers can soar, tumble or somersault through the cabin for the 2? minutes of weightlessness that occurs next, or play with specially-designed space toys while gazing at Earth and such landmarks as the Nile river and the vast dunes of the Sahara Desert. And the ultimate tourist trip wouldn't be complete without the perfect sub-orbital Kodak moment. Thanks to visor cameras manipulated by wrist controls, you can take the ideal shot of Mom and little Jimmy in front of the continent of North America.
Does That Include Peanuts?
Sound too good to be true? It probably is for most travelers. With a sky-high price tag of $98,000 per person, the Zegrahm Space Voyage program will be mere sci-fi for the average consumer, until industry expansion can bring costs back to earth. Yet, despite the lofty price, Fitzsimmons reports a "staggering" interest, and 28 applicants have already made deposits of $5000 each to insure their place in space.
A more affordable zero-gravity experience can be had with Space Adventures, another of the 14 companies vying for the X Prize. For a mere $4,980, adventurers can fly on an IL-76 training jet similar to the one used for Tom Hanks' weightless scenes in the movie Apollo 13. Also available are seats inside the cockpit of a Russian MiG-25 military fighter jet, the fastest combat aircraft in the world with an ability to reach over 14 miles above Earth. In addition to these current flights, the company plans suborbital flights departing in three to five years, priced at $90,000 a seat. And for those who want it all, the $99,000 "Steps to Space Astronaut Club" package bundles all of these trips together. The intial deposit is $25,000, and the tour is limited to the first 100 people to sign up.
An International Interest
And Americans aren't the only ones ready to go intergalactic. Just as in the days of Sputnik versus the Mercury program, the space race continues. The Russian Entertainment Group is offering an exclusive, seven-day "Cosmonaut Fantasy Camp" at the Russian Space Agency in Star City, Russia. Instructed by scientists and cosmonauts, six to ten Han Solo hopefuls undergo a week of authentic space training, in addition to staying at five-star hotels and attending related lectures/activities.
For adventurers seeking top-flight accommodation, NASA is sponsoring a project to build a spa hotel/space station with lodgings for 100 people by 2012. Any spa with scales that register everyone's weight at zero has to be a hit. Featuring a viewing deck designed as a glass bubble, the hotel will circle Earth in a low-Earth orbit (1100 miles above sea level) and offer "ocean views" that include the entire Pacific and Atlantic. Computer-aided images will help viewers identify ground masses and will also show information such as weather conditions. Excursions may include a docking and tour at the planned International Space Station (ISS).
And, as the old mantra goes, getting there will be half the fun. NASA predicts that advancement in passenger space shuttles will allow regular ferrying to and from the hotel. In the spirit of recycling, used external fuel tanks from these shuttles (normally burnt up when the shuttle re-enters Earth's atmosphere) could be used to build an outer ring for the hotel.
For people used to equating space travel with "Star Trek," imagining the astronaut-next- door is a stretch. But many ordinary travelers think they have the right stuff.
"Space travel has been a dream of mine since I was a young child," says adventurer Richard Garriott, who has secured a seat on the Zegrahm Space Cruiser. "I have always said that if there was a rocket headed for deep space never to return, I would jump at the opportunity to go. The Universe is awesome, and there is a lot to see out there. One of my favorite mottoes is 'work hard, play hard.' And I am sure that this (trip) will help pave the way for more frequent and thus cheaper space travel for us all."
For more information, contact the following:
X Prize Foundation; Tel: 314-533-2002; Fax: 314-533-6502;
Space Adventures: Tel: 888-857-7223; Fax: 703-591-7748; E-mail: email@example.com;
Writer Judy Zimmerman contributed to this article.