Is space tourism the 8th continent?

28 Mar

I still remember the conversation.  Well, not the conversation exactly, but the way I felt after the conversation.  I felt weightless, like I was floating, with a perma-grin on my face.  I suppose it was fitting since I’d just had a 45 minute conversation with an astronaut.

Let me explain.  It was 1995, and I was a senior in high school.  I had founded a new school publication, and I wanted to interview an astronaut for the cover story.  It turns out that NASA considered me a “member of the press.”  I have to say that to this day I still appreciate that.  Thus, my interview with astronaut Rick Linnehan.  I wrote my story and sent him a copy.  I also sent him a holiday card.  Much to my delight, I received a holiday card in return from him…with an invitation to the launch of his first mission (STS-78) the following summer.

Personal photo of the launch of STS-78 from Kennedy Space Center, Florida

I give my parents a lot of credit.  We went to the launch.  Even though launch dates can change after you book flights or even once you get there, we still went.  They let me be excited.  They let me roam around the museum at Kennedy Space Center and ask a million questions they couldn’t answer.  As an invited guest of an astronaut we were admitted to a special viewing site several miles from the launchpad, so I was feeling pretty cool.  Hearing the countdown, watching the tail of fire and then hearing the sound…well, you had to be there.  And I was there!

STS-78 continues an upward trajectory for space

My friendship with Rick continued.  I wrote a story about attending the launch, and our local newspaper published it.  I sent Rick a copy.  Several months later, now in my freshman year of college, I received a package.  It was a pre-printed posterboard with images from Rick’s mission.  Around the image of the mission patch, Rick had all the astronauts from STS-78 sign it, and he wrote a message in gold ink thanking me for my support.  It is framed and still hangs on my wall today.  So yeah, I kind of have a thing with space.  Aspiration and inspiration, dreams and exploration, an unexpected friendship of sorts…it is tangled up somewhere in the stars.

It used to be that orbital space flight was the province of astronauts (and their international peers).  Is a new age of “commercial space flight” or “space tourism” underway?  What will the next decade hold?  Well, my crystal ball is broken today, but there is plenty of food for thought.

Surprised and confused.  Looking for a lexicon on space tourism

As I started doing research on this topic, I was surprised by, well, how confusing it all got.  Government agencies, private companies, nicknames for private companies, rocket names and their associated manufacturer, spaceports (yes, seriously)…I have yet to find a truly consumer friendly breakdown of the industry.  So with the caveat that I am not an engineer, let alone an aerospace engineer, nor am I am in the industry, nor have I spoken to anyone in the industry…I’m going to try and answer my own key questions as I embarked on this blog post.  Hopefully you find it a little bit useful, or at least amusing.

Just a few key points on traveling to space as a tourist

  • Did I miss it?  Are space tourists already a reality?  Not in this country, yet.  Seven people, including one who flew twice, took a trip on the Russian Soyuz rocket and spent 10 days on the International Space Station, at a price tag of $20 million +
  • What would a trip be like?  There appears to be an important distinction here between “suborbital” and “orbital.”  Suborbital takes you to about 62 miles above ground, allowing a few minutes of weightlessness and a view of the edge of the planet and the blackness of space.  Orbital takes you into low earth orbit.  From what I’ve read, the focus for tourism appears to be on the suborbital adventure.
  • How much will it cost?  Suborbital experiences are in the low six figure range, and Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson’s company) has “several hundred” bookings already.  A robust, although one year old, summary of the operators can be found on space.com.
  • So when is this going to happen?  How big will this be?  $1 billion within the next 10 years, according the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  Launches are expected within the next one to two years.
  • Where is all this happening?  So I kind of geeked out (yes, I just wrote that) on this map of the U.S. with locations of current and proposed operators, spaceports etc.
  • With the retiring of the space shuttle, what is next at NASA?  Deep space exploration, among many other things, with the owning and operating of low earth orbit transportation systems handed off to the private sector, according to NASA administrator Charles Bolden (Translation: the space shuttle is expensive, so let the private sector do it in a more low cost way.  In the interim, astronauts are currently getting to the International Space Station via Russian capsules)

On a personal note…

Rick and I did finally meet, several years after his launch.  We’ve had lunch twice when I happened to be in Houston.  My sister jokes with me that I’m the only person she knows who can go to Houston and schedule lunch with an astronaut.  I just smile.

I’ll always remember my final sentence of the article I wrote in high school.  “When you look up at the stars, you should be proud.”  I still believe that.  Now I would add that maybe, someday, you will get to be among them.  Until then, there are plenty of places worth exploring, and people worth knowing, right here on earth.

 Header Photo: Antarctica.  All photos © W2S Hilary

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4 Responses to “Is space tourism the 8th continent?”

  1. Lewis Cantor March 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Great job! I really enjoyed reading it but I don’t think space travel is for me. Too much to see here on earth.

  2. James Clark March 29, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    This is awesome. I wish it (space toursim) would hurry up and the costs would come down – a total dream right now.

  3. Suzy April 15, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Wow! That is pretty special you can call up your friend astronaut for lunch when you are Houston. Considering that I was voted most likely to go to Outer Space in high school (it was meant to be a joke but I turned into a compliment), I would love to go to space someday.

    • W2S Hilary April 15, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

      Hopefully you will get the chance!

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