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Star-struck

Since Mark Shuttleworth became the first African in space in 2002, commercial space travel, or 'space tourism', has become a lucrative and highly competitive industry.

Read time 6min 30sec

Tired of making the usual holiday trek to the bush or those overcrowded Ballito beaches? Perhaps it's time to expand your horizons. Beyond the boundaries of Earth, that is.

If you happen to have $200 000 (roughly R1.6 million) to spare, you can join the likes of Sir Richard Branson, Ashton Kutcher, Formula 1 drivers Rubens Barrichello and Niki Lauda, scientists James Lovelock and Stephen Hawking, and even Brangelina - who have all secured their places on the first few flights to outer space, courtesy of Virgin Galactic. Apart from rubbing shoulders with celebs and other well-minted folk in close quarters, the Galactic experience includes astronaut training, 'G force' acclimatisation, and a 'sensational sub-orbital spaceflight that will take passengers more than 100km above the Earth's surface to enjoy weightlessness and life-changing views'. To date, over 500 adventure seekers have put down the $20 000 deposit required to reserve their seat on what Branson hopes will be the world's first commercial spaceline.

It's important that people can find out about Virgin Galactic and book with a local expert, so we are delighted that South Africans now have that option.

Carolyn Wincer, Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic, which Branson has described as “by far and away my boldest venture”, is owned by the Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS. With its new spaceship (SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise) and carrier aircraft (WhiteKnightTwo, VMS Eve) undergoing intensive tests, Virgin Galactic president and CEO George Whitesides says the company is “roughly on track” for a late 2013 commercial launch. In June, Galactic and its partner, Scaled Composites, were granted an experimental launch permit from the US Federal Aviation Administration - the first for a manned experimental aircraft.

'Space agent'

As an indication of the company's confidence in its ability to send paying passengers to space in the very near future, it is already appointing Accredited Space Agents (ASAs) around the world. In SA, Vanessa Rothery, a Johannesburg-based travel agent, who has worked for Virgin for many years, was named the first local ASA, joining 140 international peers. According to Virgin, each ASA is “handpicked by Virgin Galactic for their proven experience and innovation in the luxury travel sector as well as their passion for adventure and space travel”. Rothery underwent an intensive training programme with Virgin Galactic to acquire the unique skills and knowledge needed to complete reservations for private spaceflight. She will work with selected travel agency partners in order to allow South Africans to reserve Virgin Galactic spaceflights.

“It's important that people can find out about Virgin Galactic and book with a local expert, so we are delighted that South Africans now have that option," says Carolyn Wincer, Virgin Galactic head of Travel and Tourism Development, in a statement.

“South Africans are well known for their spirit of adventure, so it made sense for us to appoint travel consultants in South Africa who could bring this ultimate experience to their clients. Vanessa and the travel companies she will be working with embody the adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit needed to represent Virgin Galactic in this exciting new market of space tourism."

High stakes

Environmental implications

According to a report funded by NASA and The Aerospace Corporation, soot emitted by rockets in the upper atmosphere could lead to significant disruptionof the world's climatic system, resulting in a net increase in temperature. In addition, the ozone layer would be affected with equatorial regions, losing about 1% of ozone cover and poles gaining about 10%.

While it may indeed be a new market, sending paying customers into space is already old hat. The Russians, in fact, were the first to send a citizen into orbit despite strong disapproval from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at the time. American businessman Dennis Tito became the world's first space tourist in 2001, flying into space aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket that arrived at the International Space Station (ISS). Our very own Mark Shuttleworth became the second space tourist in 2002, also docking at the ISS. To date, just seven people (all billionaires) have bought their way into space.

These trips laid the foundation for what is developing into a highly lucrative (and high-stakes) industry, although the focus for new entrants is more on suborbital space tourism, which has not yet been achieved.

NASA published a report concluding that selling trips into space to private citizens could be worth billions of dollars. A similar report by the Japanese supported these findings, saying that space tourism could be a $10 billion-per-year industry within two decades. Unsurprisingly, the seductive price tags and glamour associated with space exploration have attracted some of the world's most entrepreneurial personalities to the challenge, and Branson's Galactic venture has some serious competitors.

The hotel will be aimed at wealthy individuals and people working for private companies who want to do research in space.

Sergei Kostenko, Orbital Technologies

An aerospace consortium called XCOR, based in Mojave, California, is working on its impressive Lynx spacecraft, which is designed to take off and land like a plane. Unlike Galactic's SpaceShip Two, the Lynx will not require a mothership. It is designed for rapid turnaround, which will enable it to fly up to four times per day, and because of this, it has fewer seats than SpaceShip Two - carrying only one pilot and one passenger on each flight. Trials for the Lynx are kicking off this year, with commercial launches planned for 2014. Another competitor, the Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, is developing a vertical take-off rocket to carry passengers on sub-orbital and full orbital flights, although the latter will be offered much later down the line. Space Adventures, the first private outfit to send self-funded individuals into space, will market its services. The Virginia-based firm claims to be the only company currently providing opportunities for actual private spaceflight and space tourism.

For those who want more than just a mere road trip into space, the Russian company Orbital Technologies plans to construct a 'Hotel in the Heavens'. This rather unique orbiting, four-room guesthouse will allow visitors to frolic and play in zero gravity for several days. Space tourists would have to pay roughly R8 million to travel on a Russian Soyuz rocket to get to the hotel before coughing up another million or so for a five-day stay. Don't expect any amazing cuisine, though - food will be microwaved, there will be no alcohol, and the water will be recycled. However, the views should make up for it. Russian engineers plan to put the hotel into orbit 320km above Earth by 2016.

"The hotel will be aimed at wealthy individuals and people working for private companies who want to do research in space," says Sergei Kostenko, CE of Orbital Technologies.

Big ambitions

Sub-orbital space flight

Sub-orbital space flight is a spaceflight in which the spacecraft reaches space, but its trajectory intersects the atmosphere or surface of the gravitating body from which it was launched, so that it does not complete one orbital revolution. For example, the path of an object launched from Earth that reaches 100km above sea level, and then falls back to Earth, is considered a sub-orbital spaceflight.
Source: Wikipedia

Then there are those who plan to use commercial space travel for other purposes besides keeping the rich entertained, such as research and development. Pretoria-born entrepreneur and co-founder of PayPal, Elon Musk, for example, founded SpaceX, a space transport company that recently made history as the world's first privately held company to send a cargo payload - carried on the Dragon spacecraft - to the ISS. Musk hopes to one day send people to Mars and help us to become a 'multi-planet species'.

Another Internet prodigy, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has his own space exploration ambitions. Bezos set up Blue Origin, which is seeking to develop “technologies to enable private human access to space at dramatically lower cost and increased reliability”.

At this rate, space looks like it's set to become a rather busy place, so we recommend that you start saving now in order to gain access to the world's next big playground.

First published in the August 2012 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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