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By Brian O'Connor
Ever dream of getting away from it all? Well, it’s time to shoot for the moon … almost literally!
Ever since American pilots demonstrated they had The Right Stuff (1983), and William Shatner boldly went where no actor had ever gone before, the prospect of galactic tourism has inched closer to an out-of-this world reality.
Cosmic Advancements in Outer-space Tourism
In the recent years, headline-grabbing mega-millionaires like Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Space Adventure’s Eric Anderson have helped fuel the dynamic new commercial rush to reach space with piles of private funds.
The founder of Budget Suites of America, Robert Bigelow, sent two inflatable space habitats into orbit to test the technology for "space hotels” and drew up plans for a fleet of space taxis and a private moon-base -- for future newlyweds to enjoy a bona-fide honey-moon. (Oh yes we did!) This past summer, the billionaire announced plans for a manned spacecraft called Crew Space Transportation 100, which was developed by Boeing and is scheduled for liftoff in 2015.
So, When Can We Space Out?
To get a gauge on how close we really are to commercial gridlock in the Milky Way, check out Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which plans to start launching tourists into space beginning next year! The first vessel, SpaceShipTwo, will take off and land at Spaceport America, his recently constructed 2-mile-runway in the New Mexico desert -- the world's first commercial spacecraft center.
“SpaceShipOne’s recent history-making test-flights demonstrated that a privately funded, non-government craft could be created and flown to space,” says Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut who’s more than a little “out there,” himself. He’s walked in space six times, flown on three space shuttle missions and commanded the International Space Station. And he’s not alone in his belief that out-of-this-world vacations are less than a moonwalk away.
Who Can Actually Afford a Space Trip?
“It won’t be long till it’s almost commonplace,” says billionaire and high-tech entrepreneur Greg Olson, who ponied up a reported $20 million bucks to become the third private citizen to fly in space aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2005 and later authored an inspirational book, By Any Means Necessary, chronicling his interstellar experiences. “It’s going to be expensive in the short term, but as these commercial ventures develop new methods to decrease costs, you’ll see more people take off for the stars.”
Some 300 customers have already plunked down $200,000 each (Virgin has collected $40 million in deposits) to book a spot on Branson’s more-and-more imminent, three-hour space excursions.
What’s a Space Excursion Like?
The six passengers on each flight will get a breathtaking view through 17-inch-wide portholes and technically enter space as they break out of the Earth’s atmosphere, passing 328,000 feet.
After reaching a maximum altitude of 360,000 feet (68 miles), the spacecraft will initiate a free fall, producing weightlessness for about four minutes. Then, re-entering the atmosphere, it will employ a nose-up stance, traveling at 2,000 miles per hour, during which the passengers experience a gravitational force up to 6.5 times more powerful than ground-level gravity.
To be technically accurate, we’re still a moonwalk away from true space tourism. To make it into low Earth orbit and break free of the Earth’s gravity, a spacecraft needs to be traveling at 17,500 miles per hour -- and SpaceShipTwo travels at a maximum speed of only 3,000 miles per hour. The trip is really a combination of a rocket ride to the edge of the atmosphere, four minutes of weightlessness, and a rapid descent back to Terra Firma.
Still, because passengers will satisfy the U.S. Air Force requirements for space travel -- more than 50,000 feet -- they will be able to collect their official astronaut status upon landing.
That’s one small step for man … one giant check for Branson!
Brian O'Connor is a print and online journalist. He is a former contributing editor at Men's Fitness and executive editor at Genre. He has also written for Slate, San Francisco Weekly and the New York Daily News, among other publications.
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