On 15 December last year, Tim Peake became the first British astronaut to board the International Space Station and over the past month I've been following his progress with a mix of envy and admiration. It brought to mind the many emails we get from How It Works readers asking about the possibility of taking "holidays" in space. You might be surprised to learn that the age of space tourism has actually been underway for many decades and taking affordable trips to the stars, or at least low-earth orbit, might be closer than you'd think...
It all started back in the 1960's, following the popularity and success of Nasa's manned Apollo missions. It seemed that space tourism would soon become a reality and Pan American Airways were quick to jump on the idea, opening a waiting list for a planned service to the Moon. Up until the company eventually disbanded in 1991, more than 93,000 wannabe astronauts had signed up for the scheme. A new kind of space race was envisaged; private companies would compete to become the first to provide normal people with the chance to experience the wonders of space travel. It's incredible to think that in the years that followed Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind, only seven space tourists have made the trip to low-Earth orbit, none of which have even come close to retracing his famous footsteps on the lunar surface.
These individuals stayed on the International Space Station (ISS), and paid a considerable premium for the experience. The most recent, Canadian Guy Laliberté, coughed up an estimated £22million ($35million) for an 11-day trip in 2009. Although excursions to the ISS are hugely appealing, it is not designed to accommodate a tourist's needs. In spite of the ticket price, there are no luxuries; the ISS' sole purpose is to carry out vital research and support the astronauts on board.
All the space tourists used a version of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to and from the ISS, but after the ISS' permanent crew was doubled to six members, this was no longer an option. This has galvanised a number of companies to explore alternative means of transporting paying passengers for short periods of time, such as space planes. The most talked-about space plane around is Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which is lifted into the sky by a larger mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, before detaching and using its rocket engine to take a total of six passengers into space.
Once out of Earth's atmosphere, those on board will experience around five minutes of weightlessness, while gazing in wonder at the Earth's curvature and the surrounding stars. The tragic death of pilot Michael Alsbury during a test flight in 2014 has not deterred Virgin Galactic from reaching their goal, although it has meant that the first commercial flights have been further delayed. Whether or not this will form the foundation of space tourism is yet to be seen, but they do not offer a prolonged off-world stay. They also lack docking capabilities, which means they can't be used to whisk people away to any form of space hotel that may exist one day.
Aerospace company Boeing has taken a different tact. They have created a spacecraft that is likely to perform the first commercial flights, as part of a £2.7billion ($4.2billion) contract with Nasa. The Crew Space Transportation-100, or CST-100 for short, has been tasked with this honour. Boeing and Nasa hope that this spacecraft's first manned flight will take place in 2017, and once this has been completed, along with service flights to the ISS, the door will be open for commercial spaceflight.
The CST-100 is slightly larger than the Apollo Command Module and is being developed in cooperation with Bigelow Aerospace, as the capsule offers a means of reaching their planned space station in the future. As it is reusable, Boeing's spacecraft will be fitted with a combined recovery system featuring both parachutes and airbags, allowing it to land on the ground rather than in water when it returns to Earth. Reusability is key to its success, as the more times it can be used, the cheaper each flight will become for both the company and prospective customers.
If the future of space tourism doesn't involve staying on the ISS, there needs to be a new form of space station, which is where Bigelow Aerospace comes in. Their founder Robert Bigelow made his fortune building hotels, but he has been interested in space technology since childhood. Taking inspiration from Nasa's 'TransHab' concept, Bigelow Aerospace plans to build its own inflatable space modules. It will use these to build private space stations, which it will operate and sell access to the public.
In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow launched Genesis 1 and 2 respectively, which were its first test craft to enter orbit. Since these launches the company has been relatively quiet, relying on ground testing while waiting for space tourism to grow as an industry. However, the BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) is scheduled to launch later this year aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule, and it will be connected to the ISS for two years to demonstrate its technology. Once this has been proven a success, the B330 will be launched. This has over 20 times the volume of the BEAM with 330 cubic metres (11,654 cubic feet) of internal space, and a proposed 20-year lifetime. Although its walls are inflatable, they will provide inhabitants with more protection from heat and radiation than the rigid ISS modules. Bigelow hopes that these modules will mark the beginning of vacations that truly are out of this world.
However, despite having many of the necessary components in place, we are still a number of years away from space tourism becoming a truly viable vacation option. It's more likely that trips to low-Earth orbit will become well-established first, before any form of 'hotel' opens for business. There is still so much that needs to be investigated before space travel can become feasible for the average person. Further research into the effects of remaining in space for long periods of time is vital, and it's hoped that NASA's ongoing Twins Study will provide some answers. What is certain is that there will be plenty of adventurers packing their bags for a trip to infinity and beyond when the time comes.
This article appears in full in How It Works issue 77, written by Philip Watts
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