By Frank Coles
Originally appeared in TNT Magazine
Every travel wish list includes at least one or two off-the-beaten-track destinations. Late last year, the results of a little known competition called the X-Prize created what will surely become a must-see destination for any future traveller: Space.
The X-Prize was established eight years ago and promised a prize of $10 million to the first team to build a spacecraft that could take paying passengers into low Earth orbit safely and repeat the process within two weeks. Aviation pioneer Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites was the first of 27 teams to successfully complete the two requisite flights with their lightweight craft SpaceShipOne in just under one week and won the prize.
Also with his eyes on the prize, however, was perennial entrepreneur and daredevil Richard Branson. After the first successful flight of the competition, Branson announced his intention to produce a commercial Space fleet based on the design of Rutan’s craft. In the five days between SpaceShipOne’s two flights, Branson’s company received nearly five million enquiries from potential Space tourists.
So from 2007 onwards, Space flights into low-Earth orbit can be booked with Branson’s newest company: Virgin Galactic. However, given the 60 million sterling invested just to get the venture up and running, a flight will set you back around £115,000. So what will this buy you? Expect first class travel all the way courtesy of Virgin, who will ferry passengers to the Space port six days before departure. Here passengers will train in simulators and take a zero-g flight in their club class jet while being ferried around in a personal helicopter. The Space flight will take around three hours. The craft will first leave the atmosphere at more than three times the speed of sound, the engines will cut off and, weightless, will drift in Space with views of the entire planet on one side and the vastness of the solar system on the other.
Two generations of government astronauts have been lucky enough to experience Space travel and Branson, speaking at a press conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society last September, announced his determination to “create thousands of astronauts over the next few years and bring alive their dreams of seeing the majestic beauty of our planet from above.”
While the cost may still seem prohibitive, Branson has announced that Virgin Galactic’s sole purpose is to “make Space travel more and more affordable to people throughout the world.” Branson isn’t the only one with stellar ambitions. The X-Prize founders are now establishing the X-Prize Cup, a yearly competition where teams from around the world will race their spacecraft to determine who can fly the highest, the furthest and the fastest while competing for more multi-million dollar prizes. Chairman Peter Diamandis hopes his new “grand prix of Space” will be the driving force for developing public Space travel and jump-start a new era of Space flight.
Not content with sub-orbital flights, billionaire Las Vegas hotel magnate Robert Bigelow recently announced his Space prize. At US$50 million, the prize fund is considerably larger and the goal even more ambitious. Bigelow’s Space prize demands a spacecraft that can carry a minimum of five people, conduct orbital flights and ultimately dock with his own privately funded Space stations or with Branson’s proposed Space hotels. On the back of this new privately funded Space race, Nasa has now proposed its own competitions with prizes potentially reaching the US$30 million mark for soft lunar landings, bringing back pieces of asteroids and, ultimately, the hope of putting humans on Mars. With the sheer amount of creative imagination and investment intent on making this happen, the sky is no longer the limit.
See www.xprize.org and www.virgingalactic.com for more information.
Other Space options:
If you just can’t wait for 2007, there area few more down to Earth options for you to explore. Short trips are available at the American Space Camp (001-256 7217150; www.spacecamp.com) and primarily focus on family and school trips.
More adventurous trips are offered through Space Adventures (001 703 524 7172; www.spaceadventures.com); the specialist tour operator offers a number of packages that can take you from the depths of the ocean to outer space. Their Steps to Space programme is based at Russia’s Star City where Russian astronauts train.
Step One: Zero gravity parabolic flights where you experience weightlessness under Moon- and Mars-like conditions.
Step Two: Training in the world’s largest centrifuge followed by a flight in a Mig fighter jet to the edge of space.
Step Three: High-G aerobatic flight training.
Step Four: Spacecraft and space walk simulation and training.
Step Five: Orbital flight. If budget is no issue, take a 10-day trip to the International Space Station. The trip includes 120 orbits of the Earth and will cost you a cool US$20 million, making Virgin Galactic the budget travel option for your first trip to space.by