The hottest travel destination right now isn’t the tropics—it is heading off the planet and into space. Just last October, William Shatner, famous for his iconic role as Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek, became the oldest person to go to space. The 90-year-old actor described it as, “The most profound experience I can imagine.”
Space tourism got its start about 20 years ago when investment manager Denis Tito spent a reported $20 million to visit the International Space Station for eight days via a Russian rocket. The industry has been growing since then.
Major space tourism companies planning or already selling rides into space include Blue Origin, headed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos…SpaceX, from Tesla founder Elon Musk…and Virgin Galactic, started by Virgin Atlantic airlines founder Richard Branson. At the moment, Virgin Galactic is the only one publicly offering flights, and a ticket costs an astronomic $450,000 per person. But if space tourism catches on—and there is every indication that it will—more companies will come onto the scene, which means more competition and more affordable tickets.
Space tourism isn’t too different from the space travel you have already seen. Blue Origin and SpaceX use traditional rockets to launch a small capsule into the sky, which then descends and decelerates with parachutes and lands in the ocean. Blue Origin has sent its rockets as far as 62 miles above the Earth’s surface, passing the Kármán line—considered the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space. (The Federal Aviation Administration, US military and NASA consider 50 miles above Earth the beginning of space, but the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale sets that border at 62 miles.) And SpaceX has sent four tourists on a three-day vacation orbiting 367 miles above the Earth.
Virgin Galactic does things a little differently. Its spacecraft starts off on a runway and is carried aloft by another aircraft. When the carrier aircraft reaches about 50,000 feet, the spacecraft is released, fires its rockets and ascends to the edge of space. Once it reaches this height, passengers can unbuckle themselves and enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness. Then the craft returns to Virgin’s Spaceport America in New Mexico, making a gliding landing on a runway just as the NASA space shuttles did. Virgin’s flights generally take passengers about 50 miles above Earth, and the round-trip takes about 90 minutes.
Is It Safe?
Space travel may be safer than you imagine. The rockets and spacecrafts are based on American and Russian models with years of design and safety precautions behind them, and NASA has been using private companies—including SpaceX—for cargo flights to the International Space Station for about a decade.
Of course, travel to space has an inherent and unavoidable element of danger. In 2014, a prototype spacecraft from Virgin Galactic broke apart after launch due to a copilot error, killing one pilot and injuring another. But tragic accidents such as these always produce waves of innovation and even greater focus on safety. Both Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos flew on the maiden voyages of their respective spacecraft, demonstrating a huge amount of trust in their machinery and personnel.
Countdown to Lift-Off
Before your space flight, you will need some training. Some companies train passengers for as little as one day…some for as long as six months. You’ll need a very different level of preparation if you’re going to ride a rocket up to the edge of space and come right back down—a trip that lasts maybe 90 minutes—compared with a multiday orbital trip, for example.
Preparing for G-force: You may have seen astronauts in movies and TV shows blasting off with pained expressions because of the intense gravitational force (G-force) from the launch. But lift-off is not as bad as you might imagine—in fact, you are more familiar with G-force than you might think. You experience it every time you quickly accelerate your car or when your commercial airline flight takes off. A rocket’s lift-off is certainly more intense and lasts longer, but if you’re reasonably fit, you can handle it.
During training, you may ride in a centrifuge—a circular device that spins quickly, pinning you against the wall—so you will be accustomed to increased G-force. You even may have enjoyed a ride like this at an amusement park. Another way to prepare for zero-G: Scuba diving. Achieving neutral buoyancy underwater is somewhat similar to zero-gravity—in fact, NASA has long used underwater training for its astronauts.
Getting ready for zero-gravity: When you are in a zero-G environment, the normal rules of motion do not apply—or at least they apply in a very different way than what you’re used to. We have spent our entire lives tied to the Earth by gravity, so suddenly being free of this normally inescapable force requires a new way of moving. For example, when you are on Earth, if you want to get to point A from point B, you know how much force to use. But when you are in space, you’ll need to push off from the floor or wall to “fly” across the cabin or get close to a window. First-timer mistake: Pushing off with too much force and hitting your head on the ceiling or wall.
The rest of the training likely will consist of safety briefings, emergency drills, mission simulations, instructions on communications and general flight procedures.
Less Expensive Options
More affordable than going into space—or even a good training session if you are planning to get up there—is a reduced-gravity flight. This takes you far up into the atmosphere, where the pilot performs a series of phugoid maneuvers (essentially steep dives and climbs). The plane—often a specially fitted Boeing 727, Airbus A310 or something similar—climbs up, like that first hill when you’re riding a rollercoaster, then descends at a very steep angle. This steep descent lets you experience weightlessness for about a minute before the pilot levels out the plane and then takes the craft up again to repeat the process. These flights provide the closest thing to going into space but for a fraction of the cost—usually from about $7,500 per person. Companies that offer these flights: Air Zero G (AirZeroG.com), Space Adventures (SpaceAdventures.com) and Zero Gravity Corporation (GoZeroG.com).
Another option: Instead of retrofitting an aircraft or inventing a new kind of ship or rocket, the company World View is planning to use a balloon to lift passengers into the sky, which provides a much gentler ride. It has performed more than 100 ascents into the stratosphere—about 100,000 feet off the ground, or nearly 20 miles—and expects to take its first tourists up by 2024. Ticket prices are expected to be about $50,000 per person for a six-to-eight-hour flight. World View is offering this trip as part of a destination vacation package—you will spend five days before the flight exploring and enjoying Amazonia in Peru…the Northern Lights in Norway…the Pyramids of Egypt…the Grand Canyon…the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia…the Great Wall of China…or the Serengeti in Kenya.