A Future of Spatial Tourism: Reality or Fiction?
More and more companies are competing to offer trips to space. Although optimists say it will be possible in 2018, technical and governmental issues have yet to be resolved.
An old peasant woman asks the humanoid, fallen from the sky, "Are you from outer space?" on the morning of April 12th, 1961. "Absolutely, yes," answers the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to see the Earth from outer space. He had just spent 108 orbiting the planet to demonstrate that human beings are capable of surviving in conditions of weightlessness. Forty years later, in 2011, the American millionaire Dennis Tito inaugurated space tourism by spending a week aboard the International Space Station (ISS) 330 kilometers above the Earth. After several years of stagnation, several tech companies have set out to design the vacation of the future. They offer more or less affordable trips designed to allow to anyone, not just formally trained astronauts, to contemplate the Earth from space.
Space travel has gone from a source of revenue for government agencies to a business opportunity for private companies, which are competing to be the first to tap into this new market. The private company Virgin Galactic expects to start sending tourists to outer space by the end of 2018, as explained by its founder, Richard Branson, to Bloomberg. The price will be considerably less than the first seven pioneers spent, at around 250,000 euros. While far from chump change, it has not discouraged the more than 800 people who have already signed up. What do they find so irresistible? "Outer space inspires great curiosity among the general public, companies and investors because it is still unexplored and represents the opportunity to make great discoveries as well as big business," explains the head scientist at the Spanish Institute of Space Science (IEEC-CSIC), Josep Trigo.
Next stop: outer space
Maybe the difference in price as compared to the 30 million dollars (some 25 million euros) paid by one of the first explorers could be explained by the duration of the trips. While the first pioneers enjoyed between eight and fifteen days aboard the ISS, the new, low cost tourists will spend just a few hours of suborbital flights at altitudes of up to 100 kilometers, the distance considered to represent the limit of the Earth´s atmosphere.
In Virgin Galactic´s case, each spacecraft, with six passengers onboard, will be attached to a plane which will take off just like any other plane and climb to an altitude of 15,000 meters (transatlantic flights cruise at altitudes of between 10,000 and 12,000 meters). Then the craft will detach and be propelled by several rockets until reaching an altitude of approximately 100 kilometers. There, the motors will be turned off to allow passengers to experience weightlessness while observing the Earth on one side and the blackness of outer space on the other. Afterwards, the novice astronauts will return to their seats in preparation for the descent and landing. If you have been bitten by the space travel bug, you need only be in good health, fill out this questionnaire and make a deposit of 250,000 euros.
If you are not yet convinced, perhaps you could wait to see what other companies with extraterrestrial experiences not yet scheduled for launch will offer. Blue Origin, founded by the creator of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, is also taking a gamble on suborbital flights. Their technology is comprised of a spaceship-cabin which will carry tourists to space. Unlike Virgin Galactic, the ship is elevated during the first few kilometers by a rocket like those we are used to seeing in space missions.
Another alternative is the Spanish company Zero 2 Infinity, which has developed Bloon, a pressurized capsule which reaches an altitude of 36 kilometers with the help of a large helium balloon. Although not characterized as "space travel" (these crafts will not leave the Earth´s atmosphere), "six passengers will be able to observe the curve of the Earth, the blackness of space and the fine line which separates the two," Zero 2 Infinity´s communications director, Marta Lebrón, explains. According to Lebrón, the type of trips the company proposes to provide would be accessible to anyone: "The movement is very calm. Entire families could travel in this capsule – there are no medical restrictions. It would be like flying in a plane." The company is already working with air traffic authorities to gain approval for such flights.
At Bigelow Aerospace, in contrast, offers a more complete spatial experience: several days at the company´s inflatable, orbital hotels, which are currently in the prototype phase. And Space X has taken the idea even further by offering the opportunity to be one of the first colonists on Mars. The date set for touchdown is 2024, as stated by its founder and the creator of Paypal and Tesla, Elon Musk, during the most recent International Astronautical Congress, celebrated in Adelaide, Australia, last September.
Not for hypochondriacs
To add to the technological challenges, there are other problems derived from the extreme environment and lack of regulations. "Outer space is a very hostile environment because it is bathed in ionizing radiation which can prove harmful in the case of prolonged exposure," Trigo points out. Are you familiar with the consequences of "exposure" to outer space? Some of the particles from the Sun and other stellar sources contain enough energy to break the DNA in our cells, which can lead to mutations and cancer. "Although progress has been made in developing special suits and insulated walls for the majority of these kinds of radiation, there is still much more work to do," he adds.
And one cannot forget the unexpected risks associated with this environment. It is not inconceivable that such a craft could collide with a meteorite or space debris or even experience problems during maneuvers, like the one which caused the accident suffered by one of the company Virgin Space´s aircrafts during an experimental flight in 2014.
And what about the legal aspects? Have you ever wondered what would happen if a crime were committed inside a spacecraft full of tourists outside the Earth´s atmosphere? And what would happen if one collided with a commercial satellite? No laws apply to outer space, and there are no authorities to answer to. "The problem with creating regulations for space is that there is no supranational body which is authorized to do so," explained Pablo Fernández Burgueño, a lawyer specialized in emerging technologies at Abanlex, during an interview with the publication Expansión.
Despite all of this, "the primary stumbling block in the development of this kind of spatial projects is financing because the main drivers are private companies," says Lebrón. Everything else will work itself out because, he explains, "the most important thing is for everyone to see the Earth from space to experience the change which many astronauts have already experienced: from space, our planet looks fragile and borderless, all of which inspires a feeling of protectiveness towards the Earth."
By Elvira del Pozo