After the recent rocket plane test crash, is there still hope to go where no man or woman except 500 or so astronauts, political hangers-on and celebrities have gone before? Will space tourism remain a stellar goal for those select risk-takers who've been there, done that, and traveled just about everywhere else?
FAA investigations will ensue and further testing will probably continue, with sober reflection on space tourism ventures from investors and the public. And as time passes, the urge to break earth's bounds will not end. Three hundred eager folks have already signed on to XCOR Lynx, a rocket-powered space plane. For $95k, one civilian and a pilot will fly 61 miles above the Earth, and spend 30 minutes in space, three of those minutes in a micro-gravity environment with a max of four g-forces; four times the pull of earth's gravity.
And then there are the 700-plus ticket holders who have already shelled out up to a quarter million to fly on Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic with five other passengers and two pilots at a time. (Refunds have been offered.) The rocket plane would take off from a Truth-or-Consequences New Mexico base for a max of two hours, spending 60 miles above Earth for five minutes in a micro-gravity environment. Passengers would endure up to six gs, and a long glide back.
The crash of Branson's SpaceShipTwo test-rocket plane on October 31 has underscored the risks behind the hype. Plans are pending, and depending on studies, the new goal may be to move slowly, steadily, and more realistically forward.
I flew on the virgin flight of Virgin Air back in the mid-80s, with Richard Branson on board. Back then he had one used jet as his fleet, and big dreams. The question is whether he can pull off this grander vision of a sub-orbital shuttle the way he did Virgin Air. In recent interviews, Branson himself seems tentative but hopeful. He still expects to be on the first flight.
Both Virgin Galactic and XCOR flights are considered "sub-orbital" flights and just barely escape the earth's atmosphere. If you really want to orbit, you'll have to spend between 10 days and two weeks aboard the Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station. And you'll have to pay $50 million to Space Adventures Orbital Space Flight. (If you have to ask, you shouldn't go.)
To go full orbital you'll be flying as a solo civilian, accompanied by two astronauts. You'll soar 250 miles above the planet, at 17,500 miles an hour, and face a maximum force of six to eight gs. But you won't be the first to do it. British singer Sarah Brightman and Cirque du Soliel founder, Guy Laliberte are among the handful that have already signed up. And the first civilian passenger, 61-year-old Dennis Tito, went on a real 2001 Space Odyssey thirteen years ago.
You may wonder if you have the right stuff. Well, besides the major expenses, requirements for civilian passengers on sub-orbital flight don't seem all that stringent. You have to be at least 18, but there's no age limit otherwise. And for XCOR, you can be no heavier than 250 pounds, for practical and orbital purposes (to be able to lift off and sit comfortably, I guess). You'll have to take a basic physical, similar to that of a airline pilot, but if you're in generally good health you should pass. However, there are obvious stresses such as possible blackouts, especially during take off and re-entry. And once again, with any experimental flights there are unforeseen consequences.
You can get a taste of space without going into orbit. Just seek your four gs on a major coaster, or spin in a centrifuge, or experience zero weightlessness, or bounce around in a flight simulator. Enough of a thrill for most of us earthbound types, thank you very much.