How long will it be before vacation packages include a quick trip to the orbital spa?
Maybe not so long, as Laura Ling explains in today's Seeker Daily report. The concept of genuine space tourism is no longer science fiction -- in fact, several space tourists have already been up in orbit.
But it's an expensive proposition. The private space flight company Space Adventures, in collaboration with the Russian Space Agency, has flown seven tourists to the International Space Station since 2001. Tourists were taken along on regularly scheduled missions via the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Each trip cost the customer between $20 million and $40 million and lasted around 10 days.
The price tag necessarily limited the customer base to very rich people with a very insistent dream. Alas, the Soyuz program was suspended in 2010. That extra space became too valuable to scientists after NASA shut down its shuttle program.
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A new wave of commercial outfits -- like Virgin Galactic, Space X and MirCorp -- are currently building the infrastructure to power a new era of privatized space flight. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is focusing specifically on space tourism. The company plans to mobilize an entire fleet of spaceplanes for low-orbit trips, and in fact you can make reservations now. Just be aware that the $250,000 deposit must be paid upfront and in full. Cuts down on the window shoppers, you see.
Depending on how you define your terms, space tourism dates all the way back to the 1980s. NASA had plans to regularly include private citizens on space missions -- teachers, artists, journalists -- but the program was dropped after teacher Christa McAuliffe was killed in the 1986 Challenger shuttle explosion.
The Soviet Union tried something similar when it flew a Japanese journalist to Mir space station in 1990. But neither the Soviet and U.S. program were true commercial space tourism programs, since government agencies and media companies were finally footing the bill.
But we can safely expect genuine space tourism to take hold in the near future, as the privatization of spaceflight ramps up. In fact, the U.S. already has guidelines and regulations in place. Start saving now, and don't forget sunscreen. You'll be above the ozone layer, so SPF 1,000,000 is recommended.
-- Glenn McDonald
Space.com: First Space Tourist: How a U.S. Millionaire Bought a Ticket to Orbit
Washington Post: Japanese to Become First Journalist in Space
Space Adventures: Space Station
VirginGalactic: Fly with Us