When the new millennium dawned, so did a new destination for travellers: outer space.
Since 2001, eight space tourists have punctured the atmosphere in rockets charging upward at 40,000 kilometers per hour, spent two weeks in orbit at the International Space Station (ISS), and burnt back through the clouds in a tiny capsule. The ticket? About USD$30 million. But from the windows of their space module, these civilian astronauts looked down on the earth like demigods, suspended in the ether, watched a sunrise and sunset every 90 minutes, and saw New York, Paris and Beijing whirl past like tiny campfire coals glowing at night.
Before Eric Anderson founded Space Adventures, a US-based company in the space tourism market, only elite scientific and military personnel in peak physical condition were selected to be astronauts, and ventures into space were austere matters of national security. In the years ahead, however, more paying customers will be able to experience space, with the international attention, brass bands, and other trimmings of modern royalty.
Right now, the only way for individual travelers to get into space is through the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which goes to the ISS. Space Adventures handles the booking for these flights — among their enlisted space cadets are opera star Sarah Brightman and Google founder Sergey Brin. Analysts say that space tourism could become a $10 billion annual industry in the years and decades ahead, with private companies constructing their own launch vehicles and even permanent space headquarters. Companies like Virgin Galactic aim to open up the mass market soon, with day trips to suborbital space for $250,000, and only a few days preparation.
The training regimen for multi-day space voyagers now is intense: they need to be prepared for heavy G forces, confined spaces, potential catastrophes, and commands given in Russian. Physical and mental training begins at least a year before departure and is centered in Star City, an astronaut training ground outside Moscow. A replica of the ISS lives underwater there and interstellar hopefuls practice maneuvers in simulated zero gravity.
Then, lift off. “In only 10 or 15 minutes I was in outer space,” said Iranian Anousheh Ansari, the only female space tourist to date. “We think it’s this long journey but it’s not,” she said, given that the edge of space officially lies 100 km or 62 miles above earth. Ansari spent her girlhood yearning to reach space, and said she would have gladly paid double the ticket price to fulfill the dream.
Many of the tourists to space so far are cut-and-dry engineer types — but they turn into poets when describing what it’s like to look back at the earth.
Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, had been fascinated with space since he was a young adult. In 2001, he left his investment management business in California to train intensively for a space trip. “There was one thing not even the most extensive training could prepare me for: The awe and wonder I felt at seeing our beautiful Earth, the fragile atmosphere at its horizon and the vast blackness of space against which it was set,” he said in a statement to U.S. Congress.
Those from a previous generation of space travelers had similarly deep impressions. “The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space,” said Aleksei Leonov, a former major general in the Soviet air force, and the first human to walk in space in 1965.
This expansion of consciousness from a space trip also seems to manifest physically: in a zero gravity environment, the spinal cord lengthens noticeably. Everyone walks a little taller when they come home from outer space.