Space tourism takes flight

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Cheap orbits in 10 years, says author

Peter McMahon can’t wait to get into space.

Space holidays used to be a distant dream, says McMahon. Then they became reality for a few millionaires. Now, for just $200,000, anyone can buy a ticket to ride on a plane that’s actually been into space.

“It’s no longer this far-off artist’s concept,” he says. “It’s actually happening now.”

McMahon, a science journalist who does work for the Discovery Channel, will speak on the wonders of space tourism this Sunday at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton.

It’s part of a series of events at the science centre this year that celebrate two anniversaries, says science director Frank Florian: the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch and the 50th anniversary of the first manned spaceflight.

Virgin Galactic is now selling $200,000 tickets for suborbital flights, Florian notes, flights that should lift off next year. If you’ve got a spare $25 million to $50 million, you can hitch a ride with the Russians right now.

Tickets could go for as little as $20,000 within five years, McMahon predicts. “If you can finance a cottage, you can go into space.”

Liftoff

McMahon has done extensive research on space tourism over the last few years and interviewed many of its pioneers. He also has a children’s book on the subject due out this fall.

Space travel seems to need a spark before it really takes off, he says. In the 1960s, that spark was the space race. In the 1990s, it was the Ansari X PRIZE — a $10-million prize open to anyone who could get a re-useable spaceship into space twice in two weeks.

A winged bottle called SpaceShipOne claimed the prize in 2004. It cost about $40 million to build, McMahon says, compared to about $2 billion for the space shuttle. “It’s basically a minivan with wings.”

The craft itself is remarkably simple, McMahon says. “It’s closer to a Cessna or a single-engine plane than it is to any other spaceship.” Unlike the ultra-complex space shuttle, all this craft has for controls is a flight stick and two pedals.

The ship spends the first part of its flight strapped to a booster plane that gets it up to speed. “Then you have the Bell X-1 Chuck Yeager moment,” he says, referring to the first plane to break the sound barrier, when the ship drops off the booster plane and the pilot flicks the ignition switch.

“At that point, it’s bucking like a bronco.” It’s then up to the pilot to keep the ship pointed in the right direction until he or she gets about 100 kilometres up. “And then you’re floating. You’re in microgravity and more or less weightless.”

Fly the starry skies

Space is the final frontier, McMahon says, and a lot of people want to experience it. “It’s the last great adventure that no one has done yet.”

Initial trips will be suborbital, he predicts, giving people the chance to experience microgravity and to see the curvature of the Earth. Wealthy guests can now use the International Space Station as a sort of space hotel for longer stays. Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow is also working on inflatable modules that could provide future travellers with room and board.

McMahon says he’s most excited about the possibility of orbital yachts — cruise ships that give people the chance to see terrestrial landmarks from orbit. “I’m 34, and I think if I want to go into space in my lifetime, I’ll be able to reasonably afford it.”

These commercial spaceships could not only get future astronauts into orbit, Florian says, but could also give our politicians some new perspective on the Earth. “We’re all just one big, blue world, and we all have a stake in it.”

McMahon’s talk is this Sunday at 3 p.m. Call 780-451-3344 for details.

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.