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Space tourism reaches for the stars

Will our grandchildren spend their vacations on the moon, or their honeymoons in a hotel orbiting Mars?

india Updated: Mar 13, 2006 15:54 IST
Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse

Will our grandchildren spend their vacations on the moon, or their honeymoons in a hotel orbiting Mars? A few dreamers at the International Tourism Fair in Berlinsay space tours for average travellers could come sooner than we think.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are rumoured to have booked tickets on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic Spaceship which is due for lift-off in 2010. But experts at the ITB in Berlin said space travel may also one day be within reach for mere mortals.

"If you have 20 million dollars lying around, there is a spot available in April next year," Dieter Isakeit of the manned flight division of the European Space Agency said, noting the still astronomical cost for amateur astronauts.

US millionaire Dennis Tito laid down that amount in 2001 to become the first galactic tourist, spending a week on the International Space Station (ISS).

But few are able to pay such princely sums to realize their dream -- a Japanese man became only the fourth holidaymaker in space last September.

But more modest -- and radically cheaper -- trips could become available in the foreseeable future.

Professor Robert Goehlich of Keio University in Yokohama, Japan said that short suborbital flights, which would make it possible to experience a few weightless minutes, could be a reality within 15 years.

Flights that take passengers into spatial orbit for a few hours could be a niche market in 25 years, he added.

However the next step, a true holiday in space, is a more distant fantasy, not only for financial reasons.

A model space hotel on display in Berlin shows that comfort when travellers are afloat in the Milky Way will be hard to find.

The module, designed for use on the ISS, is comprised of four tiny cabins with berths for couples, a common room and a very basic bathroom.

Its developer, Dirk Schumann, said the package could be had at a price of two million dollars per person per week.

The other concern is safety.

"The Achilles' heel of the shuttles today is that they do not allow the crew to be ejected in case of major damage," German astronaut Ulf Merbold said.

"The space station is not like a plane in which the cockpit is separate from the passengers' cabin. It is as if people in a hospital could walk in and out of the operating room during a heart operation," Isakeit added.

And it will also take some time before Mars and Saturn start appearing as destinations in tour catalogues. The length of the journey is so prohibitive that it would take new propulsion technology to make manned travel to the major planets even a remote possibility.

But for those too impatient to wait, there are options.

The travel group European Space Tourist is offering four-day trips to the Cosmonaut Training Center at Star City east of Moscow with zero-gravity simulation flights. The experience can be yours for just 5,000 euros (6,000 dollars).

"The demand is growing all the time," proprietor Thomas Kraus said, saying that companies seeking a unique gift were particularly intrigued.

Certain inconveniences associated with space, however, will probably never improve.

European Space Tourist sells food developed by NASA on the Internet including packets of dried fruits.

The rest, "sounds good on the menu but on the plate it has a gelatinous consistency that is much less appetizing," Goehlich said.

"This artificial colony on the space station is incredibly lacking compared to the quality of life on earth," Merbold said.

"There are much more comfortable places than a shuttle to spend a honeymoon" or hold a wedding. "You cannot kiss the bride with a space-suit helmet on."

First Published: Mar 13, 2006 15:35 IST