Masters of the universe
With Space Adventures, you get a holiday that defies gravity and an experience that is astronomical in every respect—including price.
Most people agonise about where in the world they want to go on holiday, but my advice is to forget Earth completely. After speaking to Space Adventures, it’s clear the world is not enough.
The company’s Stacey Tearne talks like any other travel agent, the only difference being that the destination she discusses is the stuff of Interstellar movie dreams and the costs are light years away from a week in Langkawi.
“Basically we customise our services to whatever you require,” she says. “We can fly you to the International Space Station, perhaps help you enjoy a space walk. We offer sub-orbital flights, zero-gravity flights, weightless experiences and training opportunities. Basically we can tailor a space programme to fit your budget.”
Tearne’s prices start from a zero-gravity experience at US$10,000, to a trip to the International Space Station for US$35 million. To put that money in context—for US$35 million you live in five-star luxury in the Maldives for 150 years. Actually, scrap that—you could buy your own island.
Already, the likes of Microsoft Corp co-founder Charles Simonyi have spent the GDP of a small country on a space trip. Soprano singer Sarah Brightman was all set to blast off from Kazakhstan in a Soyuz rocket come September 2015 until family reasons forced her to postpone her trip in May.
The multi-millionaire says she has been obsessed with space since she saw Neil Armstrong take that giant step for mankind in 1969 when she was eight. She buys expensive space memorabilia (such as a notebook that once belonged to astronaut Buzz Aldrin), collects Soviet space mission posters, and in 1978, sang a pop song called Starship Trooper.
Before postponing her trip, Brightman was undergoing a rigorous 16-hours-a-day training schedule in Russia to learn what cosmonauts have to learn. “And at the end of every week, I was tested in front of a specialist panel. It’s very scary—I’ve not been tested on anything since I was a child,” she says.
Even scarier are the physical demands of that training—zero-gravity flights, pressure chambers, Soyuz simulators, space suits and, erm, singing. Brightman was scheduled to perform in space after eight days of acclimation.
No doubt US$35 million is a lot of money to spend on a 10-day holiday, but, “a lot of people in their fifties and sixties who have saved some money want to do something they wouldn’t have done earlier in their lives. They make decisions,” Brightman says. “This was my decision. Yes, it’s just 10 days, but it brings me huge happiness.”
Of course she’s not the only space tourist to reach for the stars. Space Adventures’ last client was billionaire Guy Laliberté, the former street performer who created Cirque du Soleil. He used his orbital trip to promote a campaign to provide clean water to the world’s poor while “being very, very careful about not breaking anything”.
“I’m an artist not a scientist,” he said during in-orbit “shows”, with live contributions from U2, Shakira and Peter Gabriel. “When I joined Expedition 21 I knew there would be an artistic component to my mission.” Wearing a clown nose during his flight, he read out poetry and presented videos to highlight the plight of the underprivileged.
Laliberté described the landing as the ride of a lifetime. “The moment you eject is the moment you realise there is no going back,” he said. “Going down you go through blue layers, you start to see sparks for the first time, then colours. It’s scary.”
Dennis Tito was the first private citizen to enjoy Space Adventures’ extraordinary services in 2001. Since then, there have been five other space tourists including Anousheh Ansari, the first woman to pay for a trip. Ansari migrated to America from Iran as a teenager unable to speak English and went on to make a fortune in technologies. She said her space trip was to prove that “there is no limit to what young people can achieve” and to “enjoy the final frontier”.
Certainly, each billionaire space explorer has had an agenda. Computer games billionaire Richard Garriott wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father Owen, who completed two missions for NASA. Software designer and self-confessed space geek Charles Simonyi has made two trips to the International Space Station to inspire children’s interest in science. He did a pretty good job.
While at the station he answered online questions from youngsters, offering fascinating insight into the experience—how he sleeps (“in a sleeping bag, any position I like. It’s weightless and I dream less”); how difficult it is to eat juicy oranges (“apples and bananas are cleaner”); what it’s like to re-enter the Earth’s orbit (“like skiing on a slalom course, then being rear-ended by a car”) and how annoying weightlessness can be (“you need reverse tape all the time to keep things stuck down”).
To be sure, not everyone has a spare US$35 million to blow on an out-of-world experience. That’s where the US$10,000 zero-gravity experience comes in. “You are flown up in what resembles a cargo plane, a 727 with all the fittings stripped out and padding installed,” says Tearne. “It reaches an altitude of 24,000 feet at a 45-degree angle, tips at 34,000 feet and then performs about eight to 12 parabolas or rolls, creating zero-gravity inside. The experience is like a giant rollercoaster.”
During those parabolas, you experience weightlessness for about 30 seconds each time. It may not sound like a lot, but it gives you time to fly. Once you’ve mastered the art of zero-gravity, you could try space walking. At Star City—where astronaut Yuri Gagarin was trained—is a giant neutral buoyancy container known as a hydrolab, a huge water tank that has been customised with a full-scale model of the International Space Station. Underwater is the closest you can get to the weightlessness of space.
Indeed, space may be the final frontier, but there are yet infinite frontiers in space itself for Space Adventures to expand. Tearne says that the company is looking at upgrading its Soyuz space flights to take travellers around the Moon in a figure-of-eight loop. “We will time the trip correctly to ensure that the far side of the Moon is illuminated so that you can see its craters in all their glory 62 miles from the surface,” she says. “We believe the trip will take about three days each way. But of course you can stop off at the International Space Station on the way. We hope to launch our first trip soon, with two seats available at US$100 million per trip. It really will be quite an experience.”
At that price, one certainly hopes so.