Anousheh Ansari, who became the first female space "tourist" when she flew to the ISS in 2006. Image credit: Space Adventures

May 17, 2015 How challenging is it to take a trip into space?

Sen—Singer Sarah Brightman surprised space watchers this week when she revealed that she is pulling out of her trip to the International Space Station that was originally set for September.

The Broadway star and former wife of musical impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber was said to have paid $52 million to become the eighth “space tourist” to embark on one of U.S. company Space Adventures’ out-of-this-world excursions.

She had already spent many months preparing for her ten days in orbit, along with professional astronauts, at Houston with NASA and at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center near Moscow. She was said to have passed all her medical checks and other tests successfully and would have been flown aboard a Soyuz TMA-18M along with replacement crew for the orbiting outpost, following in the footsteps of the first female fee paying private astronaut, Anousheh Ansari, who flew to the ISS in 2006 (Helen Sharman became the first non-government sponsored female astronaut in 1991 but her trip was funded by private businesses rather than through her own funds).

The official announcement that Sarah was “postponing” her flight gave no specific explanation beyond citing “personal family reasons”. If it were me who was down to fly, I might have had second thoughts following the run of unfortunate incidents suffered by the Russian space programme, but there is no evidence that this was a factor in the singer’s decision.

As Sen’s Russian spaceflight expert Anatoly Zak reported, a Proton rocket carrying a Mexican satellite failed yesterday, after launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and crashed near the eastern border with China.

At the same time, it was revealed that a Progress ship attached to the ISS had failed to fire its engines during a manoeuvre to correct the space station’s orbit. That was the same type of cargo ship as was lost after one went out of control in orbit following launch on April 28 by a Soyuz-2-1a rocket.

Russia is currently the only nation that can ferry astronauts to and from the ISS, and it will be a while before the U.S. has a vehicle of its own, either commercial or state-run, to replace the Space Shuttle in this task. Throughout the life of the ISS, Russian Soyuz spacecraft have successfully performed as taxis to orbit.

Astronauts are always brave because spaceflight is never routine, as we often point out at Sen. You could, however, forgive any potential astronauts having a twinge of anxiety at the moment while the two main Russian rocket families are grounded for inquiries, with an inevitable knock-on effect that will delay future missions to the ISS. After all, they are only human.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that. You need some special qualities to fly to the final frontier, but you don’t have to have superpowers. Sen’s own founder and CEO, Charles Black, is in training for his own suborbital flight, but he has never claimed to be Superman—well not recently, anyway.

True, it is not like a holiday trip to the tropics, where you might have to remember to get some jabs, apply the sunscreen, and buy travel insurance. But when I spoke to an expert recently, he reckoned that most people would be able to make at least a short trip into space.

Dr Mark Shelhamer, chief scientist of the NASA Human Research Program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, told me: “Virgin Galactic recently ran a large number of people through centrifuge training, specifically to see who could tolerate the G forces. They included people of all ages, some who had suffered heart attacks, or who had insulin pumps or pacemakers implanted, and they found that basically no condition was disqualified except possibly anxiety issues. A space trip is going to be quite a ride, and you can’t just change your mind and get out!”

That is an interesting point and shows that psychological problems can be just as much an impediment as physical ones. Spaceflight is unlikely to appeal to the claustrophobic, for example, so if you get uncomfortable on a city metro, you’re probably not going to enjoy being cramped in a space capsule for hours on end.

Another potential problem is space sickness. Some people get ill on parabolic training flights, where aircraft are put in a steep looping dive that creates a short period of weightlessness for passengers. 

Shelhamer told me: “I think the motion sickness, disorientation and nausea could be a concern. It’s why they call the plane that does parabolic training flights the vomit comet. Some medications are pretty effective for motion sickness, but it’s not pleasant in a confined space. All it takes is for one person to get sick and then everybody is exposed to it.”

How spaceflight affects humans is, of course, an important research field for space scientists. They seem agreed that short trips are no problem, apart from those who are physically sick during the few minutes of weightlessness. G forces will put some stresses on the body, including heart and circulation of blood, during acceleration into and return from orbit.

Researchers are hoping to learn a lot more about the effects of a long duration space stay as Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko experience a year long stay in space aboard the ISS. Scott's identical twin, Mark—also an astronaut—is back on Earth, giving scientists a unique opportunity to see how the body changes in microgravity by comparing changes two genetically similar people, with one on Earth and one in space.

Nausea, dizziness and disorientation are common on slightly longer trips than a quick suborbital flight, but are not expected to be a barrier for space tourists like those that Space Adventures fly to the ISS, or who will take holidays in the first orbiting space hotels.

Shelhamer says: “If you’re talking about a week in space, we have that pretty much under control. There will be again some balance and disorientation issues, some muscle weakness. But motion sickness and imbalance problems are generally over for everyone within about three days.”