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Space tourism: the Moon, Mars and beyond?

Mark Frary
Jan 9, 2012, 8:00 UTC

It is early January and the excesses of Christmas and the New Year are beginning to wear off. Your gaze falls onto the advert flickering on the screen in front of you. Holiday companies know only too well that at this time of the year, people are starting to think about their annual getaways.

Where to this year then? Since the big recession, people have been talking a lot again about staycations – not going too far away from home to save money. But not you. This is the year that you have promised to go further. This year – 2030 – you are not staycationing on planet Earth, this is the year that you have promised yourself the ultimate ski safari, taking in the snowiest and steepest runs in the solar system.That may sound far-fetched but let us just turn the clock back for a moment.

Space tourism arguably began in 1990 when Toyohiro Akiyama, a TV journalist working for Japan’s Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), became the first private individual to go into space. In a deal between TBS and the Soviet Union, Akiyama joined the Soyuz TM-11 mission and spent eight days on board the Mir space station.

A year later, British-born chemist Helen Sharman was chosen for cosmonaut training in a privately funded programme called Project Juno. Despite the failure of the project to raise sufficient funds, Sharman was still permitted to join the Soyuz TM-12 mission after 18 months of training in Star City. Sharman spent eight days aboard Mir, becoming the first Briton in space along the way.

Space tourism proper, where individuals have paid for their own trips, began in 2001 when American Dennis Tito paid a reported $20 million for the privilege of climbing aboard another Soyuz and headed for an eight-day vacation to the International Space Station. Tito’s trip was organised by US company Space Adventures and six others have followed Tito’s example and have paid the company even more. Canadian Guy Laliberté, the man behind the Cirque du Soleil phenomenon, spent a reported $35 million in 2009 to do a similar trip. Space Adventures’ president Tom Shelley says that the same trip now costs around $40 to $50 million.

Space Adventures is not just about trips to the International Space Station and offers a range of what it likes to call “space experiences” to would-be private astronauts. 

At entry level, you can experience weightlessness on board one of its Zero-G flights for a shade under $5,000. More than 6,000 people, including physicist Stephen Hawking, have flown on board the company’s specially modified Boeing 727 as it flies in parabolic arcs to mimic the weightless experience felt by orbiting astronauts.

Space Adventures is also working with rocket manufacturer Armadillo Aerospace, which is developing vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) Stig rockets. In December, Armadillo successfully launched Stig A to a height of 140,000 feet from Spaceport America in New Mexico. 

Shelley told Sen, “Armadillo has a sound technological platform: a rocket which is proven, flight avionics and fuel tanks - everything you need to be able to put the vehicle together. Ultimately, this will launch a two-person vehicle and fly autonomously. We are very excited about that prospect and have a couple of hundred people on our waiting list and although I am not prepared to say when it will happen precisely, it will be in the not too distant future.”

Space Adventures is not the only company looking at sub-orbital flights. Over the next couple of years, space tourism is going to get a lot more interesting and – crucially – a whole lot cheaper with flights planned for sub-orbital trips up to the so-called Kármán line, an altitude of 100km above sea level and the most widely accepted definition of the beginning of space proper.

Virgin Galactic is another company planning to be a pioneer in mass space tourism. The company says that it is “making good progress” and that the first test flight of its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, designed by Ansari X Prize winner Burt Rutan, is planned for this year.

Virgin Galactic’s CEO and President George Whitesides told Sen the company plans “to begin commercial operations as soon as is safe and practical following that milestone”. He adds that 475 people have signed up to fly with the company already, people who are, in his words, “forward-thinking and who see space as a personal milestone for themselves”.  

He adds: “Current access to space is very costly. Russia is currently charging NASA about $65 million dollars per seat to get to space. Virgin Galactic is offering the space experience at what is actually a revolutionary price: $200k per seat. We anticipate that the price will come down at some point but it may be many years in the future. We expect to fly thousands of people in the first ten years of operation.” 

Space Expedition Curacao is set to launch sub-orbital flights from the Caribbean island of Curacao in 2014 for $95,000. The 60-minute flights aboard a reusable shuttle-like spacecraft called the Lynx, being developed by XCOR.

But would-be space tourists wanting to get away from the growing crowds taking sub-orbital flights have something else to start saving for. Private astronauts with bigger budgets - $150 million big to be precise – can book a seat on Space Adventures’ most exciting trip, a proposed mission to the Moon. 

The company’s Tom Shelley says one seat has already been booked, although he won’t say by whom, and as soon as the second seat is sold it will take three years to get the mission off the ground. 

The mission would use existing Soyuz technology and the two paying passengers would be accompanied by “one very lucky Russian cosmonaut”, he says. 

During the three year waiting period, the two passengers would learn spaceflight theory and how the vehicles operate, take zero G flights as well as undergoing training in simulators to learn how to operate under weightless conditions. There would also be sessions in hypobaric chambers to see how their bodies react to depressurisation. Shelley says, “Our clients say that the training is almost as much fun as the flight itself.” 

So what is it about going to space that appeals?

Those lucky few who have been to space are usually profoundly changed by the experience. Dennis Tito said of his experience: “For me, it was like being in heaven — it was like being in a second life.” Guy LaLiberté, interviewed by Sen after his space trip, said that when he viewed Earth from space what struck him “was that relationship between Earth and the universe, its extreme fragility and extreme strength with regards to the human species. That thought is still very much what struck me most. I would also add that I believe that planet Earth is the expression paradise. It is beautiful.”

Virgin Galactic’s George Whitesides says that space tourism is an incredibly attractive proposition. “Many are excited at the thought of simply leaving Earth and entering space, others aspire to reach destinations like an asteroid, the Moon or Mars. The bottom line is lots of people want to go to space and experience something that, at this point, only a select few have had the opportunity to do. For the foreseeable future, sub-orbital space travel is what will be achievable for the public - where people can go into space and earn the title astronaut.“

Space Adventures’ Tom Shelley says, “Everyone has a slightly different motivation. Some people are achieving a lifelong dream. They have looked up at the stars and imagined being able to touch them. Others see space as the next great destination. They have already travelled to the Poles, the oceans and Everest.”

But some see it as part of something much bigger, he says. “Others see that mankind’s future has to be as a spacefaring race. They see they can help make that happen.”

While the focus in the near future is sub-orbital and orbital, it is clear that the next generation of space thrillseekers will want to go further. After the Moon, why not Mars?

Skiing on Olympus Mons

It is an attractive proposition for Virgin Galactic. Whitesides says, “Services to Mars are probably a bit down the road, but I’m sure that there will be a Virgin Galactic spaceship servicing that route someday.”

Shelley is keen too. “Mars? What a fantastic destination,” he says. “Interplanetary travel is a possibility for private citizens. It might even be that the first mission to Mars will be a mixture of private citizens and government astronauts, with the private citizens offsetting some of the cost. It is a long way away but part of mankind’s future is to go to Mars.”

Another person who thinks that Mars might not be such a distant dream is SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Musk, founder of PayPal and Tesla, feels that mankind’s long-term survival depends on its being able to colonise the red planet. He believes that this could happen if the costs of getting there could be reduced to around $500,000 dollars, the price of a middle-class home in California. “Enough people would buy a ticket to move to Mars and be part of the founding team of a new civilisation,” he said in a recent speech to the US National Press Club

That 2030 skiing trip to Mars is looking less far-fetched all the time but what would the experience be like?

Terrestrial skiers and snowboarders are constantly in search of “vert”, continuous vertical feet of slope uninterrupted by cable cars and ski lifts.

At 22 kilometres high, Olympus Mons is the second tallest peak in the Solar System, beaten only by the central mountain of the vast Rheasilvia crater on the asteroid Vesta.

What Olympus Mons does have is the right conditions, although the snow cover is terrible (anyone who went skiing in Europe last winter might think it is the same here). This extinct volcano only has snow in patches, as discovered by the Mars Express mission. The image below shows a close-up of the western scarp of Olympus Mons, taken by the orbiter. 

Olympus Mons image taken by the Mars Express mission. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G.Neukum)
Image: Olympus Mons image taken by the Mars Express mission. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G.Neukum)

It clearly shows two patches of what appear to be water snow or ice on the two prominent ridges.

Martian skiing would be a very different experience to that on Earth. Gravity at the Martian surface is 3.71 m/s2, about a third of that on Earth. Shredding the Martian powder would a much more sedate and less painful exercise than doing the same in Méribel as a result.

But despite the impressive vert, Olympus Mons may not be the most amazing experience in the solar system on your solar system ski trip. That epithet belongs to Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.

Enceladus photographed by CICLOPS
Saturn's moon Enceladus, a geological snow machine. Credit CICLOPS

In October 2011, at the Joint Meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress and the Division for Planetary Sciences in Nantes, Dr Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston revealed that the surface of Saturn’s satellite is constantly coated in a fine coat of perfect powder. Schenk’s team has analysed results from the Cassini orbiter which show that Enceladus’ weather is largely dictated by active thermal plumes of icy dust and vapour, causing ongoing snow flurries as the ice falls back to the surface. 

And no worries here about the snow melting either. Schenk says that the blanket of snow, probably more than 100 metres deep, has probably taken tens of millions of years to accumulate as the rate of snow deposition is less than a thousandth of a millimetre per year.  

Schenk says, "Bulky space suits and extremely low gravity aside (the surface gravity there is only roughly 1% that of Earth's), the particles themselves are only a fraction of a millimetre in size, roughly a micron or two across, even finer than talcum powder. This would make for the finest powder a skier could hope for.”