Join the 62-mile-high club

The quest for the ultimate package holiday is on and an unlikely candidate may have the answer - space. Hester Lacey investigates the emergence of a new kind of tourism that promises return tickets to the stars
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The days when you could impress the neighbours with your holiday slides of Torremolinos are long over, and as tour operators spread their nets ever wider, gradually even the most exotic and far-flung terrestrial destinations are losing their cachet. Zanzibar, Laos, the Marquesas, Sulawesi, Timbuktu? Been there, done that. Space has become tourism's final frontier. But how to get up there?

Enter the X Prize; the $10m reward in an American competition for the first privately funded team to launch a craft able to carry three adult passengers to a distance of 100km (about 62 miles) from Earth. Eighty kilometres is deemed the lower limit of space - US airforce pilots who cross the 80km boundary get their astronauts' wings. At a height of 100km, while the craft will not actually enter orbit, the view for passengers will be similar to that seen from a space shuttle - infinite realms of black nothingness, with the curving blue Earth looming below - and they will also experience weightlessness - something that would definitely silence the Joneses once and for all, and which knocks spots off their trek round the ruined temples of Angkor Wat and their canoe trip up the Zambezi.

Don't rush straight to Thomas Cook, though; this is still a vision for the future. But the not-too-distant future, says Dr Peter Diamandis, chairman, president and founder of the X Prize Foundation, a non-profit-making org- anisation promoting the formation of space-related prizes. He believes that the competition will be won within five years and that a thriving space tourism industry will spring up close behind. The competition is restricted to craft that can be reused, as commercial viability and the development of (relatively) low-cost space travel are the main aims of the Foundation. To win the prize, the spacecraft must complete a second flight within two weeks of its first and, reassuringly, another condition is that the craft must return to Earth "substantially intact", with its crew and passengers "in good health".

The X Prize is supported by individuals like the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and organisations as august as Nasa.

When he thought up the X Prize, Dr Diamandis was inspired by the prizes offered in the infancy of aviation - one famous example was the cash which tempted the pilot Charles Lindbergh to fly non-stop from New York to Paris for the first time, in his plane The Spirit of St Louis. "There were hundreds of aviation prizes offered in the Twenties in Europe, America and Canada, and they were one of the major motivators for the creation of new aircraft design. Why shouldn't we use the same technique to encourage space travel? Two major factors created the billion-dollar aircraft industry - prizes and warfare. I don't want to promote warfare, so I'm going for prizes."

Terrestrial flights are one thing - but surely space travel is in quite another league? Not so, says Diamandis. "The technology exists, the market certainly exists - the only problem is that the spaceships to carry the tourists don't yet exist." He is currently searching for a major sponsor to provide the bulk of the prize money - so far pounds 1m has been raised by the community of St Louis where the X Prize Foundation is based - and expects to find one within six months. "It's an attractive investment - and, of course, there's nothing to pay until the prize is won."

In the four months since the official launch of the X Prize, 30 teams have approached the Foundation for information, and 12 have already registered their entries. Dr Diamandis expects between 30 and 50 entrants from around the world, of whom perhaps 15 will get as far as building their vehicles. The cash prize is not the only incentive (though, as he points out, $10m would go a long way in Russia or China). "The goal is that the winner will commercialise its prize and make a tonne of money. But even when the prize is won, the other teams will already have got a long way with their designs, so they will keep going and attempt to recover their investments by setting up their own companies. The prize will stimulate the creation of dozens of different spacecraft designs, and the setting-up of a consumer market."

This is a market that he also plans to plunge into. "The X Prize Foundation is partly a labour of love - I have always wanted to fly into space - but my personal ambition is actually to own and operate a space-tourism company."

Getting down to the practical nitty-gritty, how much will a ticket to space cost? Dr Diamandis estimates that a trip will initially cost between $50,000 and $100,000, with prices "dropping by a factor of 10 over the first few years". This seems a bit steep, just to go up and come down. "You wouldn't go for only one day," says Diamandis. "One scenario would be going to, say, the West Indies for a week's luxurious training, using simulators and such, and going into space on the last day - a real fantasy experience. Or you might end up paying 10 per cent of the price along with 10 other people, all doing the training, and then picking one person by raffle to actually go up into space."

And will one have to queue at Kennedy spaceport to join the 62-mile-high club? "A number of the teams are talking in business terms - not using the spaceports in French Guiana or Kennedy, but taking off from local airports, which is very exciting." Once suborbital flight has been achieved, orbital flights - where passengers do a few circuits of the earth before coming back down - are likely to follow, and Japanese scientists, whose fellow citizens are one of the most enthusiastic potential markets, are already working on designs for the first space hotels (one Japanese survey showed that, at a price of between $10,000 and $20,000 per ticket, as many as 800,000 tourists a year would be queueing to blast off).

One of the X Prize entrants, who is already well ahead with his design, is Gary Hudson - owner of Hudson Engineering, which designs commercial aerospace flight vehicles; president of HMX Inc, which designs and develops rocket propulsion systems for the space industry, and space entrepreneur ("a cross between an aerospace engineer and a businessman").

Hudson, from San Francisco, who became hooked on space at the age of seven, when Sputnik was launched, worked on the space launches of the late Sixties and early Seventies. "But I wanted to get away from government programmes, and I wanted to introduce the idea of private enterprise. The problem is that there has been an elite cadre of individuals and organisations involved in space exploration and engineering for decades and, not necessarily intentionally, it has made the whole business of going into space, especially with human beings, more difficult. It has spent a lot of public money, and now people are saying they can do it for just a few million - if the prize succeeds, the floodgates are opened."

He believes that in 20 years time, space travel will be a "million-dollar industry". His own craft, the Roton, designed with his partner Bevin McKinney, "could fancifully be described as a space-helicopter," he says. "It flies vertically rather than horizontally, has a four-bladed rotor with a rocket engine at the tip of each blade, and it will use a liquid oxygen/jet-fuel propellant." The version he intends to enter for the X Prize will cost around $10m to produce, and he is already thinking in terms of an orbital version, which will cost "in the $100m range - expensive for us, but not expensive compared with the space programme. Orbital vehicles will be where the main market is. We are initially thinking, though, in terms of servicing com-munication satellites."

Hudson, like many involved in the X Prize, is far from being a crazy scientist, though he agrees that members of the public still tend to see space tourism as some sort of fantasy - "initially, people regard the idea with some scepticism, but 10 minutes into the conversation, they tend to become very enthusiastic."

Another potential prize-winner is Mitchell Burnside Clapp, who spent 12 years in the US airforce, and is now executive vice-president and test pilot at Pioneer Rocketplane, a company he runs with Dr Robert Zubrin. The Path-finder, whose design was first sketched out on a napkin in a bar in 1993, will take off vertically, use its turbo engines to accelerate and climb, refuel in flight from a tanker plane, then use its rocket engines to take it into space.

Burnside Clapp can foresee three potential markets. "The first is satellite launches - there is a huge unfulfilled need, and it's relatively lucrative. The second is fast packet delivery - you could get a package from London to, say, Mexico in two hours. And the third is passengers. We envisage a layout that can carry between 24 and 40 passengers. The aircraft is piloted at all times, and takes off and lands routinely, so it should be reasonably easy to satisfy the authorities. You would be able to do London to New York in about 40 minutes, of which the actual rocket flying part will be 22 or 23 minutes - a bit more the other way as the earth is rotating into your flight path." He believes that established technology will be sufficient to accomplish this. "We're not inventing anything. It's like we've got a roomful of virtuoso musicians, and we need to form them into an orchestra - we're not inventing the fiddle."

So what will it feel like, being a passenger on the Pathfinder? "First, it will be just like a normal take-off - the houses and trees getting smaller. There'll be a loud noise when the rocket engine starts up - you'll be pressed back into your seat, at three times your weight. Then, the engine will burn out and you'll be weightless for five to seven minutes. Then, you'll be pushed back into your seat once again - then back to normal gravity and, finally, a delay while we argue with flight control about who's first in the queue to land."

One PR problem that those who market space tourism will have to overcome is the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Both Hudson and Burnside Clapp are adamant that the accident need not have happened - that poor design, engineering and management were to blame. "The shuttle had a one in a 100 failure rate, and that's an absurd way to design," says Hudson.

"It led to tremendous disillusionment with government aerospace schemes," says Burnside Clapp. "There was a perception shift to the point of view that maybe the government is not the organisation best suited to lead us forward in this field."

There is also the spectre of space sickness - around 50 per cent of those who have experienced weightlessness have vomited. "People get sick on ocean cruises, too," observes Gary Hudson. "On very short flights it is less of a problem than on longer space voyages. Awareness of what is happening to you is very important - one trigger for nausea is fear, but if you know what acceleration and zero gravity are like, you will feel less concerned. And there are also very effective anti-nausea drugs that can be used."

Keith Betton, head of corporate affairs at ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents), is looking forward to the day when his members can start selling space breaks. "It would be a nice job for travel agents - whatever the cost, people would want to go up. There would be a very long queue for tickets - in fact, you would probably be able to see the queue from space, and I would certainly be in it. It will happen in my lifetime, I think, though talking in terms of five or 10 years is a bit optimistic."

So wait and see, and start saving. But the day may come when we wonder how we could ever have thought that the Chunnel was the most exciting travel development of the decade.

! `Equinox: Day Return to Space' will be broadcast tonight on Channel 4, 7pm

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