Podium: I'm preparing to book my holiday in space

From a speech by the travel expert given at the Millennium Forecast Forum during the World Travel Market
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The Independent Culture
"HEAVIER-THAN-AIR FLYING machines are impossible," said Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, in 1895, just over 100 years ago. A billion air passengers per annum have proved his lordship wrong.

In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to venture into space. In July 1961 he stood in this very building and gave a press conference to more than 2,000 journalists from around the world. I make no comparison, but intend to follow Yuri in subject - and in going to space myself.

In the last 38 years, hundreds of people have followed, including Man venturing to the Moon. Nasa and other government agencies run the current transport systems, and public space travel has never been on their agenda. The biggest problem for the concept of space tourism, however, is the cost of access, and Nasa and others are heavily involved in reducing this. Nasa is exploring a new generation of reusable spacecraft; the X33 is their biggest current project.

But, according to a joint Nasa-Space Transportation Association report of 1998, it is private enterprise that will open space for tourism. Figures suggest that the market could be worth $10bn annually. Worldwide, consumers already spend in excess of $3bn a year on space-related products and services. More than a billion people have seen the recent major space movies; 20 million people visit the Space Museum in Washington DC every year; and, in recent surveys, most US citizens said they would pay for a chance to go to space.

Space tour operators started taking bookings in late 1997, and over the last two years over 200 people worldwide have put down deposits for a pounds 56,000 sub-orbital space flight, the first of which should be aloft within five years.

The technology to get us there exists already - but what will give us all the opportunity to go is proving that there is a market, so that investors will put up the money to build vehicles. Space is defined as beginning 100 kilometres (62 miles) above the Earth. The US space shuttle and Mir orbit the Earth much higher, between 150 and 200 miles. A wide-bodied jet crosses the Atlantic at just under six miles in altitude. The highest- flying military jet attains just under 20 miles' altitude (the "Edge of Space"). To go into orbit requires an even more powerful craft, and a higher cost again.

A sub-orbital space flight will involve take-off from a conventional type of airport, and an upward journey through the atmosphere into space proper, at least 62 miles in altitude. External cameras will give spectacular views to passengers all the way up and back, in addition to the views from the windows of the craft. At the apogee of the flight, full weightlessness will occur, and the occupants will enjoy the oft-cited "transformational" view back down to Earth from space - the main reason for my own desire to go.

The craft will return into the atmosphere and land from the airport you took off from. Flight duration will vary from 35 to 90 minutes. These new craft will be designed for tourists, not for highly trained astronauts. A week's prior preparation and training is all that will be required, and is included in the proposed cost.

Across the Atlantic, Rotary Rocket has started flight-testing a scaled- down prototype, and Kelly has successfully demonstrated the tow-launch principle for their Eclipse design. The year 2000 will see more exciting developments, many of which will also cater for the other existing market, small satellite launching.

While we wait for this generation of craft to be built, "guest cosmonaut" places may be available on future missions to the Mir space station, which has been aloft since 1986, and to the international space station currently under construction. Strict medical criteria, three to six months' training and the $15m fare guarantee your place. Space hotels in orbit around the Earth will undoubtedly be the second step for space tourism.

I, for one, shall be firing a rocket into the sky this New Year's Eve - it will symbolise a journey that I intend to make myself in the next century. At least I will know that I am going to have the opportunity.