Forget about Mir. Space tourism may be on the way, and it could happen sooner than you think. By Jeremy Atiyah
Imagine stepping into a plane which, after a normal take-off, suddenly goes into a near-vertical ascent at three times the speed of sound. Crushed by terrifying G-forces, you eventually reach a cruising altitude of more than 500,000 feet, where you experience zero gravity. Two minutes later, you enter a one hundred mile plunge back to earth. Fun?

This may sound like the scariest big dipper in the world but it could well be the experience of the first tourists in space. When it does happen, perhaps 10 or 20 years from now, pictures of the sort taken by Pathfinder on the rocky surface of Mars will probably be cited as part of the inspiration for it.

So what exactly are the prospects for space tourism? The challenge, as ever, is to produce a reusable space vehicle that can undertake trips at a price that would not look wholly out of place in the window of Lunn Poly or Thomas Cook.

One organisation in the race is the US government itself, which has already ordered a replacement design for its current Space Shuttle. Lockheed, which last year won the US$1bn contract to build the new spacecraft, promises that its new design will reduce costs to a point where fee-paying passengers become a real possibility.

But tourists will be glad to know that they are unlikely to be entertained by reps from Nasa's Mission Control in Houston, whose job is more that of encouraging private companies to take tourists into space (rather than doing it themselves).

Additionally, the American Space University is still offering its so- called X-prize, worth more than US$5m (pounds 3.2m), to the first person to build and fly a vehicle carrying passengers into space and back. Consequently, a whole fleet of possible craft now sit on the drawing boards of companies worldwide, hoping to attract the investment funds needed for full-scale production.

The no-frills trips will be those which aim to fling passengers into space for just a couple of minutes, as described above. Several craft capable of achieving this have already been designed. But how many people will want to submit their bodies to such traumas for the sake of two minutes in zero gravity? A more upmarket option would be to take a few orbits of the Earth, giving passengers time to take admire the views and enjoy (or not) the sensation of weightlessness.

Taking a slightly longer-term view of the concept of holidays in space is the Japanese construction company Shimizu which has been looking into space tourism for years. Their plan is to build a hotel in low earth orbit, which wealthy travellers could be visiting by the year 2020. A postulated three-day tour, costing as little as pounds 40,000 at today's prices, would include transport, accommodation, and highly impressive scenery; the trip to and from the hotel would take a mere three hours.

The prospect of hotels further afield is more remote. Nasa's astronauts did not leave behind a single shack on the moon's surface and specialists in moon-architecture are hard to find. The first space guide-book, however, has already been written: Moon Handbook, published last year by Moon Publications (pounds 6.95), offers visitors guidance on how to locate Neil Armstrong's historic first footstep as well as other lunar attractions.

In case the moon tours don't come off, consider this: Intourist, the Russian state tour operator (Tel: 0171 5385965), can arrange a couple of weeks of cosmonaut training in Moscow, where you do loop-the-loops in a freight plane which simulates the conditions of zero gravity.

The price for a basic two-week training course is an out-of-this-world pounds 19,000 (the weightlessness training is extra) but low atmosphere is guaranteed.