Companies plan a 400-berth space hotel for astrotourists

IF THE Easter holidays have seemed too earthbound, a conference is offering a proposal that may seem too good to miss: holidays in space.

Though facilities may not be ready - probably not for 15 years - a growing number of private investors in the United States, Europe and Japan believe there will be a real demand and a realistic price for taking spacebreaks by 2025.

"The market will be there, and it will grow, not unlike the market for transatlantic flights in the 1920s and 1930s," said William Gaubatz, who will speak at the Spaceships for Tourists conference in Bremen, Germany.

Michael Heaney, chairman of the Space Frontier Foundation of New York, said: "Access to space will become routine and much cheaper. Think of it as being like going on a cruise, except that you're in zero gravity and you'll have the prettiest view imaginable." The first British astronaut, Helen Sharman, agreed on her return from the Mir station that the colours of Earth from space were "more intense than anything I've ever seen".

Two years ago the would-be tour companies got a fillip from Nasa, the US space agency, when its managers said future visits to space stations should be based on the cruise-line industry. Last September a US consortium unveiled a $5bn (pounds 3m) plan to turn "space junk" - the tanks from shuttles - into a 400-place orbiting hotel.

Mr Heaney believes there have already been a couple of "space tourists" in the form of astronauts whose presence was more symbolic than useful, and cites the trip by the US senator John Glenn, one of the original Apollo astronauts, who went up in the space shuttle last year, aged 77. "That was essentially tourism," Mr Heaney said.

The principal obstacle at present is the cost of building rockets to take tourists aloft, and facilities for them to stay in. Getting a pound of payload into orbit with the space shuttle costs about $10,000 (pounds 6,250), so a human with a spacesuit and up to 400lb of water and equipment pushes up the cost to roughly $4m (pounds 2.5m) per person. "But we should be able to get that down to say $400,000 [pounds 250,000] per ticket," said Mr Heaney. Even at that price, a survey in Japan recently found, thousands of people would be prepared to save up for the experience.

The other problem might be that space is an intrinsically unfriendly environment, where building costs are vast and the risks - from meteorites, solar flares and cosmic rays - unavoidable. Furthermore, weightlessness makes those unused to it sick and prone to cramps.

Despite that, members of the fledgling industry - which so far has not launched itself any further than many drawing boards around the world - bristle with confidence. "Space will be a place to go cruising," said Dr Gaubatz, who works for Universal Space Lines, a start-up company that aims to build the launchers to transport future travellers to a world beyond traffic tailbacks.