The final frontier has been breached and space tourism is now a reality (for the rich). But package holidays to the Moon are a long way off. Or are they?

Is this like 'The hitch-hicker's guide to the galaxy'?

If only. Douglas Adams's vision of hitching the hyperspace express lanes, thumbing a lift with grumpy Vogons and, crucially, always knowing where your towel is, remains the stuff of fantasy. Still, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect neatly personified the idea of "space tourism" – leisure travel beyond Earth's stratosphere – a prospect that's becoming ever-more likely as time goes by, rocket technology progresses, and the cost of a ticket to space spirals downwards from the astronomical to the merely obscene. So, who knows? Perhaps not too long after their creator's untimely death last year, Ford and Arthur could have their real-life equivalents merrily jetting off for a mini-break on the Moon.

So we'd be boldly going where no man has gone before?

Not quite. But even if you ignore the conspiracy theorists who reckon that the Moon landings were fakes cooked up in the Nevada desert by a paranoid US government at the height of the Cold War (see www.apollo-hoax.co.uk for a refutation of these claims), only 12 people (all men) have stood on the Moon since the Apollo XI mission half a lifetime ago.

Meanwhile, the first paid-up space tourist was US tycoon Dennis Tito, who spent many millions on eight days on the International Space Station (ISS) last April, courtesy of the Russian space programme. So impressed was Tito with his flight as a Soyuz cosmonaut that he's testified before a Washington DC committee about the need to get on with a US space tourism programme. He says he finds it difficult to convey the wonder of his time aboard the ISS, but "just think of how magnificently poets, writers, musicians, composers, teachers, film-makers, painters, journalists and other creative individuals would be able to communicate the beauty and inspiration of space flight".

By "creative individuals", Tito may not have had Lance Bass of US boy band NSYNC uppermost in his mind. Nevertheless, Bass is planning a holiday on the ISS at the end of the year, sponsored by a media company which is filming the endeavour. And Mark Shuttleworth, an internet mogul from South Africa, blasts off this month.

All this talk of millionaires raises the obvious question – How much will my ticket into space cost?

Twenty million dollars is the going rate for a trip to the International Space Station. And only the Russians are prepared to take you. Nasa (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has, until recently, been set against civilians entering the space station, for reasons of safety. Indeed, the Russians have stolen a march in the commercial exploitation of space. This month they intend to begin testing the three-man C21 sub-orbital shuttlecraft, a reusable spaceship which will take tourists two at a time up beyond the reaches of Earth's atmosphere. It's an expensive pleasure cruise: the hour-long trip, with five minutes in space, costs $65,000 (£45,000) per person, but 250 people have already signed up their deposits through Space Adventures (www.spaceadventures. com), the US firm which arranged Tito's flight.

It's an important step, because the C21 looks like being the first concrete move towards commercial leisure travel in space. Tentative projections suggest space travel will only become affordable to the general populace 20 to 30 years after commercial flights begin, so new technology will hold the key to unleashing consumer demand, which currently far outstrips affordable supply. Luckily, Buzz recently stepped in with a clever solution.

Buzz, the now-frills airline, with low-cost flights to many european destinations? Now that's what I call a departure.

No, Buzz Aldrin, he of the Apollo XI mission, the second man (after Neil Armstrong) to set foot on the Moon. In February, Dr Aldrin announced ambitious plans for a chain of orbiting hotels between Mars and Earth. Tourists would arrive on "cyclers" – orbiting spacecraft driven by the gravitational pull of the Sun – and take taxi shuttles over to the hotels. (Nice to see that the terrestrial advice of making sure that transfers are included in the price of your ticket still holds firm.) This should reduce costs, and hence drive down the price of a ticket into space. Of course, much of what he proposes is still at the science fiction stage, but Dr Aldrin, who plans to have the first cyclers in operation by 2018, has a heroic vision: "The Earth, the Moon, and Mars will form a celestial triad of worlds – busy hubs for the ebb and flow of passengers, cargo and commerce traversing the inner solar system." That sounds more fun than a no-frills flight to Frankfurt. For more information, see www.buzzaldrin.com.

Noble words, but I can't wait that long. I wanty a week's package holiday in orbit soon!

Head for Tonga in 2005, when, if things go to plan, InterOrbital Systems will be launching their first passenger flights. Last month, InterOrbital announced the subscription of their first paying passenger, Wally Funk, a 62-year-old Texan lady. InterOrbital's pithy catchline is: "Why pay high prices for a five-minute suborbital flight at the present going rate of $20,000 per minute when you can spend up to seven days on an orbital vacation at a cost of less than $200 per minute?" So Ms Funk will pay the bargain-basement price of $2m for the privilege of a 60-day training programme in a "resort setting" and a week in orbit round the Earth with two pilots and three other paying passengers. The spacecraft to do this does not actually exist as yet, but if you'd like to join Ms Funk on the proposed Neptune Orbital Spaceliner, call 001 661 824 1662, or visit www.interorbital.com. However, you'll have to cough up $120,000 (£84,000) up-front and $20,000 (£14,000) a month thereafter. A quick look at the terms and conditions wouldn't hurt either; for example, if you fail the pre-flight health check, you don't get the money back.

I've booked a ticket. What can I expect from space?

"Zero-G" is one of the biggest draws for space tourists. Being in orbit under the influence of our planet's gravitational field basically means that you and your space-craft are constantly falling towards Earth and missing it, which results in a feeling of weightlessness (and nervousness, if you dwell on the subject for too long). But before you invest in a pair of those Velcro shoes that the stewardess in 2001: A Space Odyssey wore, bear in mind that prolonged weightlessness has some unpleasant side-effects. When Dennis Tito came back to Earth he was so shaky he had to be taken for his post-flight check-up in a wheelchair.

It might all be worth it for the spectacular views. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, failed to unleash the full descriptive powers at his disposal when he said "the Earth is blue". Space tourists will be able to see Earth's oceans, continents and weather systems against the darkness of the universe, and might be able to pick out the world's largest organism (the Barrier Reef), but not the Great Wall of China (see box). And the view constantly changes as the Earth turns below you. What's more, without the dusty inconvenience of the Earth's atmosphere, the stars and planets are far more visible – and they don't twinkle.

Will my holiday be luxurious

The International Space Station is about 150ft long and has room for six astronauts at a pinch, only one of whom is ever likely to be a tourist, so the staff/guest ratio is rather good. Unfortunately, space tourists are required to work for their board: Dennis Tito did the cooking while he was up in space. Speaking of which, haute cuisine, although available in the literal sense (you are, after all, 250 miles up) isn't really an option. Dinner is likely to be anything you can suck through a straw.

All this may change, of course. In 1973 Roald Dahl envisaged a fantastic orbital hotel in his children's story, Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator. "A gigantic, sausage-shaped capsule no less than 1,000ft long. It was called Space Hotel USA and it was the marvel of the space age. It had inside it a tennis-court, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a children's playroom and 500 luxury bedrooms, each with a private bath. It was fully air-conditioned. It was also equipped with a gravity-making machine so that you didn't float about inside it."

The gravity-making machine is always going to be the sticking point with orbital hotels (not to mention their swimming pools), but the sixth-of-Earth's gravity of the Moon might prove attractive to tourists.

In 1967, before man had set foot on the Moon, Barron Hilton, then the chairman of Hilton Hotels, was envisaging a three-story Hilton buried below the surface: "I firmly believe that we are going to have Hiltons in outer space, perhaps even soon enough for me to officiate at the formal opening of the first. If the world powers continue to restrict outer space to peaceful pursuits, there will be travellers in outer space – and where there are travellers there must be Hiltons."

And where there are Hiltons, there must be golfing holidays. In 1971, Apollo XIV's Alan B Shepard Jr single-handedly created a new sport – lunar golf – by taking a swing with an improvised nine-iron on the Moon's surface. His tee-shots were fantastic (they went for "miles and miles and miles" towards the horizon) but sadly the size of the bunkers does not conform to PGA standards, so don't cancel your golfing package to Portugal just yet.

Can anyone go into space?

You have to be fit. The demands on the human body during space flight are immense, with massive rocket acceleration first putting you under enormous strain, then weightlessness affecting everything from circulation to bone strength. It's safe to say that frail old Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars wouldn't have been whirling his light-sabre round quite so readily if he'd been relying on conventional rockets to get around the universe, as opposed to the Millennium Falcon's fiction-friendly, acceleration-free hyperdrive. And Han Solo's shady past would have put him up against Nasa's stringent selection policy for space tourists, as outlined earlier this year. Under these terms, those who cannot read or write English need not apply. Anyone with a record of "criminal, dishonest, infamous or notoriously disgraceful conduct" will be barred. As will those who have not submitted to a minimum training programme or who fail a psychological profile.

That counts me out. Where can I get a taste of space without leaving the earth?

America's space programme has slipped in and out of favour with US governments since the triumphalism of presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, but the public's love-affair with "the final frontier" has never dwindled. Nasa has visitors' centres dotted around the US (see www.nasa.gov/visitors.html), although the events of 11 September have meant that access to sites is restricted.

The must-see attraction is a space shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Details of launches are available at www.pao.ksc.nasa. gov/kscpao/schedule/mixfleet.htm. Remember, though, that lift-off is often delayed by several days due to technical and meteorological hitches. There's also the Kennedy Space Center itself, where various exhibits take you through the history of space flight, and there's a full-size replica of the Space Shuttle Explorer. Adult tickets are $26 (£18); children $16 (£11). (For details, see www.kennedyspacecenter.com, or call 001 321 449 4444.)

Texas is home to the Johnson Space Center and its public face, Space Center Houston (www.spacecenter.org; 001 281 244 2130; adults $15.95, children $11.95). Here you have the chance to land your own space shuttle using computer simulations, and there are Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft on show. You can also take a tram tour to the Johnson Space Center itself.

Alternatively, try the National Air and Space Museum (www.nasm.si.edu; 001 202 357 2700; admission free) in Washington DC, home to the largest collection of air- and spacecraft in the world. Visitors can touch fragments of Moon rock brought back with Apollo XVII, and there are permanent exhibitions on satellite communications and jet aviation.

For something a bit more taxing, Wildwings (www.wildwings.co.uk; 0117 937 5686), which sells space holidays in the UK via Space Adventures, Dennis Tito's US travel agents, can arrange trips to "Star City", the Russian equivalent of the Kennedy Space Center. For $200,000 (£139,000) you can have a two-week intensive training course to be a cosmonaut, including training on the "vomit comet", a converted jet that simulates free-fall. You also take the all-important medical that gives you an MOT for space-worthiness.

Finally, let's not forget the European Space Agency (ESA). Conceived in the shadow of the US and Soviet space race, it has carved out a niche for itself with the Ariane satellite launcher programme. Getting to Europe's spaceport is a journey in itself: it's in Kourou in French Guiana. A tour operator such as Journey Latin America (www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk; 020-8747 3108) will be able to help. For information on launches, see www.esa.int/export/esaLA/NextLaunch.html

Houston, I have a problem: I'm scared of flying. Is there anything closer to home?

The obvious destination is the National Space Centre, a brave new attraction in the unlikely setting of suburban Leicester. You can see the Rocket Tower from several miles away (though finding your way there by road is not easy). Once you touch down, you'll discover a series of themed galleries that deftly tell the story of space exploration – and get to see one of the presentations in the Space Theatre. The centre opens at 9.30am, daily except Mondays, until the last admission at 4.30pm. For more information, visit www.nssc.co.uk or call 0870 60 SPACE (0870 60 77223 if you only have numbers on your sat-phone). Adults £7.95, under-14s £5.95; family of four £24, family of five £29.

Pay a visit to the Christopher Wren-designed Greenwich Royal Observatory (www.rog.nmm.ac.uk; 020-8858 4422; admission free), where the galleries focus on the state of our knowledge of the universe. Perhaps the biggest draw for space-fanciers is the 28-inch telescope, which is open to the public on clear Friday afternoons from 3pm to 4.30pm. There are also regular planetarium shows (admission £4). If you plan to visit this December, then it should also be worth a look at the National Maritime museum (www.nmm.ac.uk; 020 8858 4422; admission free) which will be showing a new exhibition linking the Beagle 2 mission to Mars (due to be launched in May 2003) with Charles Darwin's epic voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in the 1830s. The Beagle 2 is a British venture intended to analyse samples of Martian rock, soil and atmosphere, and to look for signs of life. After all, if we do eventually set up a Mars Hilton, we need to be sure that the natives are friendly and won't try to sell us cheaply made trinkets. Alternatively, there's the newly opened visitors' centre at Goonhilly in Cornwall (www.goonhilly.bt.com; 0800 679 593; adults £5, children £3.50). Goonhilly was first built to track the Telstar satellite, which made it possible for live television pictures to be received in the UK from North America for the first time. The first tracking dish was, rather touchingly, called Arthur. At Goonhilly, visitors can see each dish on a guided tour. They range from Tristan (13 metres across), to Merlin (32 metres). There are also various interactive displays focusing on the history of satellite telecommunications.

Or there's Jodrell Bank science centre in Macclesfield (www.jb.man.ac.uk; 01477 571 339; adults £4.90, children £2.50), home of the Lovell Radio Telescope and the astronomy research centre for the University of Manchester. There's a planetarium and other interactive exhibits to explore.

Finally, if you want the experience of heading out into space, without the associated inconvenience, cost and weight loss detailed above, then a Channel ferry is all you require. This month sees the launch of the Destination Cosmos ride at Planète Futuroscope, an "interactive film park" outside La Rochelle. Using three-dimensional recreations of observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, audiences will be "catapulted into the Andromeda galaxy" for the price of a day-pass to the park (€32, or £19.50, for adults and €22, £13.50, for children). Real-life jolts, bumps and vibrations should all add to the experience. For further information, see www.discoverfuturoscope.com; 020-7499 8049. Altogether now: "Ground control to Major Tom. Commencing countdown, engines on..."

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