“A fiver says Virgin Galactic will never happen,” a wise old travel figure told me today. “Branson will take time to abandon the project but I think even he realises space is a step too far. I certainly wouldn't get on one.”
I took the bet, because it is a racing certainty that space tourism will happen in significant numbers - perhaps a few thousand per year - within a decade. Evading gravity, escaping the atmosphere and venturing to the edge of the unknown is the next challenge in the business of “trophy tourism”, and as the advance bookings for Virgin Galactic demonstrate, there are plenty of takers.
Space is defined as being 62 miles from the surface of the earth. What Sir Richard Branson has been working on for a decade is a relatively low-cost way of reaching and crossing that boundary.
Even with the near-limitless military budgets that pioneered manned space travel half a century ago, reaching for the heavens has always been an immensely difficult and perilous task. The crash in California is the most recent tragedy, and will certainly not be the last. The happy heroics of Apollo XIII were the exception to a rule of repeated calamities for rocket men and women.
But the Virgin founder has deep pockets, a profound belief in the project and an excellent customer base of wealthy clients eager to touch the void as the ultimate in tourism.
These days, terrestrial targets are tame. Reaching either north or south pole is a straightforward matter. Just hand over tens of thousands of dollars (the universal currency when going to extremes) to a Russian icebreaker heading north from Murmansk or a Hercules transport aircraft southbound from the vicinity of Cape Horn.
Where to explore in the solar system
Where to explore in the solar system
1/10 Mars - Olympus Mons
Olympus Mons is the largest volcano in the Solar System. At 22km high Olympus Mons is nearly three times as high as Mt Everest
2/10 Mars - Mount Sharp
Mount Sharp is the current focus point of the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover. Sitting at the forefront of Martian research this location will hopefully unlock the secrets of Mars’s past.
3/10 Ida and Dactyl
Nestled deep within the asteroid belt is the asteroid 243 Ida. During a fly by of the Galileo space probe it was discovered that Ida had a companion. Orbiting around Ida was a tiny moon that was named Dactyl.
4/10 Jupiter - The Red Spot
Getting tired of leisurely cruises through the Caribbean? Why not float a dirigible through one of the oldest known storms in the Solar System. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is large enough to contain three Earths and has been present for over 300 years.
5/10 Moon - Sea of Tranquility
As the landing site of the first ever humans to set foot on the Moon who wouldn’t want to walk in the footsteps on Neil Armstrong on the Sea of Tranquility?
6/10 Europa - Underwater seas
Europa’s underwater seas are one of the strongest candidates for potential life outside Earth. Scientists are waiting the day we can probe their icy depths.
7/10 Titan - Methane Lakes
Saturn’s Moon Titan is home to a nice thick atmosphere. Similar to the Earth it supports a full weather cycle. Unlike the Earth, rather than using water, Titan’s cycle is based on methane, often found in gas cookers here on Earth.
8/10 Mimas, the Death Moon
What better location for a holiday snap. The large Herschel crater on Mimas gives this moon an appearance of a certain dark lords ultimate weapon. When viewed from the right angle it appears that the Death Star is in orbit around Saturn.
The thick clouds of Venus make it an extremely mysterious place. It also has some of the most extreme weather we can find. Runaway greenhouse gases have shrouded the planet in a thick layer of cloud, heating it to nearly 600°C. It is also home to sulphuric acid rain and crushing atmospheric pressure. Make sure you pack a sturdy umbrella!
10/10 Oceans of Earth
One of the most unexplored places in the Solar System is our own oceans. 70% of the Earth is covered in ocean and as of yet we have only explored around 10% of them. With so much water to explore who knows what we may find lurking in the depths.
Both of these activities are relatively safe, unlike attempting to reach the summit of Everest. Yet even with a fatality rate said to be as high as three per cent, there is no shortage of rich amateurs keen to take on the world’s highest mountain. And despite the spaceship that fell to earth, the queue of travellers prepared to hand over the price of a family home for an extraterrestrial adventure will only increase.
Sixty years ago, the first commercial jet aircraft - Comet 1 - was grounded after three fatal crashes within a year. But today air travel is immensely safe.
As with the pioneering days of air travel, so with space tourism today. Flying high is haunted by tragedy, and the aerospace industry was built on the wreckage of machines and lives. Ultimately, though, space tourism will become routine, safe and amazing.Reuse content