Travel: The reluctant spaceman

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The Independent Travel
This week China launched a rocket toward the heavens. As the Long March unmanned rocket blasted its 8.4 tons into orbit, staying there for just 21 hours before burning back home through the Earth's atmosphere, it seemed that space was still the formidable final frontier. Yet in something like just a couple of decades, the likes of you and I will have the chance to holiday with the stars. And the man who is likely to make this possible for the mass market? Well, as the saying goes, he is no rocket scientist. He is no space fanatic either. He is in fact someone who by his own admission does not even like travelling very much.

Howard Wolff is an American businessman residing in Hawaii. He is vice- president and corporate managing director of Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, an international design and consulting practice specialising in hospitality, leisure and entertainment. His company has designed a space resort in low Earth orbit which will use the recycled external fuel tanks salvaged from future space shuttle launches. And they expect to have it up there and running as soon as 2017. "Some people have referred to this as simply `very long-haul travel' but in fact it's not," says Wolff, sitting in his London office. "The hotel will be in orbit just 200 miles above the Earth's surface. That's like travelling the distance from London to Brighton."

Such a prosaic analogy seems ill-fitting for what will undoubtedly be the greatest leap for the holidaying kind but Wolff, strangely for such a visionary, is not given to romantic flights of fancy. To him space is just a new location. "I haven't gone up there yet myself," he confesses as if talking about the top of the Chrysler building. "Although I did go so far as to take my son to space camp this summer. I don't like being spun around so I thought I'd better give the simulators a go before I put my name down for the real thing."

Several companies are now selling reservations for sub-orbital space- shuttle flights, the first scheduled for 2002, and there have already been a few private space travellers including a Japanese businessman who paid $15m to visit the Mir space station last year. "I am not dying to be one of the first up there," says Wolff. "I think orbital trips that take you around the Earth will be far more enticing than just to go up and back on a sub-orbital flight. And those are probably not going to be widely available until 2005."

And if all goes to schedule your space trip will come with a stopover, courtesy of Wolff's space resort, by 2017. "We need no technological breakthroughs to make this happen. Man has been going into space for 40 years and, to the extent that anything is easy in space, retro-fitting the external fuel tanks for the hotel should be a fairly straightforward exercise and one which Nasa is strongly supportive of." Wolff's company has designed more resorts than anyone else on this planet, including Paris, the latest mega hotel in Las Vegas, and the UK's Legoland. He also in the process of building an underwater resort, which, like the space hotel, was an idea submitted for a "hotel of the future" competition that Wolff ran for architecture students in 1995.

"As far as design goes we have drawn up computer simulated plans but we still don't know what it's going to look like exactly," admits Wolff. If form is adherent to function in architecture, then space is an environment that brings with it certain design dictates. "Architects are used to two- dimensional drawing boards, and in space they are working with three. In zero gravity there are potentially six surfaces that could be the floor. Do you carpet all of them?"

Wolff sites the problem of "zero G" as an initial stumbling block for his hotel plans. Most astronauts suffer space sickness in zero gravity. "The good news," says Wolff, "is that it passes after about three days. The bad news is that would be the total length of your holiday." I agree that the idea of being Velcroed to a wall with a sick bag would not appeal to even the most hardened traveller. "So we simply added on an area of the resort which rotates to provide about one sixth of the earth's gravity," said Wolff. He makes it sound as simple as building Legoland. "So you can sleep, move around and enjoy a meal as normal and then take excursions into the core of the resort to experience zero-G at your leisure." The idea is that eventually these excursions could be actual space walks outside the hotel itself.

But other than float around for a few hours a day, what exactly would a tourist do in space? "There are some unique possibilities dictated by the environment. For example, imagine a game of football in zero gravity and I'm sure plenty of people will be interested in experiencing sex in zero gravity." And it doesn't stop there. A holiday in space could apparently be the third millennium's alternative to a face-lift. "I'm not saying that you go up aged 40 and come down looking 30, but it is believed that zero gravity halts the ageing process to a certain degree." Wolff goes on to explain that space is also the optimum environment for recuperation after illness - there is said to be less strain on the heart. Though I wouldn't want to blast a heart patient into orbit I agree that space could be the spa destination for the new era.

But what pernicious effects will these floating new-age spas have on such a virgin environment? Wolf explains: "The technology exists to recycle at least 90 per cent of the water we use - even urine - and will ship other waste back to earth." Although he tells me that vegetables will be grown aboard hydroponically and that there will even be farmed space- salmon for dinner. The main problem is still cost. "Until we can find a reusable space vehicle, the cost will not come down."

Until then, most of us will have to rely on a scheme called Space Share, lottery tickets for space holidays, that comes under the auspices of the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. "Buzz is keen that everyone should have a chance to go," says Wolff. "He is interested in taking people to Mars. His vision is to have each space station as a stepping stone further out into our solar system. He even has a name for the `ferry' (The Cycler) that would shuttle people between the moon and Mars."

Wolff does not seem that enthusiastic. "I have more selfish desires to aim for things that we can accomplish in my lifetime," he says. "And that's not one of them. Plus I hate the hassle of travel. So the thought of a three-year trip, each way, to Mars - no thanks."

Howard Wolff is no intrepid traveller and he is not touched by the same stardust as his friend Buzz Aldrin. But as a businessman he will certainly go where no other has gone before him.

For more information contact Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (tel: 0171-906 6600; net: www.watg.com).

SARAH BARRELL

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