Travel: Your flight into low Earth orbit is now boarding...

It's not been lost on travel operators that getting tourists into space is the great challenge of the next century. By Jane Anderson

Imagine it. New Year's Eve 2017. All that millennium business over and done with and you're contemplating a great year ahead with an extra special holiday. Do you choose Chile, Zanzibar, Alaska? Well, they're all rather dull. How about a jaunt to earth's lower orbit and that way you get to see the whole world in one trip?

It may sound far-fetched, but there are plenty of companies out there already actively probing commercial space travel. Two American tour operators, Space Adventures and Zegrahm Space Voyages, are already taking reservations for your flight into space. Passengers will travel to an altitude of 62 miles with a few minutes of weightlessness thrown in. Estimated departure date: 2001. The ticket: a snip at $100,000.

Here in the UK, Thomas Cook began taking names for "Lunar Tours" as far back as 1956 in the event that commercial space travel ever materialised. With 10,000 names on the list by November 1996, they closed the database. Since then Wildwings, an independent Bristol- based travel agency have been taking deposits off eager space cadets for a place in the stars.

Yet even if you can get tourists into space, there's nowhere to stay. It's no wonder that the challenge of designing a resort in space is the next big thing.

International hospitality and leisure architects, Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WAT&G) are on the case. Hawaii- based vice president Howard Wolff explains, "We are working on a concept of recycling future space shuttle external fuel tanks into a resort which will be a cross between a theme park and a cruise ship. These tanks are currently burnt up on return to earth. We will salvage them and convert them. This makes sense as the most expensive part of establishing a space resort is getting things up there in the first place."

So, instead of putting your savings on a house, perhaps you might like to invest in a piece of space debris. Global Outpost, a commercial company in the US working closely with the National Space and Aeronautics Administration (NASA) to investigate the technical orbital salvage details of placing external tanks in low earth orbit, has already put a deposit down for the first five external fuel tanks.

WAT&G's space resort concept links the fuel tanks in a ring which will rotate to create a degree of artificial gravity. At the still centre visitors will experience zero gravity, presumably the next big thrill after bungee jumping.

"The reason we want a resort with both low gravity and zero gravity is to make sure we offer the feeling of weightlessness as an attraction and yet guard against space sickness which 50% of astronauts experience," said Wolff. "It makes sense to offer some of the creature comforts of earth such as showers and toilets, not to mention a night's rest without having to be strapped down."

"Visitors will go through an orientation," added Tom Russell of WAT&G's London office. "Booking a tour into space will not be as simple as boarding an aircraft and yet not as tough as training to be an astronaut. Ground- based theme hotels and resorts will offer simulators where people can train beforehand."

This is already happening. Children in the US have been dressing up as astronauts at Space Camps in Alabama and Cape Kennedy for 15 years. Futurepost Inc. architect John Spencer is currently re- modelling the Queen Mary site in Long Beach California into a simulated futuristic space ship attraction and has plans for a themed space hotel here on earth.

"These-kind of developments build a market interest in space travel, help research into real space travel and also generate money," said Spencer.

The development of transport to a space resort is taking two paths. The first is a single reusable craft which takes off like a shuttle. The second is in two phases. The first takes off like a normal aeroplane. At a second stage a rocket would propel it out of the earth's atmosphere.

But here's the weird part. WAT&G's low orbit space resort will only be 200 miles from earth. That's about the distance from London to Liverpool. The term "space" actually applies to something as close as 50 miles from earth.

It's estimated that people visiting the resort could get there in just 90 minutes, which incidentally is how long it takes to circle the globe in an orbiting craft. And now it gets even more weird.

"If you circle the earth every 90 minutes, you have daylight and night every 45 minutes," said Wolff. "The plan is to have bedrooms without windows, first because it would be ultra expensive and secondly it exacerbates space sickness. Guests are sure to feel a little queasy seeing days and nights flashing before their eyes."

Adapting what we like to do on earth, the implications are spell-binding as everything takes on an extra dimension. Games like soccer, played on a two dimensional pitch on earth, suddenly become three dimensional. What's exciting many people is experiencing sex in weightlessness. WAT&G are even considering the possibility of having a honeymoon suite on board.

Taking space walks is another possibility followed by visits to space stations like Mir or the International Space Station, due for completion in seven years.

"The notion of space walking from an oxygen rich resort is rather like going scuba diving," said Wolff. "You put on a suit and enter another dimension. We are thinking of off-setting the cost of construction and operation by inviting multiple use."

Visitors could also experience a spot of hydroponic gardening and it has been suggested that surgery could be better applied in low or zero gravity. Many believe that weightlessness may hold or even reverse ageing: an unbelievable concept for the health resort industry.

But who's putting up the cash? NASA says it doesn't want to be involved with space tourism, but it will offer knowledge and has just co-sponsored a two-day workshop in the States along with the Space Transportation Association. The British National Space centre is not involved in commercial space ventures and commented that they would never send a human into space when they could send a robot instead.

It seems that companies are putting time and money into research, but when it comes to the big money required, there is nobody as yet to sign the cheque.

Companies like WAT&G rely on big hotel names and developers to commission their resorts. A recent cartoon in Florida Today showed life at the hotel 'Mir-riott' revealing the advertising coup this would create.

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, believes space tourism should not be restricted to the very rich. He has a concept of an international lottery system which will generate funds and also guarantee space trips for ordinary people - that is if you can afford pounds 50 per lottery ticket.

Three people have already taken a package tour of space, though the facts have not been widely publicised following the death of Christie McCullough, the teacher who died in the 1986 space shuttle disaster. Since then, British woman Helen Sherman has spent nine days at Mir, while two Japanese businessman paid pounds 5 million to join a Russian space trip last year.

Despite the low profile of these visits, public interest remains high. Surveys show that 60% of North Americans are interested in travelling in space and in Japan 80% of those over 40 said they wanted to visit space at least once in their lives.

Cape Kennedy has 2 million visitors a year, the new $70 million visitor centre at the Johnson Space Craft Center receives 3 million visitors a year, while the Smithsonian International Space Museum in Washington DC has 8 million. These 13 million visitors outweigh the 11 million who visit Universal Studios sites in Florida and California annually and that's not counting the 107 million who visit US science museums, planetariums and parks.

Perhaps this common interest shows that man has been pursuing the wrong objectives with space technology. Rather than send a space elite reaching for other worlds, a more rational approach would be to concentrate on cheapening the process of getting more people into orbit.

Watch this space.

space fact file

Guide book:

Cadogan have even brought out a great stocking filler: The

Traveller's Guide to Mars... Don't leave Earth without it.

Reserve your place in space:

Space Adventures, Fairfax, Virginia 001-703 359 8859.

Zegrahm Space Voyages, Seattle, Washington: 001-202

285 3743; Web site: www.spacevoyages.com

Wildwings Space Travel 24 hour brochure line: 0117 9610 874.

For more information:

Space Tourism Society: 001-310 472 0846.

Web site, with futuristic space images: www.Space-Tourism-

Society.Org

Space Transportation Association Web site: www.spacetransportation.org

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