Tatler's Guide to Going to Outer Space
Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cult sci-fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, predicted that by the start of this millennium there would have already been Pan Am-operated shuttles in space staffed by hostesses wearing “grip” shoes in order to saunter down the zero-gravity aisles, as well as galactic hotels and technology to facilitate a mission to Jupiter.
Well, we’re not quite there yet. But the world’s billioniest billionaires have taken the prospect to heart and into their own hands, founding private companies dedicated to researching space travel and rocket-building in the admirable quest to make commercial spaceflight a more realistic thing of the near future.
Just last month, Nasa sent two American astronauts—Robert L Behnken and Douglas G Hurley—on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from the Kennedy Space Center. What made this mission particularly groundbreaking is the fact that, for the first time, astronauts travelled to orbit on a privately-owned spacecraft. In this case, it was the Crew Dragon capsule built by Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This marked an important milestone in the goal to broaden access to space to more civilians while also lowering costs, and one that ultimately, hopefully puts space travel within reach for the rest of us.
To date, only seven people have actually travelled to space as tourists. The first went there in 2001, when Space Adventures, an American space tourism company, sent millionaire Dennis Tito on a Russian Soyuz rocket to board the ISS, where he spent eight days in orbit as a crew member. Just a year later, and also through Space Adventures, South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth spent a total of 10 days in space, including eight days at the ISS, where he participated in experiments related to Aids and genome research.
Of the experience, Tito told BBC World Service, “the sight of Earth from space was just spectacular. I cannot ever duplicate that euphoric feeling that I had at that moment.”
It’s a feeling known as the “overview effect”, a term coined in 1987 by American author Frank White. While interviewing several astronauts, White found that they shared something in common; they had each experienced an intense emotional response upon seeing our home planet from space. After spending prolonged periods in isolation during the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, finding a new perspective on the world of today is something a lot of people dream about. The answer, as these astronauts have shown, may be to get as far away from it as possible. Allow us to show you the way...
STEP 1: DEFINE YOUR MISSION
Going to space should be about more than just doing it for the ’gram. Aim higher. Like, life-alteringly higher.
“The experience of seeing the Earth and the universe it spins through with one’s own eyes, tends to shift a person’s internal worldview,” says David Beaver, co-founder and director of cognitive research at The Overview Institute, an organisation working to understand this existential shift and, believing it to be paramount to change our fate, make it happen for more people through media like virtual reality. Beaver stresses the significant impact this could have on humanity as a whole, particularly given that “the current state of the world is increasingly turning towards greater separatism at the very time that world-scale threats are increasing”.
Beaver’s comments echo those made by astronauts throughout history. Sunita Williams, who has spent a total of 321 days in space throughout her career as an astronaut, has said, “You don’t see any borders between countries from space. That’s manmade, and one experiences it only when you return to Earth.” Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man on the moon, said of his experience, “There was a startling recognition that the nature of the universe was not as I had been taught... I not only saw the connectedness, I felt it. I was overwhelmed with the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos”.
Could shooting off into the far corners of the universe be the best way to help us understand the importance of togetherness on Earth? If you’re the type who likes to travel and come back changed, a journey to space might just scratch that existential itch.
STEP 2: CONSULT A MAP
Space is big, and to say you’re “going to space” is pretty vague. But as interplanetary travel is not yet an option, space travel is actually limited to just two destinations for now: suborbital and orbital.
The cheaper—not to be misread as cheap—choice would be a suborbital tourist flight, like those offered by Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, which, beginning roughly in 2022, will take travellers to the edge of space. That’s where Earth’s atmosphere ends and the vacuum of space begins. Here, you’ll experience a few minutes of microgravity and be able to see the curvature of earth against the blackness of space. These short “hops” into space, lasting about 2.5 hours, will make space tourism available at a lower price point, and with far less time and preparation required. The price for a ride with Virgin Galactic is US$250,000.
For more ambitious adventurers, orbital travel, like what Tito and Shuttleworth experienced while travelling on the ISS, is a lot more complicated, requiring extensive training and preparation, and, as such, is astronomically more expensive. To orbit 200 km above Earth, a spacecraft must travel at an astounding speed of 28,000 km/h. By comparison, a suborbital flight will travel at an average of 6,000 km/h, while a commercial aeroplane travels at about 925 km/h, so there’s not only turbulence to reckon with but also g-force. And be prepared to bring some extra traveller’s cheques. Both Tito and Shuttleworth shelled out US$20 million for the trip of a lifetime, and they both say it was worth every penny.
See also: 5 Ways To Become A Space Tourist
STEP 3: RESEARCH FLIGHTS
Frequent fliers are a dedicated lot, obsessed with accumulating status points and the inside scoop on the ins-and-outs of airline mileage partners, tips for upgrades and where the best business class lounges are located. To reach the stars, however, it really comes down to which billionaire you admire (or trust your life with) most.
Currently, Space Adventures is the only company to have successfully flown tourists to space, including its founder, gaming tycoon Richard Garriott, who spent 12 days in space in 2008 for a slick US$30 million. (His father is the late Nasa astronaut Owen Garriott.) But without its own fleet of rockets, Space Adventures is more of a travel agency, having facilitated trips to the ISS via Russia’s Space Programme, Roscosmos, as, up until 2019, Nasa banned commercial flights to the space station. Space Adventures recently announced that it has entered an agreement with SpaceX to send travellers into orbit far beyond the ISS, on trips that will last up to five days, as soon as next year.
Musk, the South African billionaire, founded SpaceX in 2002 with grandiose plans of facilitating human settlement on Mars. But for now, he’s focused on space tourism, having announced two years ago that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, founder of fashion retail site Zozotown, will be the first private customer to board a SpaceX rocket on a journey around the moon. He hopes to take the trip as soon as 2023 and will follow the same path as Apollo 13’s 1970 voyage.
The 44-year-old Maezawa has money to burn. In 2017, the art collector dropped a cool US$110.5 million on a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Now he’s dropping even more to bring up to ten artists, including a painter, a musician, a film director and a fashion designer, to join him. Through this project, which he has dubbed #dear- Moon, Maezawa hopes that his planetary posse will “be inspired in a way they have never been before”.
On the project’s website, Maezawa muses, “If Pablo Picasso had been able to see the moon up-close, what kind of paintings would he have drawn? If John Lennon could have seen the curvature of the Earth, what kind of songs would he have written? If they had gone to space, how would the world have looked today?” Hey, big spender, ever wonder what a journalist would write if she were invited along?
Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 with the aim to be the world’s first commercial spaceline. Characteristically ambitious, Branson suggested that a maiden flight could have happened as early as 2009, but it hasn’t happened yet. In 2014, VSS Enterprise, an experimental spaceflight test vehicle operated by Virgin Galactic, suffered a horrific crash, ultimately delaying its SpaceShipTwo voyage that was originally slated for 2015.
But things got back on track after SpaceShipTwo flew to the edge of space with two test pilots in December 2018 and made a successful test flight in February 2019, when two pilots and one passenger enjoyed four minutes of microgravity before gliding back to Earth. Virgin Galactic passengers can expect a similar experience once commercial flights become available. To date, over 600 tickets have been sold.
Not to be outdone, Jeff Bezos, despite making his billions through Amazon and having financed the renaissance of The Washington Post, has said that his space venture, Blue Origin, is his “most important work”. His sights have always been set on the stars (he led Princeton’s chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) and now, Bezos is slowly but surely getting there.
While Virgin Galactic has promoted itself aggressively in the media, Blue Origin, actually the oldest venture having been founded in 2000, has been more discreet. The cost for flying to space with Blue Origin remains unknown, and tickets are not yet for sale. In December 2019, Blue Origin launched its 12th unmanned test flight to the edge of space and back. Rumour has it that this could be one of the last trial runs before passengers are welcomed aboard. The New Shepard spacecraft is designed to seat six passengers at a time, with what are described as the largest windows in the business for optimal universe-viewing pleasure.
STEP 4: BOOK A HOTEL
So you’ve made it to space. Now where do you spend the night? Surely you’re not the type who enjoys sleeping on a plane. As commercial space flight is picking up speed, some companies are racing to cater to what comes next—space hotels.
Orion Span, which describes itself as a commercial space company, has announced that its space hotel, Aurora Station, could launch as soon as 2021 and open to guests in 2022. Located 321 km from Earth, Aurora Station will orbit its guests around the globe 16 times per day, meaning travellers will experience a sunrise and sunset from space every 90 minutes. A 12-day visit would cost at least US$9.5 million, and it can only host six people at a time, including crew, so think of this as the ultimate summer share.
Meanwhile, The Gateway Foundation has plans to open a gigantic, wheel-shaped, rotating space hotel—very Stanley Kubrick—by 2025. Named the Von Braun Station, the facility hopes to someday welcome 100 tourists per week and, complete with artificial gravity, aims to offer the comfort and facilities of a luxury cruise ship, including restaurants, bars, movie screenings and sports. Zero-gravity quidditch matches—the fictional sport played by Harry Potter and fellow wizards—are said to be in the cards.
STEP 5: PACK YOUR BAGS
Leave the Hawaiian shirts and Panama hats at home, because when it comes to space travel, it’s more about being practical than putting on a fashion show. That said, in October last year, activewear brand Under Armour, the exclusive technical spacewear partner for Virgin Galactic, unveiled its line of technical spacewear and we’ve gotta say, it’s pretty slick.
Built to be safe, functional and comfortable, the outfit is a snug second-skin fit—a far cry from the fussy, bulky space suits seen in movies and TV shows. The uniform is an all-over ‘deep space blue’ with gold accents and customisable features including a clear pocket on the inside of the jacket for a photo of a loved one, and a removable patch that is unique to each mission.
If you’ve opted for orbital space travel, an official space suit will be required for taking off and landing, but at the ISS, astronauts tend to wear basics like T-shirts, shorts, sweatshirts and jeans. Remember: there’s no way to wash your clothes in space, so bring extras (and perhaps a Tide pen for those inevitable zero-gravity spills).
Speaking of, space isn’t exactly a foodie destination—at least, not yet. In the early days of space flight, astronauts had little choice but to eat food (or something like it) from tubes. Luckily, science is catching up and space travellers are now able to indulge in some comforts from their home planet such as mac-and-cheese, hearty soups, bacon and eggs for breakfast and brownies for dessert.
Russia’s Space Agency, Roscosmos, keeps its astronauts happy with space-friendly versions of borscht, jellied pike perch and goulash. Chinese astronauts have plenty of options for a taste of home, with items like Yangzhou fried rice, stir-fried noodles, kung pao chicken, traditional stews and even dumplings on the menu.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has developed Japanese staples like rehydratable ramen, okonomiyaki and matcha. When Yi So-yeon became South Korea’s first astronaut, three research institutes were given US$1 million in funding to develop kimchi that could be taken to space in 2008. You know, priorities.
The lack of gravity mostly dictates what can and can’t be eaten. Potato chips and crackers, for example, are frowned upon because the crumbs become a nuisance. Most space food is either freeze-dried or dehydrated because it helps keep it longer and makes it easier to prepare and consume without a proper kitchen. Living in zero-gravity also means fluids rise in the body, leaving many astronauts perpetually congested, and as a result, hindering their sense of taste. This makes liquid salt and pepper and hot sauce a space traveller’s best friends.
For a farm-to-table experience, there have also been experiments with growing fresh produce in space. So far, astronauts have successfully harvested mizuna, a Japanese mustard green, on board the ISS. This is a huge step, and could mean broader and more sustainable options for the future. Just don’t expect a breakfast buffet any time soon.
BEFORE YOU GO…
Unlike most holidays, travelling to space isn’t as simple as buying a ticket and taking the ride. Like any epic expedition, be it climbing one of the world’s highest and most treacherous peaks or diving to the darkest depths of the ocean, space travel requires a certain level of training and commitment.
Orbital travel, of course, requires the most serious training. Mark Shuttleworth, the aforementioned second tourist to travel to space, had to go through a year’s worth of training and preparation, including spending seven months in Russia’s military research and cosmonaut training facility, Star City.
Meanwhile, the much less complicated suborbital travel will be accessible to most, with simple medical tests required before taking off.
As soon as Virgin Galactic began selling tickets to space, celebrities were quick to jump at the opportunity. Classical singer Sarah Brightman and ex-husband Andrew Lloyd Webber are among them, and have revealed that they’ve collaborated on a song for Brightman to perform whilst in space.
Leonardo DiCaprio was quick to grab not one but two tickets, auctioning the seat next to his to raise money for his charity, The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. We may even see a Titanic reunion on board as Kate Winslett, DiCaprio’s co-star in the film and real-life BFF, has also secured a seat. In 2011, Winslett rescued Branson’s elderly mother from a fire at his private resort, Necker Island. When she married his nephew, Ned Rocknroll, Branson presented her with the wedding gift to end all wedding gifts; a ticket to space. Other celebrity space cadets-to-be include Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber.
Tom Cruise, known for performing his own stunts, is taking his hands-on approach to action to new heights—408 km above Earth, to be exact—with plans to bring audiences the first feature film shot in space. The actor is collaborating with director Doug Liman, whom he worked with on the films American Made and Edge of Tomorrow, as well as Musk’s SpaceX, to make this a reality. While the plot, cast and shooting dates remain a mystery, what we do know is that they plan to film on board the ISS, as confirmed by Nasa.
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