Cover Aspiring cosmonauts can now experience a simulation of a space flight

With a VR headset and a sensory deprivation tank, aspiring cosmonauts can experience the thrill of being in orbit without having to leave planet Earth

I have always wanted to travel to space. But unless I suddenly find a hidden talent for engineering or Russian, floating in a darkened pod of ultra-salty water is probably the closest I’ll ever come to feeling completely weightless. More than 14,000 kilometres away from Nasa’s rocket launch site at Cape Canaveral, a sensory deprivation tank in Hong Kong is my portal to the cosmos for an afternoon.

I’m here for Asia’s first virtual reality (VR) space float experience, ready for blast-off this month at Float Co. Mid-Levels (formerly Float On), Hong Kong’s first centre to offer “float therapy” to the public. Instead of a spacesuit, I wear a bikini—though, “most people float naked,” says Lulu Ward, Float Co’s head of marketing.

In a neon-lit room, I slip into a white, oblong pod partially filled with water. I close the lid, sealing myself in, and lie buoyant on the surface of the water, made twice as dense as the Dead Sea with 500 kilograms of Epsom salt dissolved into it. I glance at the emergency button one last time and put on the VR headset. The womb-like darkness suddenly gives way to the Sahara desert, snowy tundra, wide plains and mountainous terrain. Guided by soft narration, I fly above oceans, through aurora and into a cyclone, all real footage from the International Space Station (ISS). I feel completely weightless, apart from when my toes bump the edge of the “spacecraft”.

The experience is touted as “the planetary perspective that was only available to astronauts until now” by its inventors at San Francisco start-up SpaceVR. Even real astronauts are impressed: Loretta Whitesides, who will be among the first to fly with Virgin Galactic’s spacefleet when it finally lifts off, described the experience as “a great proxy” to being in orbit.

Space VR is available in more than 15 locations in the US and Europe, and Hong Kong is its first location in Asia. As of writing, only 569 people have ever been to space: around a tenth of the number that have summited Everest. For the overwhelming majority of earthlings, a VR space float will be the closest they can get to the stars.

Float tanks were introduced to Hong Kong in 2015 when Irish entrepreneur Ciaran Hussey established Float On after discovering floating was an antidote to the insomnia and stress he suffered while working in the food industry. “When I first floated in Bangkok in early 2015, I fell in love with the idea. It was the perfect escape from a busy city,” he says. “By simply shutting out the world, even for a short period, our body is allowed to reset, rejuvenate and heal.” For HK$650 for a single session, Float Co. clients lie in 30cm of water in a darkened pod for one hour, which creates a meditative sensation

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Float therapy was the inadvertent creation of US neuroscientist John Cunningham Lilly in 1954. Originally researching human and dolphin communication, he began testing human consciousness by administering psychedelic drugs to participants in “restricted environmental stimulation tanks”. Float tanks became commercially available in the 1970s as a new, therapeutic trend and naturopathic healers in the US promoted the tanks as an alternative to using drugs.

Floating crossed over to pop culture with the 1980 sci-fi horror Altered States, which was based on Lilly’s research, and has continued to surface—from The Simpsons to the 2003 Ben Affleck movie Daredevil. John Lennon was a fan, as is basketball star Stephen Curry. “It’s one of the only places where you can get unplugged from all the noise and distractions that go on with daily life,” Curry says.

After floating’s boost in popularity over the last decade, there is now an annual conference for members of the industry, started in Oregon in 2012 by owners of Float On, which has no affiliation with Hussey’s Hong Kong centre. So when SpaceVR CEO Ryan Holmes began looking at ways to integrate his company’s technology with floating, his search stopped at the Hong Kong Float On and its director Peter Sharp.

“I always admired Elon Musk and how he takes on these huge things,” says Holmes, via Zoom. “So, I thought, what would be my major contribution to the world?” In 2012, he read The Overview Effect, written in 1987 by space philosopher Frank White, who coined the term in the title of his book. It describes the sense of awe and insignificance experienced by astronauts when they see Earth from space for the first time. The book inspired the 2012 short film Overview, which featured five US astronauts familiar with the effect, including retired Nasa engineer Nicole Stott, who also mentioned that sensory deprivation tanks were “the closest I have ever come to the zero gravity of space on Earth”.

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Holmes realised he could harness the phenomenon as a business idea. “This was something that could be very positive for the world,” he says. “The entire architecture of our civilisation, both literal and cultural, is built without the understanding that we live on a planet. For us to really thrive as a civilisation, we have to recognise what we really are. Astronauts who experience the overview effect have that realisation. They come back and try to communicate their discovery to people. But there’s only so much you can communicate: it’s such a raw, beautiful, vivid and profound experience that is very hard to describe.”

Founded in 2015, SpaceVR sources high-resolution imagery from Nasa, including footage of the aurora borealis over North America, Earthrise views from the Apollo expeditions on the moon, mountain ranges along the coasts of the Pacific Ocean, a storm in the American Midwest and a sunset over the Indian Ocean, all filmed from the ISS.

However, the inconsistent quality of stock footage could only serve Holmes’ venture for so long—he was seeking a more cinematic experience. After a crowd-funding campaign, the company developed the world’s first VR satellite, Overview One, which has four cameras to capture 16K-resolution footage, making for a more vivid spectacle. Overview One is scheduled to launch into low Earth orbit by SpaceX rockets late next year. When live, the satellite will make it possible to live- stream content for viewers on Earth, who will be able to experience it in VR using an app.

For Holmes, even these immersive visuals didn’t go far enough. He visited the 2018 float conference to look for partners for his next project and was impressed by Float On. Sharp tried a SpaceVR lying on a bed and, in November the following year, the two companies began collaborating on a VR space float.

See also: Tatler's Guide to Going to Outer Space

“In the float tank, when the water temperature matches the air, it can create this full merge experience where you lose sense of your body,” says Holmes. “People come out and say, ‘I authentically felt like I was orbiting the Earth.’”

Once the preserve of science-fiction, space tourism is an ever-nearer reality. Virgin Galactic plans to begin commercial spaceflights next year and predicts it will eventually operate 400 flights per year from multiple spaceports, each bringing in US$1 billion in revenue. The company has already sold more than 700 tickets at US$250,000, a figure expected to climb higher to meet demand.

As interest in spaceflight grows, SpaceVR stands poised to offer a stepping stone to the real thing, and Holmes has plans for 1,600 locations around the world. “We have a lot of people who have tickets and have also enjoyed the VR experience,” he says. “Previously, it cost US$90 million to ride a rocket to space to have this experience. Now we have authentically recreated this for US$100. We like to joke that it’s a 100,000 per cent discount.”

A US$100 equivalent of a rollercoaster ride may seem somewhat frivolous or abstract to some, but Holmes is far from having his head in the clouds. He believes the more people that experience the cognitive shift triggered by the overview effect, the greater the trickle-down effect to society. “The float teaches me a lot about the Earth every time. I become very aware of how much is available on Earth that we don’t use,” he says.

“What I’m truly hoping to do is affect the world in a positive way. When you can inspire architects, engineers, political leaders and CEOs of massive companies, it will change the trajectory of what they prioritise in their lives, what they vote for, what they build; whether they choose to create machines that pollute the air with tons of toxic chemicals, or create methods that work with the Earth.”

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