Holidays in space are becoming reality, E&T investigates.
We can get a cruise to Antarctica or a flight to Kathmandu. We can canoe up the Orinoco and climb up Everest, both on package trips. But the one place yet to be opened to mass tourism is Space. Until now.
It's not quite out of this world, but last month the first commercial zero-gravity flights went on sale, with departures from nine American airports scheduled for this year. The flights are in a padded Boeing 727 named G-Force One, offering passengers up to eight minutes of weightlessness spread over 15 parabolic loops. If zero gravity isn't your type of thing, G-Force One can also simulate Lunar gravity (one sixth your weight) and Martian gravity (one third your weight) by flying a larger arc over the top of the parabola. It does sound fun having a tour of the whole universe in an hour or so. But I find the padded element worrying, as it suggests it's not entirely comfortable being tossed around like a ping pong ball at tens of thousands of feet. But if you're considering a honeymoon trip, the same company - Zero-G corporation - will also arrange weightless weddings. The future has landed. But it has an extraterresrtial price tag. Weightless flights with Zero-G cost from £3,220 per floating passenger.
In holiday brochures of the future, that's a comparatively cheap Space experience. Virgin Galactic has unveiled its six-seat SpaceShipTwo, which will make its maiden commercial voyage next year. A place on this first two-hour flight from New Mexico is £122,000. But even costs haven't put would-be astronauts off. Three hundred seats have already been sold.
But where to stay once you're up there? At the Galactic Suite Space Resort, of course, due to open in 2012. On a three-night stay at this orbiting hotel, you'd experience 15 sunrises (one every 80 minutes). The bit that appeals to me most is the training course you have to go through before checking in. This takes eight weeks, and is on a tropical island. What a blast.
More and more are taking off into the far blue yonder. Finnair has declared that its fleet of the future may include the A600-850M, a wide-bodied, zero-emission supersonic plane designed for short-haul routes. From the outside, it looks likes a model from Stingray. But most travellers will be interested in the interiors. It carries up to 850 passengers in small one-to-four person cabins, with either real or audio-visual windows with sweeping views up towards the surrounding sky or downwards to the ground. The AV windows can transform into display terminals, so passengers can watch television or even follow shows in the vessel's restaurant. It's also fitted with 'intelligent seats' that adjust to the passenger's weight, height and, apparently, age. The age aspect is mystifying. Does the seat have chameleon-like qualities, adjusting its colour from pink (five-year-old girl occupant) to black (teenager) to beige (late middle-aged)?
The customer experience is everything. The disc-shaped A1700-2400 Cruiser, another possible future addition to the Finnair fleet, is planned to have hologram theatres, restaurants, bars, shops, meeting rooms and a gym, where the machines adjust to the height and weight of the exerciser, presumably. It also boasts that it will be able to land on water in an emergency, something that we are led to believe by inflight safety videos all planes can currently do. For additional high-altitude security, there are smart parachutes for passengers, able to guide you to the perfect landing place.
This is probably little more than fantasy. Some 20 ago the Observer asked young designers what vehicles would look like in 2010. They predicted cars with circular seating, so families could sit in the round rather than grown-ups in front, kids in the back. There would be no drivers, because computers would be behind the metaphoric steering wheel and find the route for you. Trams would be the major form of public transport.
Of course, none of this has happened. It's all pie in the very high sky. And we're likely to be going on holiday to Marbella, rather than Mars, for at least another century. That, at least, is my prediction. In the meantime, we are nostalgic for popular space travel that might have been. In a recent 50,000-strong Science Museum poll of the most important scientific inventions, the Apollo 10 capsule came out at number four, just below the X-ray machine and Penicillin. For a while, staring at this iconic object the museum's gallery is about as close to space most of us are going to get.