For the traveller seeking adventure, space is the next destination - but it will take some dedicated preparation. We meet the tourist ready and waiting with three tickets to head beyond the atmosphere.
How is that for a holiday destination? Travel in a small group for great, arguably unrivalled views from a height of more than 100 kilometres above earth. Even experience weightlessness. Granted, the trip to outer space will last just a few minutes, but the promise that tourists can soon ‘earn their astronaut wings’ is becoming ever more real.
In November 2015, private spaceflight company Blue Origin performed a historic feat: it launched, flew and successfully landed a reusable rocket carrying the company’s New Shepard space vehicle. Soon, Blue Origin could be one of the private firms vying for wealthy individuals who choose space as their final holiday frontier.
Virgin Galactic with its SpaceShipTwo rocket ship also wants to take private citizens beyond the atmosphere, as do XCOR Aerospace and Space Adventures among others. Space tourism finally seems set to take off, with hundreds of people having put down hefty deposits to secure places on the first few commercial passenger spacecraft.
Per Wimmer is one of them. The 47-year-old Danish financier and entrepreneur has been waiting for his chance to go to space for more than 16 years, with tickets from Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures and XCOR in his pocket since the early 2000s. Back then, tickets were slightly cheaper than they are today, but he still had to find around $100,000 each to secure rides with Space Adventures and XCOR, and $200,000 for Virgin. Nowadays, Galactic will ask you to pay $250,000, while XCOR is a snip at $150,000.
When he is not busy dreaming of flying atop a rocket, Wimmer runs his very own investment bank, Wimmer Financial, in central London. That’s not all he does though: he’s an avid advocate of space travel and exploration, and holds regular talks in schools trying to inspire young people to choose space-?related careers. And he loves to travel. Not only has he explored nearly a hundred countries so far, he also was the first to skydive in tandem over Mount Everest, the highest point of Earth, and relaxed by skiing at the world’s highest ski resort - on Chacaltaya mountain in Bolivia at nearly 5,500m. Now he wants to go higher - and that can mean only one thing: space.
Wimmer will not be the first space tourist. Still, so far there have been a mere seven private citizens who have made it to space. The very first tourist, Dennis Tito, blasted off in 2001 on a Soyuz TM-32 rocket. Wimmer was in Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan that day, and saw him lift off.
So how does one get ready to go to space, apart from finding the chunky sum of money to pay for the ticket? Your body will need rigorous training to survive the immense stress of space travel, and Wimmer has done it all, from floating in simulated zero gravity and piloting fighter jets, to spinning in a centrifuge.
When he bought his first ticket, with Space Adventures, in 2000, he had to start the same training as astronauts and cosmonauts, as there weren’t any specific programmes for space tourists. He went to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, on the edge of Moscow, where he trained with the world’s second space tourist, Mark Shuttleworth, who spent 11 days on the International Space Station in 2002.
Wimmer also got spun in the world’s biggest and most powerful centrifuge, built to simulate the acceleration of space flight. It spins so fast that your body gets subjected to several times the g-force, or the acceleration due to the Earth’s gravity under freefall. The faster it spins, the more pressure, or tugging, the body feels; Wimmer says he experienced six times the g-force in the horizontal direction. This is known among fighter jet pilots as ‘eyeballs back’ because of the enormous pressure on the eyes. He then was spun vertically, getting three times the g-force - known as ‘eyeballs down’ - when blood is forced to gush to your feet. “This centrifuge can go up to 30 g,” Wimmer says, and can simulate every stage of a rocket launch.
After g-training, he had to fly real-life fighter jets. “I went to Zhukovsky air base near Moscow and got into a Russian fighter jet - a MIG-25,” he recalls. The idea was the same, to experience the g-forces. A pilot who was in the cockpit next to him took off, and once in the air, Wimmer got to pilot the jet, turning it around. “We went as high as 24,000 metres, higher than Concorde used to fly, and reached speeds of about Mach 2.5-3, or 2.5 to 3 times the speed of sound,” he says.
During his flight, Wimmer noted seeing the curvature of the Earth, and at the same time witnessing the darkness of space and the rising of the sun, like seeing day and night together.
He also piloted a Czech-?made fighter plane, an Aero L-39 Albatros, and flew in big planes - an Ilyushin 76 cargo aircraft and a Boeing 727, also known as the ‘vomit comet.’ In those two, he experienced zero-g training, or weightlessness. It occurs when a plane suddenly nose-dives and continues falling for 30 to 40 seconds - and once it was over, the plane went back up again, subjecting its occupants to twice the force of gravity.
Wimmer says that this training is absolutely crucial for learning to control your moves when floating in space, and to avoid getting motion-sick, which could lead to a rather unpleasant experience of vomiting in microgravity. Hence the nickname of the plane.
So when will he finally go up? As soon as a rocket is ready to take him there, he says, hopefully no later than 2017.
Space tourism seems to get ever closer - though the first travellers will only experience ‘sub-orbital flight’, effectively skimming the edge of space for a short while, but without going into a stable orbit.
On 19 February, Virgin Galactic will unveil its new rocket, SpaceShipTwo. The previous model, which Wimmer says is very similar to the new one, crashed in October last year, killing one pilot. The Federal Aviation Administration’s report concluded that the accident was caused by the co-pilot unlocking the braking system too early. “There was nothing wrong with the rocket, it was pure human error,” Wimmer says.
Wimmer will be at the unveiling ceremony, and is eager to see the rocket before it begins its test programme. To get to space, it will have to hitch a ride on its mother ship, carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo. After its release, SpaceShipTwo will first fly horizontally and then turn upward. Wimmer and other future passengers have so far experienced simulated flights inside a privately run centrifuge just outside Philadelphia, at the National Aerospace Training and Research Center. Unlike the Russian centrifuge, which just spins, this one is equipped with a screen on which the Earth is seen to get progressively smaller, while powerful speakers and a motion simulator create a very real in-flight experience, including all the ‘pleasure’ associated with g-force training.
Meanwhile, rival space tourism firm XCOR is currently building its first Lynx rocket and says that it has made very good progress over the past few years. “I’ll be the first astronaut to fly with them, and I’m keen to see them get ready,” says Wimmer. “I’m going to their headquarters in Amsterdam later in February and there I’ll get a full insight into their plans. They’ve recently had a cash injection, which always helps. And once they get going, they will be a low-cost rocket to ride.”
Of the three companies he bought tickets from, it’s Space Adventures that is least advanced, says Wimmer. “They had wrong rocket suppliers, and they are still fairly far behind the two others.”
Despite the vehicles still not being ready, one advantage Wimmer has is that he has finished his training. “I’ve done all of it. It’s like driving a car, you do it once and that’s it. Now I’m in a luxurious position that I can just get up and go. Of course I have to stay fit, and just before the whole thing kicks off, I might do a little bit of a top up, maybe go back to the centrifuge.”
Among the commercial space companies, it’s also worth mentioning SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk. The firm’s Falcon 9 rocket has different aims, doing orbital flights rather than the sub-orbital trip that Wimmer hopes to accomplish. Falcon 9 has already delivered cargo to the International Space Station, while last December SpaceX successfully managed to land its first reusable rocket in an upright position. “They are doing fantastically well, but still it’ll be years before they’ll take humans up there,” says Wimmer.
So the wait continues, and of course there is the added risk of going to space on relatively unproven rockets. “It’s comparable to the early days of aviation; planes back then were by no means as safe as they are today,” he says. But long before space tourists step aboard, each rocket has to go through an extremely rigorous test programme, with test pilots taking a lot of risk, and then the FAA approving the vehicle. “It’s not a perfect risk profile, but certainly is acceptable.”
Feel the force
So will all space tourists have to go through a training programme as rigorous as the one Wimmer subjected himself to? Well, he says, a centrifuge and a zero-g test are a must. “You do need the centrifuge to really feel the g-forces on your body, because the moment you go up, it really hits you. And if you haven’t trained, you’ll get a bit of a shock and you won’t enjoy the trip as much.” Piloting fighter jets is fun, but probably more optional, he adds.