The brilliant orb of Earth recedes into deepest black as you perform zero-gravity acrobatics or eat freeze-dried astronaut ice cream as it was meant to be eaten—while hurtling through space. This heightened experience was once reserved for the superhumans who clawed their way to the top of the astronaut list. Today, thanks to the blossoming private spaceflight industry, almost anyone can participate, although the exact mileage you can rack up depends on the size of your wallet.
Taking a Tumble Cost: $3,500
One of the biggest attractions of spaceflight is the chance to escape gravity’s pull and experience weightlessness. You can actually sample this sensation within Earth’s atmosphere in 30-second chunks. All you need is a plane big enough to accommodate some gymnastics and a pilot willing to fly the roller-coaster trajectory required to produce the feeling of zero-g. The process: The plane flies through a series of parabolas; approaching the top of each parabola, passengers are accelerated upward, becoming weightless as they go over the hump. The Las Vegas–based Zero Gravity Corporation supplies both pilot and plane. A modified Boeing 727 with most seats removed provides plenty of space for floating.
Preparation for flight consists of donning a flight suit and watching a training video. Zero Gravity eschews the words motion sickness, preferring the more public relations–friendly phrase “motion discomfort,” but passengers who are worried should have their doctor write a prescription for motion sickness pills in advance. Zero Gravity flies 15 or so parabolas each trip, and the flight lasts about 90 minutes.
I went up as part of a Northrop Grumman–sponsored flight of schoolteachers, who were videotaping a variety of experiments to show their students. This meant a full cabin, which at times resembled a human washing machine as the teachers bounced off each other while trying to do their experiments and line up their cameras for a good shot. Still, weightlessness was exhilarating. Thirty seconds may not sound like a lot, but in fact it is more than enough time to fly like Superman, spin in midair like an Olympic gymnast, or try to gobble up free-falling M&Ms. To paraphrase Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: If you have the means, I highly recommend it.
I haven’t tried the rest of these, but they should appeal to any aficionado. Here they are, in declining order of cost:
To the Moon! Cost: $100 million
It has been 35 years since human beings last visited our lunar neighbor as part of NASA’s immense Apollo program, making the prospect of a private voyage to the moon seem ridiculous. But as it turns out, the Russians have been reliably building potential moonships since the 1960s. The stubby three-person Soyuz spacecraft, now used to transport crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS), was originally designed as part of the Soviet Union’s failed lunar program, and an unmanned version, dubbed Zond 5, flew around the moon and returned safely to Earth in 1968. Building on this reliability, the Russians have partnered with Space Adventures of Vienna, Virginia, to offer service to private tourists for a fee. Only small modifications are needed to retrofit the Soyuz for tourism, explains Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures. One is the approximate doubling of the Soyuz window from some 10 inches to 2 feet in diameter, all the better for sightseeing. Another is enabling “a high-definition camera for streaming video and things like that.”
Two of the three Soyuz seats will be sold to paying passengers, with the third reserved for a professional cosmonaut who will act as spaceship captain and tour guide. “We’re in final negotiations with the two people who will be on the first mission,” Anderson says. “Once the contracts are signed, we think we can fly within four or five years.”
The plan is to have the Soyuz dock with the ISS for a week, then leave and rendezvous with an upper booster stage that will lend the Soyuz enough thrust to reach the moon in three days. It will take just a few hours for the craft to loop around, coming within 60 miles of the lunar surface before slinging back toward Earth and a landing on the Kazakh steppe.
In Orbit Cost: $30 million (an additional $15 million buys a space walk, too)
Space Adventures is the company behind the crop of space tourists who have already visited the ISS, beginning with Dennis Tito in 2001. Tito spent a year in training and learned Russian to prepare for his trip, but now tourists need just “six months of training, and you have to learn only a few basic phrases in Russian,” Anderson says. Tourists fly on board a Soyuz and can spend 10 days on the station conducting experiments, looking out the window to magnificent views of Earth below, or doing whatever else they want. (Tito spent eight days looking out the window and listening to opera.) Recently there have been rumblings that Soyuz seats will not be available for tourists in the coming years because government astronauts and cosmonauts will need every last one to staff the growing space station. “The good news is that the Soyuz production rate is going to be increased by a factor of two starting in 2009,” Anderson says. “We’re investigating ways to even increase the production rate beyond that. I’m quite confident that there will be even more seats for private missions in the future.”
Space Hop Cost: $200,000
This is the cheapest way yet to actually get into space: a suborbital shot that lets a spacecraft poke briefly out of the atmosphere, like a flying fish skimming the waves. There are a number of companies trying to build commercial suborbital spacecraft, but the current leader is Virgin Galactic, which will use a vehicle built by Burt Rutan, the designer of the Ansari X Prize–winning SpaceShipOne, the only private manned spacecraft thus far to have left the atmosphere. The ship under construction for Virgin Galactic, SpaceShipTwo, is more or less a scaled-up version of this pioneering spacecraft. At least 200 people have signed up for Virgin Galactic flights already. The company plans to start flying passengers as early as 2009, using the same basic plan that was used to launch SpaceShipOne: A large aircraft acting as a mother ship will carry the spacecraft to around 50,000 feet. The mother ship will drop the spacecraft, and a hybrid solid/liquid-fuel engine (chosen because it is believed to be safer than tra-?ditional liquid- or solid-fuel engines) will quickly ignite. SpaceShipTwo will then tilt backward and power its way out of the atmosphere, reaching a final altitude of more than 360,000 feet after about 90 seconds. Passengers will have a few minutes of weightlessness in which to float about the cabin and look out the windows. SpaceShipTwo will then reenter the atmosphere and glide to a touchdown at the airport from which it embarked.
Kissing the Edge Cost: $29,000
If you don’t have the cash to get all the way into space, you can strap yourself into the two-seater cockpit of a MiG-31, the most advanced Russian fighter jet in operation. Blasting off from an airfield near the city of Nizhniy Novgorod (formerly Gorki) and flown by one of the manufacturer’s test pilots, the MiG-31 is capable of streaking through the sky at more than twice the speed of sound and reaching an altitude of 13 miles—putting you above the bulk of the atmosphere, high enough to see the curvature of Earth below. Participants train and fly on the same day. The whole flight lasts about 50 to 55 minutes, with 7 to 10 minutes of that time spent above 45,000 feet, in the black verge of space.
Light That Candle Cost: $53
Sure, we’ve all seen space shuttle launches on TV. But actually being there—not just seeing but also hearing and feeling the full fury of more than 9 million pounds of thrust pushing 85 tons of spacecraft into orbit atop a blazing column of fire—well, that’s something else. The Visitor Complex at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center sells tickets to a viewing area on the causeway, just six miles from the launch site, with a clear view to the pad. Tickets, which sell out in minutes, must be purchased in advance.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
Virtually There Cost: $0
Absent the money or the time for any of the above, or if your ambitions go beyond the moon, there’s only one option: going virtual. If you have a PC and an Internet connection, you can download—for free—the Orbiter spaceflight simulator, developed by Martin Schweiger, a physicist at University College London. Orbiter lets users pilot historical and fictional spacecraft around the solar system; options include flying a shuttle resupply mission to the space station and guiding a glider through the hazy skies of Venus.
Orbital Space Flight Simulator