Dawn of the space tourist

Keely Lockhart asks if suborbital space travel has the potential to go galactic

The package holiday is about to get a makeover. According to some, 2014 is the year of the space tourist. Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson's latest corporate endeavour, this year plans to launch the world's first commercial manned suborbital spaceship. As part of their travel package, wannabe astronauts will get three days of training and preparation before hopping in and out of Earth's atmosphere in what is known as a suborbital space flight.

If the launch does happen, it'll be fair to say it's been a long time coming. It's been nine years since Sir Richard Branson formed Virgin Galactic and began working closely on a joint venture with Scaled Composites, an aircraft design and manufacturing firm, under the name of The Spaceship Company. Since then, two suborbital spacecrafts have been designed and tested, at an estimated cost of £244 million. Neither of these have yet to take their first passengers into space.

Space race

Virgin Galactic is not the only company offering commercial suborbital space flights. Blue Origin, funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Swiss Space Systems both plan to offer low-cost flights in the near future. Meanwhile XCOR, a small, privately-held Californian company, is entering the final test stages for its Lynx space craft, which attracted a lot of publicity last year when it ran a competition with Unilever's deodorant brand Lynx, offering entrants the chance to win a place on the flight.

However, Armadillo Aerospace, which was also in the running, has seen the cost and regulatory hurdles cripple the company into "hibernation" while air defence company EADS has only recently resurrected its Spaceplane project, which it shelved following the downturn in 2009.

For some, suborbital space tourism is not enough. Elon Musk, Business magnate and PayPal founder, has grand designs for commercial space flight. Musk is deadly serious about sending tourists to Mars, and even establishing a colony on the red planet.

A billionaire's game

On the face of it, it looks as if suborbital space flight is a billionaire's game. Right now, tickets for a seat on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo are on sale for a cool $250,000 (£153,000) each, which is a lot of money to be spending on a space trip that lasts just a few minutes. Yet, a quarter of a million US dollars pales in comparison to the $20-$40 million the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) was charging between 2001-2009 for the privilege of sitting in on a flight.

Some believe space tourism won't always be limited to the mega-rich. "As space tourism gains popularity, competing providers will have to fly more often, which will drive prices down while offering more and better services," says Dave Dooling, Education Director at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. "I would guess that suborbital flights will come down to a few thousands of dollars by 2030, perhaps earlier."

In addition, the close links between space tourism and commercial space flight mean that companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX can afford to charge less by making money contracting their services out to state-run space firms. "NASA and others plan on booking the space tourism firms to launch payloads that now go by sounding rocket," says Dave.

Dave's confidence in the growth potential of the space tourism industry is echoed by the investment from both the public and private sectors in commercial space flight. Development of an orbital hotel is currently underway and due to open in 2016, while the New Mexico government has funded the construction of a Spaceport America, designed by Foster & Partners, at the cost of $200 million.

Average people

While the price of a ticket into space will likely drop, it will never be quite as cheap as a trip to Butlins. Says Dave: "Like tourism here on Earth, the more distant and exotic packages will always be the most expensive."

Even if cost is no longer a barrier to the development of space tourism, there will always be a limit to how far the "average person" can really go. "Even when it becomes more affordable, a week in space may be the practical limit for the average person for some time," explains Dave.

"Things such as bone loss, cardiovascular and muscle deconditioning, vision damage, and other effects are major limitations." So while we might be watching the first tourists skip off into space in the near future, it's probably safe to say a gap year in space is still light years away.

How Virgin Galactic's SS2 works

The SS2 is currently unique because it's an air-launched spaceship, which means it's launched mid-air and has a horizontal rather than vertical takeoff. It's a composite of two aircrafts: a jet-powered mothership, known as WhiteKnightTwo; and the actual space craft, SS2, which hangs under the conjoined wings of the mothership.

Following takeoff, WhiteKnightTwo ascends to its launch altitude, where it releases the SS2, which engages its hybrid rocket motor and flies on to the upper atmosphere.

Once reaching the Kármán line (the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space) the SS2 enters suborbital spaceflight and passengers experience weightlessness for up to six minutes. When the SS2 descends back to Earth, a unique feathering system on the wings of the spaceship ensure a smooth re-entry, followed by a conventional runway landing.