Space Is the Place for New Travel Destination

Instead of buying plane tickets to Hawaii for Christmas vacation in 2012, you could take your family for a five-minute trip into space.

So claims Steven G. Wurst, president of Space Access, which plans to build a fleet of eight vehicles for suborbital flights. He notes that his company, founded in 1994, expects to send tourists into suborbital space by 2012 "for about the price of an ocean cruise" and into low Earth orbit by 2015 for "roughly the price of chartering a small business jet." That is, up to a few hundred thousand dollars.

A suborbital flight will take you just outside of the Earth's atmosphere, about 62 miles above the ground, and reach a top speed of 4,500 mph. This is not high or fast enough to put the spacecraft into orbit, but you will still get to experience weightlessness for a few minutes. Entering low Earth orbit, your spacecraft will reach a height of at least 100 miles above the planet's surface and fly at speeds approaching 17,500 mph. The spacecraft will orbit the Earth every 90 minutes. Clients will be able to spend up to 10 days in space.

Space Access plans to build a fleet of vehicles to send tourists into suborbital space by 2012 "for about the price of an ocean cruise," company President Steven G. Wurst says.

And Wurst isn't the only one hoping to cash in on space flight for the everyman. A slew of other entrepreneurs are following suit. Following, an overview of the nascent industry.

Space tourism, now and then: One day, you may be able to travel to a regional spaceport, like the one being built by space transportation company PlanetSpace on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, and hitch a ride on a rocket to the stars. Major aerospace players like Lockheed Martin ( LMT) and Boeing ( BA) are providing funding, support and technology for PlanetSpace's spaceport and spacecraft.

Today, the only company sending tourists into space is Space Adventures, a space-related adventure travel and tourism company based in Virginia. The company buys empty seats on Russian Soyuz rockets and sells them to wealthy individuals for $20 million to $40 million. To date, Space Adventures has sent six tourists into space, but seats are taken up increasingly by crew being shuttled to the space station, so there may be no more room available to the public after this spring.

The good news is that the lack of seats on Russian flights has prompted the space-tourism industry to begin developing cheaper, more efficient, safer and more environmentally friendly space-transportation vehicles. None of the new vehicles is ready for the public yet, but two companies are testing promising models.

Getting there is half the fun: The most affordable spaceflight in the near future likely will be a suborbital flight aboard the Space Access Skyhopper. The Skyhopper uses only 35,000 pounds of liquid hydrogen fuel during takeoff and landing, whereas the Soyuz uses 600,000 pounds of carbon-based fuel to do the same. The Skyhopper takes off horizontally from a runway, like an airplane, rather than vertically from a launch pad like a rocket. Horizontal takeoffs have a higher success rate than vertical takeoffs and use less fuel.

If you can't wait until 2012 to get into space and are looking for a more luxurious suborbital space experience, sign up for a Virgin Galactic trip aboard a Virgin Space Craft. These ships are in their final testing phases and should be ready to go in 2010 (though there is no official start date yet). Virgin Galactic's vehicles use technology similar to that of the Skyhopper, but will have more room for you to float around in, as well as panoramic windows, so you can get a good view of Earth from any location aboard the ship. The price of a ticket: $200,000.

Training, health and safety: The training regimen required for travel into space is surprisingly relaxed. Usually it lasts only a few days and includes some time on a centrifuge machine to prepare you for the high G forces you'll experience during takeoff and reentry. Generally, only serious health problems will cause clients to fail the mandatory health examination.

Beyond safety concerns for space tourists, who will no doubt have to accept a certain level of risk before stepping onto a hypersonic spacecraft, the FAA has a few concerns about the price that the rest of us will pay. Whenever an object passes through the atmosphere at hypersonic speed, it does damage to the Earth's ozone. Also, an increase in privately owned space vehicles means more orbital detritus. But these issues probably won't stop Richard Branson from building more Virgin Galactic spaceliners -- or prevent you from taking your own flight to the stars.
Harper Willis graduated from the Gallatin School of Individualized Studies at New York University with a concentration in ancient theater and jazz guitar. He is a musician and writer, and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.