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Giving gravity the heave ho, pioneering tourists get ready to blast into space.

As the apogee in sensational travel experiences, this one is, quite literally, out of this world.




That "one small step" that Neil Armstrong spoke about has had a hauntingly aspirational effect on the human race ever since he uttered it on the 1969 lunar landing. From that moment mankind seemed destined to embrace space travel, a conceit that hasn't quite come true. Until now, that is. Starting in 2008, a number of aerospace companies are beginning operations to, if not land on the moon quite yet, bring the wonder of commercial space travel to an exclusive club of enthusiastic adventurers. Suborbital aircraft will allow travelers to experience the thrills of rocket-powered ascent, G-force atmospheric pressure, and the eventual serenity and awe-inspiring wonder of gazing at the Earth from space while floating weightless. Within four months of announcing its service, Virgin Galactic reported that no less than 15,000 people had registered to pay the deposit to temporarily fly into the near reaches of space.

Further upping the exclusivity ante for the knockdown price of $20 million per head, one company, Space Adventures, has brought three travelers to spend a week each orbiting the Earth in the International Space Station. The trip of a lifetime, and the nec plus ultra of travel, the notion of actually voyaging into space will necessitate the rewriting of our definition of unique experiences. Unlike the short, sub-orbital flight which lasts a mere matter of minutes and costs in the region of $100k, this one demands months of continuous physical tests and training, requiring that the galactic visitor be more than just a space tourist; by the end of training, he or she will be a fully-qualified cosmonaut.

With reports of squabbles between people to be the first citizen from their country to get into space, financier Dennis Tito broke the mold in 2001 as the first American to realize his dreams of space travel, paying for the privilege of spending a week at the ISS, the 415th person in space (and one of the few civilians) since Yuri Gagarin's historic spaceflight 40 years earlier. During his week in space, the last man to make the journey, Dr. Greg Olsen, traveled over three million miles and completed over 100 orbits of his home planet, glowing blue and green beneath him. From his privileged position he could watch the world turn through night and into day, watch storms form and dissipate, view multiple continents, deserts, rainforests and ice caps simultaneously as the space station drifted silently through the great dark void of space.





Practitioners:

• Space Adventures

This space travel agency has already been baptized in the business of space tourism, having sent three men to visit the International Space Station between 2001 and 2005, the last enjoying an unforgettable seven-day experience. As such they're perfectly placed to operate proper orbital, as well as sub-orbital, excursions. Sub-orbital trips start in 2009, for up to five people at a time. Four days of training and flight preparation will be required before participants leave the U.A.E. spaceport in one of the Explorer crafts created specially for Space Adventures by the Russian Federal Space Agency. The Virginia-based company, with numerous bases globally, is currently submitting its fourth client, a Japanese businessman, to intensive cosmonaut training in preparation for another trip to the International Space Station.

www.spaceadventures.com


• Virgin Galactic

The brainchild of Virgin boss Richard Branson and billionaire philanthropist Paul G. Allen, Virgin Galactic has been a very real idea since its inception in the mid-90s. The idea—to make this as luxurious an experience as possible—relies on Virgin's proven ability to provide first class travel in the biosphere, with ergonomic seating to make the journey back down to earth more comfortable. Powered by nitrous oxide and rubber for safe, virtually pollution-free energy, the VSS Enterprise is an adaptable aircraft that changes shape to minimize atmospheric disturbances upon re-entry and lands like a conventional aircraft.

www.virgingalactic.com



• Rocketplane Kistler

Based out of Oklahoma in the US, Rocketplane Kistler is a small but well resourced aerospace company intent on getting to space before its rivals. After four-days mental and physical training in cooperation with the Civil Aerospace Medical Unit, and following a special breakfast and photo session, three passengers and a pilot take off in the Rocketplane XP. At 20,000 feet altitude the craft switches on its rocket propulsion engines and heads into sub-orbital space for a few minutes of weightlessness. Atmospheric reentry, made safe through an advanced thermal protection system, finishes with a conventional landing and celebratory reception.


www.rocketplane.com



• Planet Space

Launching from the Great Lakes region of Canada, Planet Space is expecting to make 2,000 new civilian astronauts' dreams come true within its first five years of operations. After a 14-day training period, the company will launch passengers using a rocket called the Canadian Arrow, the upper half of which contains the crew cabin which, after separating from the fuel tank at an altitude of 70 miles, will float in sub-orbital space, rotating to afford the best views before descending through the atmosphere, and falling gently with the aid of parachutes, to make a water landing with a recovery vessel standing by.

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