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Almost Astronauts

A Taste of Space

by Jeanne Lee

Did you always dream of being an astronaut? Are the stars calling you? Space tourism may be just a year or two away from a long-awaited reboot.

NASA recently announced that the first two commercial spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) next year. If successful, these test flights would bring commercial space travel for regular people one giant leap closer to reality.

A slew of companies, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, are on the verge of taking private citizens to space, to be able to see for themselves the blue curve of planet Earth and its fragile layer of life-sustaining atmosphere.

One of the stunning achievements of space travel has been for humankind to gain the awe-inspiring view of Earth from the vantage point of space. Astronauts describe a profound change in their life perspective when struck by the planet’s poignant beauty. Seeing the world without political boundaries, they gain a deep sense that all Earthlings are together on a shared home, moving in a black void. Called the overview effect, many who have experienced it come away with a strong feeling of wanting to work to protect the planet and make it a better place.

“You get the sense that we’re all sailing on the same ship,” says astronaut Michael López-Alegría. “It makes you more aware of the fragility of our planet—and also more understanding and tolerant of the rest of its inhabitants.” He should know; López-Alegría has flown three space shuttle missions, served as an ISS commander, taken 10 spacewalks, and logged more than 67 hours of “extravehicular activities” outside of the spacecraft, more than any other American.

López-Alegría was there during space tourism’s first wave, when seven private citizens went to the ISS between 2001 and 2009. “I flew up with one and down with another one,” he says. They were the fourth civilian space traveler, Anousheh Ansari, in 2006, and the fifth, Charles Simonyi, in 2007. For now, due to lack of capacity on the ISS and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, “There is no access to space for private citizens...but that should change next year,” says John Spencer, outer space architect and president of the Space Tourism Society in Los Angeles.

Space Tourism Coming Soon

A company called Space Adventures, based in Vienna, Virginia, arranged all the space tourism trips to date, with the last traveler being Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté in 2009. Space Adventures’ many offerings include a “suite of private spaceflight experiences to suit all interest levels and budgets,” including some that have never been done before—a spacewalk by a private citizen and a mission around the Moon and back. 

Houston-based Axiom Space plans to begin flying tourists along with professional astronauts to the ISS in 2020 and aspires to attach modules to the ISS that would eventually become an independent commercial space station. Visitors would stay in Philippe Starck-designed ovoid, white-padded habitation modules, furnished with sleeping bags that tether to the walls and have stick-on pillows to mimic, in zero-gravity, the sensation of resting your head on something.

“We are actively soliciting clients now, even though they wouldn’t fly for another two years or so,” says López-Alegría, who retired from NASA in 2012 and now works with Axiom. “We will buy a whole vehicle [from SpaceX or Boeing] and fill it. If it’s SpaceX, they have four seats. We would have at least one professional and up to three seats available for private passengers.

”The cost? It’s $55 million, but “for the inaugural mission, the price is reduced to $50 million—a one-time good deal,” says López-Alegría. “The ‘down payment’ is part of the contract negotiation, but clients should expect it to be in the neighborhood of 10 percent.”

Meanwhile, other companies are accepting reservations and taking deposits. Last year, SpaceX announced its first two paying customers for a trip around the Moon, initially scheduled for late 2018. But that flight may not happen on schedule, as the notoriously optimistic Musk has also reportedly said that SpaceX would instead focus on developing its deep space spaceship.

Blue Origin is also taking names on its website for those interested a suborbital flight. Its rocket, New Shepard, had its ninth successful test flight in July, carrying a test dummy named Mannequin Skywalker. Seats on the six-passenger capsule, with large windows covering a third of its surface, will likely cost $200,000 to $300,000 each, according to Reuters.

After 14 years of work and many delays and setbacks, Virgin Galactic still hopes to launch a spaceship by year end. The company has about 800 paid-up customers on its waiting list—with tickets costing $250,000 each—and Branson will ride with passengers on the first official flight, according to Bloomberg.

Space Training Available Now

Space enthusiasts, there is no need to wait. You can jumpstart an astronaut adventure on Earth right away. Here’s a list of outfits currently offering space training, true microgravity experiences, and simulated missions to Mars, so you can try out being an astronaut.

Cost: Around $4,000 per course

What are g forces? How does a rocket launch and what does reentry really feel like? To experience the exhilaration of gravitational forces on the human body, you can train like an astronaut at the NASTAR Center, located just outside Philadelphia. The FAA-approved center has a centrifuge and several other flight simulators that let you experience a simulated spaceflight.

"You can absolutely do space training at the NASTAR Center for fun. No ticket to space needed,” says Brienna Henwood, director of commercial business for ETC, parent company to the NASTAR Center. “It’s the closest you can get to actual space flight—the intense g forces, the weightlessness, and the feeling of reentry.”

In the centrifuge, you’ll be spinning at high speeds, but you won’t feel like you are. “You’ll feel as if you’re going straight up into space. It’s really intense,” she says. Over 700 astronauts have trained for space at The NASTAR Center.

Henwood recommends starting with NASTAR’s two-day Basic Suborbital Space Training course, covering topics like acceleration, effects on human physiology, and what to expect during spaceflight. Serious space hobbyists can go on to Advanced Suborbital Space Training to learn about spatial disorientation and high-altitude effects that can occur during space flight. “Since there is no up or down in space, understanding how your body is going to react to various stimuli prior to actual space flight is important,” Henwood says.

To participate in training, you must be 18 years of age or older and get a special medical checkup, called an FAA Medical Class 3, from an aerospace medicine physician. More details are available at nastarcenter.com.

Space Adventures Zero Gravity Flights

Cost: $4,950

Those who have escaped gravity seem to really enjoy the experience. After floating out of his wheelchair on a microgravity flight, the late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking later described the experience to NASA astronauts on the ISS, saying, “I was Superman for those few minutes.”

You can experience weightlessness, too. Space Adventures zero gravity flights use a specially modified Boeing 727, G-Force One, to create a weightless environment that lasts for about 30 seconds at a time. Pilots maneuver the plane to go up at an angle and to an altitude of 34,000 feet, causing you to feel the pull of 1.8 g. At the top of the parabolic route, you experience 20 to 30 seconds of zero gravity. As the plane descends, you descend to the floor again. 

The plane flies larger arcs to create a sense of one-third gravity, as if on the surface of Mars, and one-sixth gravity, like on the Moon. G-Force One flies regularly from Orlando, Miami, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. You can charter a microgravity flight for up to 34 people for about $165,000.

Adult Space Academy

Cost: $549 for three days, $1,299 for six days

Space Camp is famous for kid programs, but it has immersive offerings for adults too. “They love doing the simulated missions to space, assuming the role of a flight director in mission control or an astronaut on a spacewalk,” says Patricia Ammons, director of communications at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.You can try a rings-within-rings multi-axis trainer that simulates an astronaut caught in a tumble spin. There is a simulated mission to the ISS and a mission to Mars in a model of the Orion space capsule. The six-day extended course also includes underwater astronaut training.

“I believe a new generation of space naturalists and explorers will say, ‘The stars are calling, and I must go,’” says President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation Eric W. Stallmer. For those who dream of space, a taste of zero gravity or simulated spaceflight might just prepare you to join the next wave of space tourism.