Space tourism celebrates tenth anniversary

Space tourism
is ten years old this week. On 28 April 2001 millionaire Dennis Tito became the first person to go into space as a tourist and not an astronaut or scientist.

In an interview with BBC today he talked about how thrilled he was and called his eight days being in orbit “paradise.”

While space tourism is the ultimate in high-cost adventure travel–only seven people have done it so far and Tito is said to have paid $20 million for the privilege–private companies are hoping to make it more widely available. They also want to make it more comfortable. Tito was crammed “elbow to elbow” in a Russian capsule after NASA refused to put him on one of the Space Shuttles. Not that he cared at the time. Check out this video of Dennis Tito’s arrival at the International Space Station. The guy’s euphoric!

A number of private companies are looking into commercial space travel. The most serious contender is Virgin Galactic, which has already built a spaceport and put their spaceship Enterprise through a test flight. The company hopes to push an orbital trip down to $200,000, just one percent of what Tito paid. Who knows? Maybe good old free-market competition will push the price even lower than that.

Even more ambitious is Excalibur Almaz, a company based in the Isle of Man that has bought some Russian space capsules that they’re refurbishing. They boast that they’ll offer trips around the Moon by 2015.

Best of luck folks, but I won’t be looking for a Lonely Planet Outer Space in the bookstores anytime soon.

[Photo courtesy NASA]


Virgin Galactic sets sights on orbital spaceflight

The stakes in the commercial space race just got a little loftier. Today, Virgin Galactic officially announced plans to team up with two U.S companies in pursuit of developing a commercial manned orbital spacecraft.

Backed by fearless entrepreneur Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic has chosen to support Sierra Nevada Space Systems (SNC) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDEV2); an initiative designed to stimulate the development of privately-operated space vehicles. This falls in line with the comments Branson made in our exclusive interview at Spaceport America, saying that NASA’s role should transition to apportioning out money to private space companies.

Since it’s conception in 2004, Virgin Galactic has primarily worked alongside Mojave-based company Scaled Composites to develop a reusable sub-orbital craft, dubbed “SpaceShipTwo”. This design will take passengers over 62 miles into space, but lacks the power required to completely escape the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in about 5 minutes of weightlessness. Orbital flights would give passengers a much longer weightless experience and views of the entire surface of the Earth.

SNC and OSC are following Scaled’s lead by researching designs that will utilize lifting-wing bodies and runway landings in an effort to minimize cost and maximize passenger safety.

While the first iteration of SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, has yet to make a rocket-powered manned test flight, Branson commented on the importance of looking ahead. “We are now very close to making the dream of sub-orbital space a reality for thousands of people at a cost and level of safety unimaginable even in the recent past…Today’s anouncement is an important step along the way of acheiving our ultimate and long term goal.”

We are indeed living in exciting times for private space exploration. Now go ahead and leave the inevitable “when can I afford it?” remarks in the comments section below!

NASA wants hypersonic plane, puts aside $15 million

If NASA gets its way, layovers will become a thing of the past. It has plans in the works to develop hypersonic jets that would surpass the speed of sound by a factor of five. What’s the implication? Well, you get on a plane in New York and get off in Sydney a mere two and a half hours later. That’s a cut from the current flight duration of 21 hours, according to The Daily Mail. In addition to shortening existing routes, NASA also wants to put faraway places into play … including Mars.

According to the NASA Aeronautics 2010 proposal, it’s putting aside $5million a year for the next three years to support the development of this reusable aircraft. The Daily Mail continues:

The proposal says: ‘The hypersonic heating environment, coupled with the emphasis on reusability, creates additional severe technology challenges for materials, material coatings, and structures that not only carry the aerodynamic loads of the air but also repeatedly sustain high thermal loads requiring long-life and durability while minimizing weight.

It looks like the future may be close. The X-51A Waverider scramjet hit Mach 6 this summer and flew on its own for 200 seconds. But, it had to get started by being dropped from a B-52 bomber. NASA’s plan is for something that can take off and land on its own.

[photo by Bluedharma via Flickr]

First craft lands at Spaceport America (Exclusive Video)

The future of travel is one step closer to taking off. Last Friday, Spaceport America officially dedicated its recently completed tarmac by welcoming two craft to land in front of a large crowd of Spaceport officials, future astronauts, and press.

Gadling was on-site to witness history as Virgin Galactic’s spaceship VSS Enterprise, carried by mothership White Knight II, made a dramatic flyover and landed on the enormous 200 ft wide by 10,000 foot long runway.

Situated under restricted airspace in the desert of New Mexico, the Spaceport is the first purpose-built commercial facility designed for vertically and horizontally launched spacecraft. The facility will serve as Virgin Galactic’s headquarters for the initial 20 years of operation, but aims to serve as a base for many types of commercial spacecraft as this new industry is formed.

For more information about Virgin Galactic’s approach to commercial spaceflight, head on over to their website. For a look at the event and interviews with Richard Branson, Governor Bill Richardson & a few future astronauts, watch our exclusive video below!

Curacao and St. Maarten become autonomous countries: what it means for travelers

Get ready for two new passport stamps: the former Netherlands Antilles has dissolved, and Curaçao and St. Maarten are now autonomous countries. Smaller islands such as Bonaire will now become Dutch municipalities. Aruba, the biggest of the ABC islands, has been a similarly autonomous state since 1986. It’s not a major status change for residents, as Curaçao has been self-governing for more than 50 years, but it will mean greater independence from the Dutch monarchy and more control over their own finances and local courts.

So what does this mean for travelers? The new independent status means more tax dollars for both Caribbean islands, meaning more money for tourism infrastructure and development. Curaçao, with one of the only UNESCO World Heritage sties in the Caribbean, has already seen huge growth in visitors from North America, up 40% this year. Development so far in Curaçao has been conservative and thoughtful, with many well-kept public beaches and no mega-hotels or high-rises spoiling the scenery. Even the island’s newest resort, the 350-room Hyatt Regency Curaçao Golf Resort, Spa, and Marina, barely makes a dent in the landscape; let’s hope the island maintains its charm.

In other news for Curaçao, the island is planning to enter the space tourism game with flights to space in 2014, perhaps the new tourism revenue stream will speed up the process.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Jessica Bee]