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OPINION

Why space tourism is an oxymoron for the cash-strapped, but...

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaYearning for the stars and having a dream is not enough. You need cash – and plenty of it – to get three minutes in space. But you could still try a high-altitude supersonic flight.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Overture supersonic plane that could be flying by 2030

Boom's supersonic 50-passenger Overture may be one way to escape at 60,000ft while flying Seattle to Tokyo in just over four hours. This net-zero carbon emission aircraft has been pre-ordered by United and Japan Air Lines.

SPACE Tourism is as close to an oxymoron as you can get. Tourism carries connotations of mass travel, a herd following quality devoid of discrimination or independent savour. The term conjures up flag-waving tour groups and gold-capped-teeth captured for posterity by flashing cameras.

In the 1980s a distinction began to be drawn by many, keenly emphasised by the legendary Harold Evans, then editing an American travel magazine, between indiscriminate tourists and people who moved about independently, armed with knowledge, taste, and well padded wallets. That new breed had always existed but found fresh definition, as the traveller.

There is a significant difference between the traveller and the tourist. It is the difference between 600-thread-count linen, sipping 2009 Chateau Lafleur, and Bt600 digs in Bangkok with fleas, getting fleeced. In travel trade parlance this super category has long been wooed as the FIT (variously, foreign independent traveller in the US, fully independent traveller, or frequent independent traveller). Take your pick. They all mean the same thing. The traveller does all the heavy lifting on trip choice, planning, and price, though he may consult or book with an agent.

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After billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos roared off to briefly graze the edge of space, tongues have wagged over the prospects of space tourism. With tickets in the range of US$200,000-$300,000 on New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space) or on Branson’s SpaceShipTwo (celebrating compound words – it was rechristened VSS Eve) aboard the VSS Unity, these jaunts will not be mass events. There will continue to be serious limitations imposed by price and physics.

Described as a ‘reusable suborbital rocket’, New Shepard has to exceed 4.9 miles per second (17,600mph) to fight the earth’s gravitational pull. If it were headed to space it would need to get to seven miles per second or 25,000mph. This places huge restrictions on weight, size, and passenger capacity. Virgin Galactic’s Unity is airlifted up to 45,000ft and then jettisoned to make its own way up at Mach 3 (thrice the speed of sound, or 2,300mph) having already got through the densest parts of Earth’s atmosphere. This enables the final space hop with less fuel and weight. It is a costly business.

Boeing's vision for its passenger ferrying CST-100 Starliner

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner is envisaged as a reusable seven-man craft for low-earth orbital missions in collaboration with NASA. Boeing says the capsule could be re-used six times.

The space queue includes SpaceX, Orion Span, Japan's ANA-funded PD Aerospace and the Boeing Starliner. Yet, Russia's Kosmokurs bowed out mid-2021 and other starry-eyed space travel ventures have folded.

{Price and physics will remain an issue for space travel, which may be overtaken by suborbital flights at supersonic speeds for business travellers

Do people really want to go up into the black beyond? The Pew Research Centre says the majority of Americans (58%) are disinterested in space travel for reasons of cost, fear or health. This finding is not surprising given that most Americans don’t hold a valid or current passport. Just over a third do.

Space is tempting enough but cost will remain an issue. And it may be overtaken by suborbital flights at supersonic speeds that may become a reality, at least for business travellers. With the exit of the Concorde late 2003, the supersonic aircraft shelf has remained egregiously empty. These are tough shoes to fill.

Aeron Supersonic, a Nevada-based company had plans since 2002 for its AS2, a Mach 1.4 business jet carrying up to 15 passengers that would slip through the sound barrier without the customary boom, thus expanding operations to ‘quiet’ cities. But, after struggling for almost two decades and unable to come up with a working scale model or an actual aircraft, the company ended its quest in May 2021.

This leaves the field open to three other contenders, all in the US, Boom, Spike and Exosonic. Boom’s single-seater XB1 – endearingly named Baby Boom – is scheduled to start its supersonic demonstration flights first half of 2022, before scaling up to a 50-passenger commercial jet, Overture (with orders in already from United and Japan Air Lines).

Boom has relied heavily on Concorde technology, sensibly building on good knowhow rather than constructing a new plane from scratch. This should help bring costs down by the time Overture has its first commercial flight in 2030. Boom hopes Seattle to Tokyo could be done in four-and-a-half hours (cutting journey time by half) and, eventually, London to Sydney in just over eight. The Mach 1.7 Overture would cruise at 60,000ft with net-zero carbon emission.

MiG-29 edge of space flight

Russian MiG-29 edge of space flights are on hold due to Covid-19 but this front-line fighter jet offers a unique second cockpit view as it shoots upwards to 72,000ft plus some aerobatic thrills. Serious boy's toys these.

Spike Aerospace is focused on its quiet 18-seat Mach 1.6 business jet S-512, while Exosonic, armed with a contract from the US Air Force for a supersonic vice presidential plane, will stay focused on that before expanding its sights. California-based Exosonic envisages a 70-seat Mach 1.8 passenger supersonic aircraft that, like Boom, should be capable of flying on biofuels, carrying you from London to Hong Kong in just six hours.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ magnificent series on Mars (though he was better known for Tarzan) had me enthralled as a young boy. I put my kid brother in the cupboard and terrified him by telling him we were travelling to the red planet. This was well before IKEA’s superior technology arrived. I also wanted to take my son up in a Russian Mach 2 MiG-29 Fulcrum to see the Earth’s curvature from 72,000ft (or about 13 miles) but settled for a sedate family Toyota that ran without fuss for 12 years. The MiG ride was priced at US$18,000 (with the possibility of throwing up your breakfast) while the night views from Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak were free.

While we frequently perused clouds lit up by the neon, we couldn’t see the Karman Line that once defined the beginning of space at 100km (62 miles). Branson’s Unity reached its apogee on 11 July 2021, at around 50 miles (80km), which is currently classified as space by NASA, while Blue Origin went up a short while after on 20 July to 66.5 miles (350,000ft), earning Bezos bragging rights. Neither will receive astronaut wings, however, after the FAA ruled that this award was only for space crew or those participating in serious research. Not to detract from the achievement, but the jollies are out of the running.

Would you fly to space? And would you pick a capsule with huge windows (and parachutes) atop a rocket, or an aircraft that comes down to Earth on a one-shot glide path with no escape or go-around capability? I still prefer IKEA, where space has been shrunk to the level of human comprehension even if the assembly remains confounding. But then, that’s advanced technology for you. And it’s safe. Imagine telling your friends you explored a tiny bit of space over the weekend in a Rakkestad or a Hauga?

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