As the global super-rich multiply, their travel demands get more and more extravagant. These days, a stay in a five star hotel fails to impress... Meet the companies who say the next frontier in luxury tourism is above the clouds.
The rise of the global super-rich has brought with it a class of people eager, and wealthy enough, to collect the most exhilarating experiences on earth. Climbing Everest, exploring the Arctic Circle or crossing the Sahara are now relatively pedestrian pursuits. That leaves space as the final frontier.
“The demand for trips to space is on the rise,” says Paul Gardiner, global marketing director of Mantis, a luxury travel company, whose adventure holiday subsidiary Mantis eXtreme has no less than three space flight packages in the pipeline . “We’re finding people want an experience rather than a holiday. Luxury isn’t just about lying on a beach in the Maldives anymore. If you want to make a statement, it’s all about living to the full and ticking those boxes.”
ZeroG, based just outside Moscow, is Mantis eXtreme’s gateway to space tourism, offered in partnership with commercial space agency Space Affairs. A modified Boeing 727 climbs 6,000 metres, just above the clouds, at a steep 45 degree angle, which triggers a series of parabolic aerobatic manoeuvres that thrusts passengers into a temporary state of weightlessness. This happens up to 10 times during the £7,000 flight – the maximum amount before extreme nausea sets in. To put it in perspective, NASA-trained astronauts undergo around 60 parabolas to prepare them for a mission.
“The last man on the moon was in 1972, so it’s about time that we made space a tourist destination and gave more people the chance to experience it,” says Gardiner.
US investment manager Dennis Tito is generally acknowledged to be the first private citizen to pay for a trip to space. His eight-day trip in 2001 was said to cost $20m, proving the potential for vast profits in the emerging industry. It has been done eight times since.
Another company, Space Adventures, is planning even more ambitious projects, which are already attracting an interesting clientele. Phantom of the Opera star Sarah Brightman is booked to be the next citizen astronaut on its Orbital Spaceflight. She’s set to travel through space at 17,000mph, flying 200 miles above the earth’s surface, before boarding the International Space Station for at least 10 days, circling the earth every 90 minutes. She confessed her space ambitions during a press conference four years ago and she’s due to launch in October 2015.
Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, expects the world’s super-wealthy to follow in droves. “For some of our clients, it’s the fulfilment of a life-long dream. They have achieved financial success that’s enabled them to pay for it. For others, they’ve done everything on earth and it’s the next frontier.”
Its next project, Circumlunar Spaceflight, will fly two clients and a cosmonaut around the far side of the moon – a feat described by Buzz Aldrin as “a unique opportunity for a private citizen to become one of the great explorers of the 21st century.” Those on board will be able to witness the astonishing sight of the earth rising up above the moon before they return. The experience – which has only been undertaken by 24 people in history – is likely to cost around £150m a ticket, but Space Adventures says it already has two takers for the first mission in 2017.
The most high-profile space tourism project, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, has attracted in excess of 700 bookings costing between £125,000 and £150,000 for a two hour trip into space, including five minutes of weightlessness. The reservations website, launched in 2004, crashed soon after going live under the level of interest. The “future astronauts”, as Branson refers to them, read like a who’s who of Hollywood, finance, and technology, from Tomb Raider actress Angelina Jolie, to advertising impresario Trevor Beattie. Branson was due to board the spacecraft with his family this summer, but reports suggest a defect has postponed the maiden flight.
There is one glaring difference between these “future astronauts” and the vast majority of human explorers who have gone before them: selection, or lack of it in this case. When NASA first started training men for space travel, they picked super-fit specimens from the US military with engineering degrees and pilot’s licences. Jolie’s personal trainer may be good, but surely some specialized preparation is required? After all, as the tagline to Ridley Scott’s Alien famously warned, in space no one can hear you scream.
“You have to be able to afford it; that’s the first stage of the selection process,” says Shelley. “Then you have to be reasonably healthy; the days when you had to be superman to go into space are long gone. When NASA was first doing it, they had the right to choose the supermen because it was a government programme and they did whatever they could to reduce the risk. But you don’t need to be that fit.” Shelley adds that in the 12 years astronauts have been working at the International Space Station, for up to six months at a time, there hasn’t been a single fatal incident. While his circumlunar trip is certainly more risky than, say, ZeroG or sub-orbital spaceflight like Virgin Galactic, the Russian rocket used for the trip has made 100 consecutive trips into space without incident. “I imagine the overall risk is not dramatically different from getting on a plane. There’s obviously more experience there, but plane accidents still happen and all travel comes with a degree of risk.”
Still, if all that blasting off and weightlessness doesn’t sound like much of a holiday, then Mantis eXtreme offers a more comfortable way to visit space. Its Bloon Flights, which feature a pod-like helium balloon, is currently undergoing tests in Spain and, once complete in 2015, it will take four guests and two pilots up to nearspace – above aeroplanes but below orbiting satellite – for around £90,000.
It’s a myth that the increase in space tourism is linked to the pace of technological change in recent years. In fact, argue Branson, Shelley and Gardiner, it’s more closely related to the proliferation of millionaires. The technology has been around for nearly 40 years; it’s the escalation of interest from wealthy clients willing to pay for space exploration that has prompted companies to investigate how they could provide the service.
But can these “celebronauts” and wealthy adrenaline junkies really expect a life-changing experience beyond the earth’s atmosphere, or is it just a trumped up longhaul flight with no destination?
The entrepreneurs behind space travel think it’s worth every penny – and history will be grateful to those who enter the great beyond.
“I think future generations will thank the first space customers for opening up a new realm of human exploration,” says Shelley. “All of our clients say the same thing when they return to earth: it’s a life-changing experience. It redresses your perspective on our place in the universe. You come back with a different outlook on life and you reassess your priorities completely.”