The Farthest Flight
Published: June 2009
By Henry Alford
If the great space race of the 20th century was about exploration and honor, the race of the 21st is about cash. Henry Alford investigates a bold new travel frontier
When I flipped open the pamphlet from Zegrahm Space Voyages, an adventure travel company in Seattle, little did I comprehend the momentousness of the occasion. "Dear Voyager," I read, "the publication of this brochure heralds the dawn of a bold new travel frontier." I read on, Thus Spake Zarathustra booming in my brain. For $98,000, I could join five other passengers and two pilots in 2002 on a two- to three-hour trip on a not-yet-built Space Cruiser. "Your ultimate destination: astronaut altitude, 100 kilometers above sea level. En route, you'll experience the ultimate view: the spectacular glow of the Earth's curvature. And once in space, the ultimate sensation: weightlessness."
Ultimately, the prospect of civilians like you and me being able to spend our vacations in space is complicated by the issue of whether or not we'd want to. For every halcyon image that space travel conjures—Velcro-ing yourself onto the wall of the craft and announcing, "We're go for slumber"; rendering a chunk of ice martini-size by putting it under the exhaust valve of your jetpack—there's another image presaging peril or discomfort. I refer to Houston. I refer to problems.
I dialed Zegrahm's phone number and spoke with a representative named Casey. I asked if there was any preparation, other than the six days of pre-flight training provided by Zegrahm, that future space travelers might take.
"If you can scuba dive," Casey said, "you can do this."
I have never scuba dived. Eager not to appear unspaceworthy, I offered, "I spent a summer in Boulder where I did a lot of high-altitude baking." This did not dissuade Casey from talking further with me. She helpfully outlined the Zegrahm prep course, making specific mention of the simulators that rotate the trainee and provide G-force thrust sensations.
I asked if Zegrahm had a screening process for space travelers—I worry about being in a tightly enclosed space with a young Jerry Lewis type. Casey assured me that my comrades would not be irritating. Moreover, she said, many of them would be world travelers.
"Yes," I replied, "at $98,000 I'm thinking I'm not going to see a nun with a guitar."
Sending tourists into space was first given serious consideration three decades ago. In 1970, Pan Am started accepting reservations for a future flight to the moon; more than 90,000 people expressed interest. The idea saw a resurgence in the mid-eighties, but efforts were shelved when the Challenger blew up in 1986. Currently, both Zegrahm (888/772-2366) and Virginia-based Space Adventures (888/857-7223) are taking reservations for suborbital flights. Richard Branson recently registered Virgin Galactic Airways as a company, which also hopes to offer suborbital flights in the next decade. Meanwhile, a tiny cadre of space professionals—hotel designers, sickness experts, policy wonks—has started to emerge.
My conversation with Casey piqued my interest. So when I learned that the Space Transportation Association, a private enterprise, was holding the first-ever U.S. space tourism conference, I joined 100 or so participants at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C., for two days of lectures and panels.
During the four meals held in the club's handsome dining room, I tried to talk to as many conferees as possible, assuming that they were a fair representation of those whom one might meet in space. I had a fascinating conversation with a NASA radiation specialist, who suggested that some of the first civilians to go should be the winners of a national lottery, and that corporations and schools should award flights to employees and students as a work incentive. I had a brief chat about vacuum-packed food with a high school teacher, who commented, "We should probably be wary of any cuisine that necessitates scissors." I had many, many conversations—with graduate students in tourism studies, with engineers, with journalists—about "the bloat." (In zero gravity, bodily fluids drift upward, causing faces to puff and breasts to perk.)
The speakers at the conference were less beguiling, and at times exhibited a more conventional kind of bloat. The majority seemed ineluctably to gravitate to the topic of what role the government should or should not play. Buzz Aldrin declared that, had the United States continued to commit 1 percent of its budget to the space program after he walked on the moon in 1969, "we'd have walked on Mars ten years ago"; others maintained that space tourism will get under way only when the government is no longer part of the equation.
While the speakers' words evinced philosophical differences, their actions (exchanging business cards, jockeying for seating position at meals) bespoke ambition and commerce. There is money to be made in suborbital tourism, and reputations, too. I would like to tell you that Mr. Aldrin does not, at such a function, carry around with him a Buzz Aldrin doll. I would like to tell you that Peter Diamandis—the founder of the X Prize, a $10 million award for the first private team to send a spaceship with three adults to 100 kilometers and back twice in two weeks—did not walk into the rest room and, seeing five men in line, exclaim, "We've got a marketplace in here!" But I would be lying. In fact, I would soon hear one participant propose installing slot machines on space shuttles; I myself contemplated writing a doom-tinged, Jack London-esque short story about a failed mission, to be called "White Tang."
Shortly after one of the conference's distinguished speakers nixed the use of a certain space-industry moniker for shuttles—"We must no longer use the term vomit comets," he said. "It is not a good marketing tool"—I walked over to one silver-haired former astronaut and asked, "Could you tell me about overcoming nausea?I worry about the vomiting." (In space, the lack of gravity causes blood to pool in the inner ear, which leads to a spinning sensation.) "Apparently, it does run a factor of fifty-five percent of people," he answered. "But it never posed a problem for me." In space, no one can hear you scream—but everyone is a potential backsplash.
If I was going to tackle the nausea issue, I decided, then I'd better tackle the hygiene one, too. I asked Brian Husting—a warm, bespectacled, fortyish architect with Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo who was handing out copies of his design for a doughnut-shaped space hotel—what hygiene-related challenges space travel might present. "You'll have to go to space camp to learn how to use a zero-gravity toilet," he said. I tried to draw him out on the particulars, but he, all decorum, neatly dodged my efforts. And so I found myself, during the next break, in the gift shop at the nearby Air & Space Museum, where, poring over the photo of the Discovery toilet on of Sally Ride's book To Space and Back—I will invoke here only the words stirrups and rubber spatula—I thought to myself, The horror! The horror!
That evening, the conference over, I drank a contemplative beer in the bar of my hotel. Having learned of my research in space travel, the bartender wondered whether I'd be interested in going, knowing what I know now. I wasn't sure how to answer. Then it struck me: If the money can be raised, and the shuttles built, and the ticket price lowered, and the risk neutralized, and the nausea overcome, and the toilets reconsidered, and the food improved, and the bloat monitored, why then, yes, I'd love to.
Henry Alford writes for Vanity Fair and the New York Times, and is co-host of VH1's Rock of Ages.