Space cadets to get into the orbit habit

If your holiday this year lacked excitement or glamour, fret not. There is still plenty of time before a place on the trip-to-end-all-trips becomes available. You can leave your suitcase, backpack and bumbag at home; all you’ll need are sunglasses and something good for travel sickness. In fact, this could be the ultimate in travelling light, because your destination is space.

Yes, space. Not as in “a spacious villa in picturesque surroundings”, or “a space by the pool”, but as in the considerable area beyond earth’s atmosphere. According to NASA and the builders of its next generation space shuttle Lockheed Martin, orbital cruises on board the new spaceplane are a very real possibility. A senior Lockheed executive, interviewed on television at the recent Farnborough Air Show, confirmed as much. Give it 20 years or so, they seem to say, and anyone with upwards of $10 000 (6329) handy and a good head for heights will be able to book a window seat. You always wanted to see the world? This is the way to do it.

The new, single-stage “reusable launch vehicle” (RLV) will be known as the X-33, and the programme to design and build it is the first of its kind to be privatised. Lockheed will own the spaceplane and lease it to the space agency. NASA, conscious of its developing reputation as an irrelevance and a gigantic waste of money, hopes that bringing in private enterprise will produce economies in the cost of space research, thereby spreading the agency’s 2bn annual budget further. Lockheed’s design, a stubby, delta-shaped vessel, will be tested by a smaller, sub-orbital, unmanned prototype, due in 1999. If all goes well, and providing NASA can assemble the $5bn (3.16bn) or so of private investment needed to build a full-size, reusable orbiting craft, the construction of a small fleet of X-33s may eventually follow, to replace the space shuttle. They would be able to make up to 50 flights a year each, and pay for themselves through income from businesses using the new ship to test and develop new technologies. One step on from that is the chance to replace industrial payloads with human payloads, and to put passengers in space. Round trips of earth at many thousands of dollars a head is a smart way of financing planes in space.

But before we think about what a space cruise might be like, there are other difficulties to consider. There is the matter of gravity: lots of it when you blast off, and none when you’re up there. Astronauts are strapped into torturous centrifuge machines and trained to deal with the g-forces of escaping the atmosphere and re-entering. The X-33 will take off upright as a rocket and land like an airliner: much as the current space shuttle does. “It could probably reach escape velocity with 3g or 4g, which is what the shuttle does,” says Tim Furniss, space correspondent on Flight International. The problem is that unpleasant things start to happen to average humans when they undergo prolonged accelerations. Alan Jackson of the independent Health & Safety Laboratory (run by the Health & Safety Executive), is studying the dynamics and design of pleasure rides, where even momentarily high g-forces have been known to burst blood vessels in the brain. Diminished vision, head pains, mental confusion, bleeding eyes and reduced body control are among the possible consequences of low but prolonged g. NASA’s astronauts are the elite of a very fit US Air Force, says Jackson. “I think you’ll find the average man in the street is not comparable to the average astronaut.” Space tourists would surely need training to be able to endure the rigours of a ride in the X-33. “Then they’d have zero-g to contend with,” adds Furniss, “which isn’t always a pleasant experience on a short trip.”

Furniss highlights another put-off to potential high-flyers: the absence of a pilot. “Apparently, NASA would do the same with the passengers as it does with the payloads: provide transport to and from orbit on a roll-on, roll-off container basis. You wouldn’t walk on to the plane. You’d get into a container, and be thrown into space. Well, even though an airliner may be on autopilot most of the time, you don’t fly in one without pilots.”

So, who would go through weeks or months of unpleasant training to fly on a privatised spaceship with no crew? Challenger and Ariane’s Icarus-like disasters are still fresh in the mind, as is the story of Apollo 13, thanks to its committal to celluloid. Space travel does have risks. It also screws up the environment: every satellite rocket launch deposits 35 tonnes of acidic, ozone-destroying hydrogen chloride in the atmosphere. Their confidence obviously unshaken, more than a million people a year would part with $10 000 (6329) for a brief trip to a space station, according to a 1994 survey in Japan (NASA’s space station Alpha has been under development since 1984). Whether they were made aware of the demands on their stomachs and eyeballs as well as their wallets is not known. On the evidence of the Japanese TV show Endurance, the physical demands were probably an attraction.

So, looking beyond all the ifs and buts, and assuming that there would be people prepared to do anything for an excursion in space, what could be done to design a service for passengers? Patrick Farrell, head of Loewy International’s London office, was part of Raymond Loewy’s team that designed the interiors for Skylab, and has experience of the psychological and practical demands of life in space. “The objective would be to make it [the X-33] as much like an ordinary plane interior as possible, with passengers belted up, but it would have to be much softer. There would be no hard edges. It would have to be like a padded cell; there’s always the chance that someone would float.

“On Skylab, we were actually trying to create a natural gravity environment, even though we were in zero gravity. For instance, we made the decision that there should be a non-hierarchical mess table. There were lots of psychological things (such as the inclusion of a porthole) that we influenced. The trickiest part was what they euphemistically called waste disposal. The problem was they had to freeze their own faecal matter. It had to go into plastic bags, which had to be sealed and put in a refrigerator. So we had to design a whole system for doing that.”

So, no room for luxuries. But for Steve Haggarty, one of Fitch’s team of retail and leisure designers, zero-gravity opens up a new dimension of entertainment and merchandising opportunities. Tongue only half in-cheek, he imagines the experience would begin on the ground. “There’d be no passport control. I’d like to just go in, get my ticket, get the key to my locker and change into my really special space-suit. I’d like to go and buy all kinds of extras that could be attached to my suit and taken into space with me. Then there would be a whole new service for food you are allowed to eat before flying. You don’t want a full stomach at take-off.”

In-flight meals might have to be rationed as processed mush from tubes and plastic containers (no change there, then). Would a complementary aperitif be allowed? What does alcohol do to you in space? “There could be an Alton Towers in space,” adds Haggarty, “like a global M25 with different events around the ring. Games, nightclubs, aerobics, sport… You could have the world’s longest tennis match.”

Space; a great place to take the weight off your feet.

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