Get out of this world

by Yumi Wijers-Hasegawa

Forget Hawaii, Hong Kong, Bali, Britain or Paris — before too long your family vacation choices will include staying at space hotels or taking a 10-day spin around the moon.

When Toyoyuki “Nick” Naka- mura first told his colleagues at the Japan Travel Bureau that he planned to launch space travel as a new product to offer the company’s customers, everybody thought he had gone mad.

“One colleague patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘I know you are tired after so many years in the countryside. You should just take it easy for now,’ ” he recalled.

That was back in February 2005, just after Nakamura, 40, was transferred to JTB’s Tokyo head office after 18 years spent working in the Nagoya area.

But when he arrived there and the executive director ordered him to start an operation focused on “whatever’s new,” space travel was the option that had immediately sprung into his mind.

In fact, Nakamura’s hunch was not as far out as it may have seemed — and right now, for several hundred tourists and thrill-seekers around the world, space is set to soon become their final getaway frontier.

By August the same year, Nakamura had managed to overcome his colleagues’ skepticism and had contracted with U.S.-based Space Adventures Ltd. for the exclusive right to sell its tours in Japan. Now, less than two years on, JTB brochures and its Web site are promoting space as a travel destination alongside the likes of Paris, Bali or London.

You can currently book two different types of space trip. One is a full-fledged space flight, which takes passengers into orbit around the Earth for a few days before transporting them to the International Space Station (ISS) for a six-night stay. That nine-day trip — which requires 6 to 8 months training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia — is made aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, and goes for $20 million through JTB. For amateur astronauts with money left in the bank after that, another $15 million will buy them a 90-minute spacewalk as well.

Far fetched? Well, by 2008, a tour that goes around the moon will also be available for a mere $100 million.

Meanwhile, for those less well-heeled, JTB is also offering suborbital tours at a much more affordable $102,000. Those jaunts, scheduled to be launched next year when the spacecraft’s construction and testing is complete, will leave from Moscow, Los Angeles, Singapore or Dubai and take passengers 100 km above Earth to give them a few minutes’ experience in space.

But Nakamura’s space-age vision is not just targeting those with money to afterburn. If a customer were to come along looking for some quasi-space experience, for example, he could offer them trips to the edge of space in a supersonic Russian MIG or Sukhoi fighter for $19,995 to $23,695.

Then, for even more cash-strapped spacesters, there’s a four-day tour with a zero-gravity-experience flight from Russia for just $9,895 — or even a similar, one-day package from the United States for $3,750.

Nakamura said that, until October 2004, space travel had been the sole preserve of governments or a few superrich with the time and money to fly on the Russian Soyuz. Then, in that month, space travel for ordinary people really blasted off with the launch of the Ansari X Prize. That saw 26 teams from around the world competing to fly suborbitally and win $10 million by building the first private space vehicle to reach an altitude of 100 km twice within two weeks.

The competition stemmed from a bubbling public desire to experience space travel — and private-sector ambitions to cash in by making that experience widely available. In the end, it was won by U.S.-based Scaled Composites LLC’s SpaceShipOne, designed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan — the same man who designed “Voyager,” which in 1986 became the first aircraft to fly around the world without stopping or refueling.

Consequently, within just a few years, hundreds of more or less ordinary people will be joining the extraterrestrial ranks of the likes of American businessman Denis Tito, who became the first space tourist when he took a Soyuz trip in April 2001. He was followed a year later by South African computer entrepreneur Mark Richard Shuttleworth, and in 2005 by American entrepreneur Gregory Olsen. Most recently, Iranian-American businesswoman Anousheh Ansari — whose family sponsored the Ansari X Prize — flew in September 2006, when she took over the position of former Livedoor board member Daisuke “Dice-K” Enomoto, whose boarding card was withdrawn at the last minute due to his ill health.

“These first four space travelers are not really ordinary people, in the sense that they can pay $20 million,” said aerospace business consultant Misuzu Onuki. “But the Ansari X Prize opened the door for private companies to launch space trips, making it a realistic possibility for the common people.”

Onuki, who coordinates various types of space business, said that the Ansari X Prize helped nurture as many as five companies to have the ability to develop suborbital spacecraft by 2008. One is Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which licensed the technology of SpaceShipOne, she said; the others are the U.S. companies Rocketplane Kistler Inc., Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin and X Core Aerospace. At this moment, Onuki estimates that about 600 people worldwide are booked on space trips planned by some of these companies by 2008.

Meanwhile, Nakamura said that 10 Japanese people have so far booked and paid for suborbital flights through JTB, and 10 have applied for zero-gravity or supersonic flights. He gets 100 new inquiries each month, he said, adding that “I heard there are also inquiries about the $100 million moon flight.”

“It’s not a fantasy anymore — within 20 years, your neighbor may well have gone into space, even if you haven’t. In 30 years, space will be a common destination for weddings and family adventures,” JTB’s Nakamura says.

That he is right seems indisputable, because in May 2005, Club Tourism International Inc., another Japanese travel agent, also began selling a 22 million yen suborbital tour that Virgin Galactic plans to offer. Two “founder” seats on those space jaunts, allocated to Japan out of the first 100 available, were snapped up immediately.

And, although orbital trips are now only for the extremely rich, Onuki said that could also change in the near future, with companies like Rocketplane Kistler and Space X working with NASA to develop new orbital spacecrafts.

During a presentation in Tokyo in November, Rocketplane Kistler Vice President Charles J. Lauer said orbital space travel with companies like his will make it much easier and much more pleasant for passengers than the current trip on the Soyuz.

“Now people have to put up with paying $20 million, living for six months in Russia and learning one of the world’s most difficult languages (a condition of the trip) — even having to learn how to shoot a bear in case the spacecraft lands where there are bears,” Lauer said. “With our spacecraft, it will be much simpler,”

JTB’s Nakamura explained that his clients can be classified into two types. First are people in their 50s or 60s who are retired or have their own companies and who have the time to spend their money. Second is a totally different group of young people in their 20s or 30s who want to invest in themselves and/or in their future.

“Even now that the fairs are over, we keep a permanent installation because it’s quite popular. I think there is a sort of a space boom going on,” said Kinokuniya Shinjuku store staffer Kenji Koizumi.

Online poll results

That feeling was echoed by the results of an online poll of 16,007 people by the Internet community MyVoice in December 2004, which found that 53 percent of respondents wanted to go into space, 90 percent of whom said they wanted to stay for at least a few days in a space hotel or the ISS.

Indeed, aerospace consultant Onuki confirmed that preparations to meet this demand for space travel are under way around the world.

“A one-third scale model of Bigelow Aerospace’s space hotel, by Las Vegas hotel-chain owner Robert Bigelow, was successfully launched into space in July for realization by 2012,” she said, adding that there are already six spaceports in the U.S. with FAA licenses for commercial use — California Spaceport, Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, Florida Space Authority, Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia, Mojave Spaceport and Oklahoma Spaceport.

“Ten more spaceports are currently proposed in the U.S.,” Onuki said, “with others planned in Singapore, Dubai and Hokkaido, taking the global total to more than 20.”

Hokkaido, which already has the basic infrastructure for tourism, is ideal as a possible Asian hub for space travel, Onuki said, adding that big projects like this lure other investment and generate great economic benefits.

She said a market study by U.S. company Futron points to the space-travel market in the U.S. alone reaching $8.4 billion by 2012, and three times that worldwide.

“The possibilities of the space business are endless,” Onuki said. “Sports events and theater can be staged in space and broadcast on earth. Space food, space fashion, space art and filming in space will all be big as well. Including all the fringe businesses, the economic effect in Japan could be up to 10 trillion yen a year.”

Onuki, who promotes the popularization of space, coordinated the world’s first space-fashion contest at The University of Tokyo in November. Models wearing the top 11 designs out of close to 1,000 entries submitted appeared on the catwalk with mesmerizing “spacey” sounds in the background.

One model had a metal plate on her chest for protection and test tubes around her left thigh for conducting experiments. Another wore an extremely colorful, multilayered kimono. That design, intended “to take Japan to the universe,” won a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency prize.

But the top award at the show went to a fluffy white dress worn under a long white coat, with the model holding a white teddy bear. The designer, Tokyo Mode Gakuen (Tokyo College of Fashion and Design) student Midori Umetsu said she came up with such a soft design because, “in an unknown world like space, we need to feel reassured by warmth and protection.”

Together with senior designer Eri Matsui, Umetsu’s reward for winning is to design the actual spacesuit that will be worn in the Rocket Plane Kistler spacecraft.

Dawning of an era

Put all this together, and the dawning of an era of space travel for ordinary people seems to be imminent. Even the high cost might not be such a big problem anymore, with airlines such as American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic trading space travel for mileage points, and companies like American Express offering it as customer privileges.

But what kind of precautions will travelers need to be aware of when they really do go into space?

Well, in its typically laddish way, British tabloid The Sun helpfully reported in 2006 that women with breast implants might be banned from going to space, as the implants may expand and burst due low cabin pressure. So women thinking about having boob jobs may need to think again if they would like to go into space.

Onuki expects space weddings to catch on, and says because parts of the body bloat in space, a larger wedding ring might become necessary. And with honeymoons expected and a space hotel being built, having sex in space is also an issue that may have to be addressed.

In an online story of U.S.-based cable news channel and news Web site MSNBC, writer Vanna Bonta said that sex in space won’t be easy.

“You actually have to struggle to connect,” because of zero gravity, she said, adding that partners would have to be anchored to the wall and/or to each other.

The same report says that a more crucial issue comes afterward — if someone tries to reproduce in space. Referring to experiments using rats in space, NASA physician Jim Logan said, “absence of gravity loading would cause all kinds of problems” for fetal development, with another worry being cosmic radiation. But the report concluded that the study of sex in space is crucial if human beings are one day to settle outside their home planet.

Obviously, JTB’s Nakamura was far from “mad” when he came back from the countryside with his big idea to develop the business with “whatever’s new.”

See related links:
It’s high time for Japan to ride the space-tourism wave
Japan’s pioneers of new space age