For the Truly Discerning Traveler: A 10-day Jaunt in Space
April 27, 2001 -- "Houston, we have a problem." Go ahead admit it, you've been rehearsing that line for years. You know your mission: "To boldly go where no one has gone before."
Todd Halvorson, Cape Canaveral bureau chief for Space.com, tells WebMD that "space tourism has been in the hearts and minds of armchair astronauts since the dawn of the space program."
But millionaire Dennis Tito is the first civilian to plunk down the cost of a ticket: $20 million. That will give Tito the opportunity to join the crew of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft bound for the International Space Station. Tito, 60, is CEO of Wilshire Associates, a Santa Monica, Calif., financial consulting firm. In the 1960s Tito was "a NASA engineer who designed flight trajectories for planetary missions. He actually has two aerospace degrees," says Halvorson.
So what will it really be like to be the first space tourist?
"Being strapped into the third seat on a rocket powered by potentially explosive fuels is not like hopping on an airliner to fly from New York to Los Angeles," says Halvorson. Space travel is "still pretty risky business."
Stephen Petranek, editor-in-chief of Discover, says that one element of that risk is the danger of other flying objects. For example, he tells WebMD, "in the lifetime of a space shuttle there is a 100% probability that it will get struck by a meteor. A meteor has hit the windshield of one of the shuttles." While many parts of a space shuttle can sustain a hit by a meteor, Petranek says, "if one hits the passenger compartment everyone will die instantly. There would be instantaneous, complete decompression."
So first, the space tourist has to confront the risks of space travel. Then, while adjusting to those thoughts, the body gets to experience the "thrill" of "feeling three times the weight of normal gravity during the first eight-and-half-minutes of flight as the craft climbs into orbit," says Halvorson. He says that returning astronauts liken the experience to "having a cow sit on your chest."
Jeffrey Borer, MD, of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, has been a senior biomedical advisor to NASA and chair of the NASA subcommittee at the National Institutes of Health since 1984. He tells WebMD that the space traveler encounters two very different types of problems. First is the immediate gravitational force felt during lift-off and the second is the "micro-gravity environment that exists in space."
Halvorson says most people think of this as zero gravity and can easily recall images of both astronauts and objects floating in the cabin of a space shuttle. The technical term, says Borer, is micro-gravity and it is not as friendly an environment as it may seem.