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.
Micro-gravity affects the body in several ways, says Borer. "First there are muscular changes that can cause atrophy of skeletal muscles," he says. Halvorson says that "everyone gets bird legs, you know, skinny legs." Because the legs don't have to deal with the force of gravity, they have no work to do, says Borer. No work means that muscles can waste away. "The countermeasure to this is intensive exercise during part of every day," says Borer.
At the same time, micro-gravity causes bones to lose calcium and become fragile, says Borer. The bones lose so much calcium that the amount of calcium circulating in the blood increases, he says. Unfortunately some of this calcium finds its way to the kidneys where it can form kidney stones. "There is an increased risk for kidney stones with extended time in space," says Borer.
Probably the most unpleasant aspect of space travel for the space tourist would be space sickness, a type of nausea that is very similar to other types of motion sickness, says Borer. He says that this usually passes in a day or two.
Considering these problems, space travel is definitely no Love Boat cruise, but Borer says that extended space travel may pose even greater risks. For example, he says there are some indications that extended time in space may have an effect on each of the major organ systems. In the case of the heart -- Borer is a heart specialist -- some researchers think there could be some structural changes if one lived for years in a micro-gravity environment.
Petranek says that any potential physical side effects can probably be overcome. The biggest risk, he says, is to the space travelers' mental health. He says that packing seven or more people in a vehicle that is the size of a family minivan and sending them off to Mars -- a trip that could take nine months each way -- is probably a recipe for mayhem. Humans, he says, have a long track record of mental breakdown when exposed to long periods of isolation or confinement.
He is so convinced of the risk that he devoted the cover of his May issue to an article titled, "Can we get to Mars without going crazy?" Petranek says he has real doubts that the mental health hurdles can be overcome. One approach that is being tried, he says, is a computer program dubbed "therapist in a box" -- interactive programs that are designed to assess a space traveler's mental and emotional state.
To sum up then: A space vacation can leave the traveler with weak muscles, fragile bones, queasy stomach, and a strong likelihood that one is "the weakest link."
And that's not all. This fun vacation is likely to cost much more than four years at an Ivy League college or 10 years jet-setting around Europe. Do the math, says Halvorson: "Each launch of the space shuttle costs $350 to $400 million." Petranek says it costs "$10,000 for every pound you put in orbit," so even a svelte 105-pound adult is looking at a ticket price of more than $1 million, while a 350-pound NFL lineman would pay $3.5 million for a ticket to spend Super Bowl Sunday in space.