Holidays in space

Last October, the worlds third ever space tourist, American millionaire scientist Gregory Olsen, touched down earth at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. ‘I feel great’ Olsen said in both Russian and English after his 10-day trip in orbit. ‘I am craving for a good steak, a red wine and a hot shower.’ Olsen paid 20 million dollar for his adventure and spent two years training. The practices of the 60 year-old included running, lifting weights, Russian language, learning about the Russian space craft Soyuz and the equipment of the International Space Center (ISS), as well as emergency safety at the ‘Star Center’, the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center outside Moscow. (‘The word ’tourist’ doesn’t do justice to all the work myself and the people at the Gagarin Center have put in’, said Olsen.) The physician conducted some scientific experiments while in space, including one to determine how microbes that have built up on the space station are affected by the flight. In addition, a commercial for Japanese Nissin noodles was shot during the trip.

Baikonur, a small town in the endless steppes of Kyzylorda province, was chosen as a rocket launching site by the Soviet Ministry of Defense in the 1950’s. It was the ideal spot, sparsely populated, having a railroad already in place and located close to the Equator – indispensable for launching vehicles into space. After the collapse of the Soviet-Union, Kazakhstan became owner of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. An unexpected present that was worth approximately 15.8 billion dollars in 1991. In order to ensure the continuous development of the site, a lease-contract for the Baikonur complex was signed between the Russian and Kazakh presidents in 1994. Last year, the contract was extended until 2050 at a rent of 115 million dollar per year. In return, Moscow is granting Kazakhstan different types of assistance in the space field.

Ever since Baikonur passed onto Kazakhstani hands, the government has been aiming at further developing the site. This year, the cabinet adopted a state program promoting growth of its own space industry for 2005-2007. The program includes building Kazakh spacecrafts for various purposes and participation in Russian space programs at Baikonur, especially on the creation of ecologically safe rockets and modernizing the Cosmodrome’s infrastructure. Space tourism forms yet an opportunity to make the site commercially viable.

Orbital tourism kicked off in 2003, when the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos hired Space Adventures Ltd in Arlington, Virginia, to conduct space flights for paying passengers. So far, Californian millionaire investment fund manager Dennis Tito and South-African Internet tycoon Mark Shuttleworth, have made the orbital fare from Baikonur to the International Space Station (ISS), apart from Olsen.

For those who cannot afford the roundtrip to the ISS, Space Adventures is developing a shorter, sub-orbital program. The trip will probably consist of a four-day training period and a 90-minute space flight. The space ship Soyuz is blasted 80 miles (129 kilometers) into space (space is usually described as above 60 miles (97 kilometers) of altitude). At that point, paying travelers can experience weightlessness and float freely for a few minutes, while taking snapshots of the earth through the window. Costs: 102.000 USD. Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson told CNN that more than 100 potential passengers have already left deposits for the trip. ‘I believe there is a demand for thousands of flights a year.’ The company expects the commercial space flights to commence around 2007. Competition is, however, fierce. Different space entrepreneurs are now developing orbital tours for private passengers. (Virgin Galactic, a sister company of Virgin Atlantic, is spending 21.5 million dollar for use of the technology, and 100 million to build five of a new version of the spacecraft, aiming at offering sub-orbital flights in 2008.) ‘It is despairing that the cost and reliability of access to space have barely changed since the Apollo era over three decades ago’, said Elon Musk from ‘Space Exploration Technologies’ before Congress. It is assumed that competition would drive the price down to 50.000 USD by 2021.

Per Wimmer (35?), a Danish investment advisor at the Man Group in London, is also a wanna-be space tourist. ‘It is the ultimate adventure’, says Wimmer ‘ I have visited more than 50 countries, space is the next step’. The financial advisor, who has personally witnessed Tito’s launch from Baikonur, has already been training for his space trip. This included a flight in a MIG 25 Russian fighter jet, blazing at 2.500-3000 km/h above Siberia. ‘At the edge of space (25-30 km) the sky is totally black!’, relates Wimmer. To build up resistance in the state of weightlessness, he has been conducting nosedives from approximately 14 km in a specially designed Russian built Ilyushin 76 cargo plane, creating approximately 30 seconds of weightlessness. ‘You can practice by playing volleyball or Superman!’, laughs the Dane. Wimmer’s ultimate dream is to plant the Danish flag, the ‘Dannebrog’ on the moon. ‘Live your dreams is my mission statement!’ Certainly, more and more people will be able to realize their dreams from Baikonur Cosmodrome in a near future.

Dreaming of a holiday in space? Kazakhstan is the place where you can live your wildest dreams and sign up for a trip into space, 250 miles (400 kilometers) above the earth.