The dream of space flight, formerly possible only for professional astronauts and a handful of adventurous multimillionaires, may be on the verge of becoming (almost) affordable for the mere millionaire.
A Russian-based company, Orbital Technologies, has announced plans to launch a seven-room luxury hotel into orbit, about 220 miles from the Earth, within five years.
A five-day vacation package will cost under $1 million, including up to three months of specialized training, return flight aboard a Russian Soyuz or one of the commercial space planes that will soon be operational, three nights in one of the hotel's zero-gravity cabins, and a sightseeing flight around the moon.
If that still sounds expensive, consider that the last "space tourist", Cirque du Soleil founder Guy LaLiberte, paid upwards of $25 million for his tourist jaunt to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft just two years ago.
"Space tourism is a real and fast-growing business," Sergei Kostenko, head of Orbital Technologies, said last week. "Whoever builds the first new spaceship now will reap big dividends."
Conditions aboard the planned Commercial Space Station (CSS) will be more comfortable than official astronauts enjoy in the line of duty, but there will still be no shower (sponge baths only), guests will have to use vacuum toilets, and all meals will be specially prepared "space food," measured out and packed before launch.
Absolutely no alcoholic beverages will be served, but there will be Internet access and a full array of satellite TV channels (see the proposed hotel here).
"Our planned module inside will not remind you of the International Space Station," said Mr. Kostenko. "A hotel should be comfortable inside, and it will be possible to look at the Earth through large portholes. The hotel will be aimed at wealthy individuals and people working for private companies who want to do research in space."
Up to seven people will be able to stay for up to six months, with a choice of vertical or horizontal sleeping pods. In future, the hotel might be used as a jumping-off point for further tourist adventures, such as trips to the moon.
The company says it will be building the CSS in partnership with Energia, the state-owned former Soviet company responsible for developing the Soyuz and Progress space vehicles, the USSR's Mir space station and the Russian-made components of the current International Space Station.
The project reflects the vastly improved fortunes of Russia's official space program, which just a few years ago was regarded as little more than a "rocket taxi" to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS.
Nowadays Russian space scientists are working on a variety of ambitious projects, which include a manned spaceflight to Mars by 2030, a robotic spaceplane to rival the US Airforce's X-37B, and an orbiting radio-telescope, launched last month , that will deliver images of the universe's most remote corners with 10,000 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The new CSS would be placed in orbit just 100 miles from the ISS, which could make it possible for international astronaut crews to use the hotel when they want a bit of R & R, or in an emergency.
"There is a possibility for the ISS crew to leave their station for several days. For example, if a required maintenance procedure or a real emergency were to occur, without the return of the ISS crew to Earth, habitants could use the CSS as a safe haven," Alexei Krasnov, an official of Russia's space agency Roskosmos, told journalists.