Would you pay £150m to see the dark side of the Moon?
Shenzhou-9's successful docking with Tiangong-1 this last week has – in China at least - somewhat overshadowed another space story that has been causing a mixture of interest and merriment over on the other side of the globe.
In case you missed it, a company based in the Isle of Man - a tax haven located just off England's north west coast - has said that it will be ready to rocket the rich to the Moon by 2015. Not that the space tourists would actually land on the moon though; the flight, which would last more than four months, would fly past the moon at a distance of 1000km. According to The Telegraph, the company told a space tourism conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London that it was planning the first test flight of its fleet of second-hand ex Soviet capsules and space stations in 2014 and would be ready to send a well-off civilian on a lunar trip the following year.
He'd have to be well off, actually, as the ride will likely set him (or her) back around £150m, though the company - Excalibur Almaz – reckons the price will fall to around £50m within a decade. Mind you, in 2009 when it first announced its initial plans, EA reckoned they would be offering week-long tourist trips in space from 2013 for $35m. But then what's a few million dollars or pounds between friends if you have that much money to throw around anyway?
The company has already purchased four Russian capsules and two disused space stations - once part of the Soviet "Almaz" ("Diamond") program - and plans to get launch rockets from the same source. They are aiming to use the launch facilities at the Russian space base at Baikonur in Kazakhstan.
Almaz was a top-secret Soviet military space program in the 1970s, launched to conduct reconnaissance from space using manned platforms. The idea was that the crews of the Almaz spy stations would travel up and down using fully-reusable capsules launched by conventional rockets. Three Almaz stations were launched under the pretence that they were civilian Salyut research craft. "Salyut 3" and "Salyut 5" both spent substantial periods operational in orbit and were both crewed at times. However, by the late 1970s, the Soviets concluded that manned space reconnaissance offered no worthwhile advantages over unmanned spy satellites and the Almaz program was shut down.
Excalibur Almaz acquired its fleet from NPO Mashinostroyenia, the Russian company which designed the Almaz space program, and refitted the six craft with "off the shelf" modern systems. EA's web site boasts that each space station has 90 cubic meters of pressurized volume, which, they claim, is plenty for a crew to survive in "relative comfort" for months at a time. The fleet, it seems, is at a very high level of space readiness and, crucially, has a proven emergency-escape system.
There are, however, a few caveats one should be aware of. For a start, any would-be space tourists (who will go up three to a capsule) will have to give up around a year-and-a-half of their lives for their adventure, undergoing a year in training before the launch. In addition, they must be willing to fly the craft themselves, because no trained astronauts will be there to accompany them. Once they make it into orbit, they will dock with the refitted space station, which will then use low thrust motors to go to the moon quite slowly, making the round trip in around four to six months.
Well, I don't know about you, but I'm not sure I'd be first in the queue to catch a 6-month glimpse of the moon from 1000km up – even if I did have the necessary billions tucked away in my bank account. Who, in all honesty, can say they have 18 months to spare for such a venture, especially "high-flying" entrepreneurs whom EA obviously hopes to target? And can you imagine being cooped up in a capsule for that length of time with two other people whom you might not even know (though I'm pretty sure you'd know them much more than you might want to by the end of 18 months!).
And boredom? Doesn't anyone really believe that, pretty though the earth and moon might well appear from space, the novelty might just wear a bit thin by the end of six days, let alone six weeks or six months? OK, so it might be a great time to catch up with reruns of The Big Bang Theory, or whatever sitcom is going the rounds in 2015. But £150m for that? Hmmm I don't think so.
Yet EA says it has done its research and estimates there is a ready market worth some $1bn annually just ripe for the picking. I have to say I'd be pretty skeptical were it not for the fact that the company is headed by former NASA legal consultant Art Dula, while one of the company's vice-presidents is ex-NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao, a former commander of the International Space Station and veteran of both Shuttle and Soyuz missions. Chiao is also currently serving on the Augustine panel formed to advise President Obama on the way ahead for NASA's manned space program. So as I'm sure they must know a lot more than I do, I guess I must defer to their better judgment.
Lest you think I am alone in my indifference, I should point out that the blogosphere is alive with discussions on this subject, with numbers seemingly split pretty much down the middle between the pro and anti camps. For me it was neatly summed up by one microblogger who declared "One small step for mankind = one giant black hole in the bank balance."
But perhaps the best comment came from a netizen who rather self-importantly signed himself Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "Privately funded space exploration is not going to work," he wrote; "Just forget it and let the Chinese government show us how it is done."