As he talks about his plans for the project he calls the “the space plane”, Marc Newson finds it hard not to break out into a smile. It starts hesitantly around his mouth, then spreads quickly into his eyes before lighting up his entire face. But then, how could anyone not smile? As the industrial designer says, “Look, I know it’s a cliché, but this is space we’re talking about, the final frontier. I myself would kill to get up there. Who wouldn’t?”
Until recently the mouthwatering proposition that space tourism might be possible was just that: a proposition. Yes, man had planted a footprint and a flag on the surface of the moon but that was almost 40 years ago and further space exploration has not grown at a rate many had anticipated, or wished for. Nasa, for one, is continually postponing new missions, or cancelling them, and the Space Shuttle is facing retirement.
But at the same time, certain private individuals – let’s call them the filthy rich – have proved that the public appetite remains keen for the chance to follow where only astronauts and a Russian dog have gone before. In April 2001 the American businessman Dennis Tito became the first civilian to visit the International Space Station as a guest of the Russian space programme (in return for €15m) and he has since been followed by three other enthusiasts. Now the doors look set to be thrown wide open.
Currently leading this space race is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, his collaboration with the American aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, which aims to beat, among others, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s project with Blue Origin into being the first commercial passenger operator, to launch as early as 2009. And these are just the ones we know about. A whole raft of airline companies are busy overseeing their own projects, mostly conducted with a secrecy worthy of a Cold War-era Kremlin.
Astrium is a space industry leader. It already makes launchers, satellites and spacecraft, while its parent company, Eads, owns Airbus. It has just gone public with its own grand plans and has appointed Marc Newson as chief designer.
“Is it a dream come true?” he asks. “Oh, it’s more than that, it’s much more.”
Newson’s ascent into this rarefied position began in an unlikely way. Born in Australia in 1963, he began his career training as a jewellery designer before moving into design with a remit which was, increasingly, as wide as his whims. He has designed everything from watches to bars to hotel rooms, all in a style he calls biomorphism, in which sharp edges are eschewed in favour of more flowing, voluptuous forms. He has won awards for his mobile phones, his range of cutlery and even his Samsonite luggage. Last year he was given AU$20m (€12.5m) by Qantas to create a first-class lounge at Sydney airport, and the highly elegant results suggested that it was money well spent.
Appointed by Astrium six months ago to work a similar magic on the space plane, he is now focused entirely on the interior design of the craft. It has been, he notes, time-consuming: “I’ve never worked harder or faced a steeper learning curve, but it’s been incredible. Effectively, we are attempting to create style, comfort and safety for a journey that will take normal people into space and back. During ascent, for example, the passenger will experience up to about three Gs [comparable to what a Formula One driver may feel on occasion], and an acceleration up to three times the speed of sound. For certain sections of the flight they will be almost entirely vertical – and, of course, become weightless.”
His efforts are in their early stages. No airport has yet been secured for its inaugural flight (which Astrium plans for 2011), and though there is no confirmation of ticket price, Virgin Galactic’s €150,000 a seat seems a fair figure. The space plane will differ considerably from other current concepts – some of which require an additional launch vehicle. The Astrium vehicle is quite autonomous. As it is half plane and half spacecraft, it can do the entire journey completely on its own. Inside the cabin, it will seat four – “in more comfort,” Newson notes with a competitive smile.
The journey will last a couple of hours. Newson says, “At an altitude of 60km, the jet engine will shut down entirely and inertia carries the craft to an eventual altitude of over 100km, at which point you are experiencing zero Gs.”
This is where things get exciting. “Now, you will technically be in space and there will be no ambiguity about it. It will be star-studded jet black outside and you will be floating about inside the cabin. And through the window will be the view that seemingly everyone craves to witness for themselves: planet earth. It will be truly amazing,” he says. But it will also be pretty short. The space segment of the flight lasts mere minutes before the craft coasts back down to a now humdrum reality. “The initial aim is simply to take people up into space and bring them back safely,” he says. “We’ll see what we can achieve after that at a later date.”
And what of the environmental issues in all this? It is, Newson admits, a problem, and one he would like to address responsibly. But ultimately, he concludes, such concerns must take a back seat. The interest in space travel is gathering such momentum that the consequences are almost irrelevant. “This is space we are talking about, and we are going to get up there eventually,” he insists. “This is just the first step. More is to come.”
The next frontier
While there could be several wider applications to the advent of space tourism – the military, for one, are consistently seeking to exploit emerging aerospace technologies for defence purposes – most forward thinkers believe that suborbital tourism is simply a stepping stone to orbital tourism, and the eventual colonisation of space. This includes the development of habitable space structures and concepts like mining the Moon and Mars for natural resources as well as setting out possible science stations and observatories there.
How it works
Space tourism, though costly, won’t eat into one’s annual leave to any great degree. After provisional training and a health check, the journey itself will last little more than 120 minutes, much of which time is spent approaching space rather than actually floating around in it. Breaking through earth’s atmosphere at speeds of 3,000km per hour – a full 100km up – will be a highlight, likewise the few minutes floating around the cabin (the “space” portion of the flight) and, of course, the view. “It will be like an extreme rollercoaster ride,” Marc Newson says.