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Reviews: space travel and tourism

Destination Space: How Space Tourism Is Making Science Fiction a Reality
by Kenny Kemp
Virgin Books, 2007
softcover, 288 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-7535-1235-1

The Hazards of Space Travel: A Tourist’s Guide
by Neil F. Comins
Villard, 2007
hardcover, 272 pp., illus.
ISBN 1-4000-6597-6

Space tourism (or personal spaceflight, or private space travel, or whatever moniker you wish to use) got another endorsement last week when EADS Astrium, part of the European aerospace giant EADS, unveiled its plans for developing a suborbital “space jet” that would carry four passengers (or spaceflight participants, if you prefer) on tourist flights as early as 2012. While some observers have raised questions about Astrium’s plans—not to mention their billion-euro price tag—the fact that one of the world’s largest aerospace companies is now seriously considering space tourism is a significant step forward for an industry so young it’s still trying to work out what terminology it should use. EADS now joins a number of other companies, primarily startup ventures, which are actively working on suborbital and orbital space tourism efforts. The company that is arguably the current leader of the pack, Virgin Galactic, is profiled in Kenny Kemp’s new book Destination Space.

While ostensibly about space tourism in general, Destination Space is really primarily about Virgin Galactic.

Kemp, a British journalist, endeavors to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the creation and development of Virgin Galactic. Sir Richard Branson had a passing interest in spaceflight for some time and, in 1999, even looked into investing in Rotary Rocket Company. That fell through, but later, while working with Scaled Composites on the development of the Virgin GlobalFlyer aircraft, Branson’s staff, including Will Whitehorn and Alex Tai, learned about the then-secret development of SpaceShipOne. That led to discussions with Burt Rutan and his financial backer, Paul Allen, culminating with the technology licensing agreement and work on building SpaceShipTwo that has become familiar to just about everyone in the space industry, and many outside it.

While ostensibly about space tourism in general, Destination Space is really primarily about Virgin Galactic. Some of the other companies in this area, like Benson Space Company, Rocketplane, Starchaser, and Space Adventures, are mentioned in passing, and there is some discussion about the development of Spaceport America, the new commercial spaceport in New Mexico. However, most of the book is devoted to Virgin Galactic. (That division of attention should hardly be surprising given that the book is published by another part of the Virgin Group conglomerate, Virgin Books; the cover is graced by a set of icons, from Icarus to SpaceShipOne, used in Virgin Galactic’s marketing materials as its “DNA of Flight”.) The close cooperation that Kemp received from Virgin Galactic does have its benefits, as he provides some background on key people in the company, including Whitehorn, Tai, and Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s director of “astronaut relations”. Kemp also offers some details on the planning that went on for one of the company’s biggest recent public events, the unveiling of the SpaceShipTwo cabin mockup at the Wired NextFest in New York City last September. (However, not surprisingly, there are no new insights about the design of SpaceShipTwo, which Rutan and Scaled are keeping under tight wraps.)

Unfortunately, one thing Kemp apparently didn’t have access to in writing Destination Space was a good fact checker. There are a number of minor but avoidable errors in the book, from misspellings (in a tangent about the use of composites in aircraft, the former CEO of Boeing, Phil Condit, is identified more than once as “Phil Conduit”) to odd historical misassignments (Buzz Aldrin is referred to in one passage late in the book as the “Apollo 13 astronaut”). A passage about a hypothetical flight on SpaceShipTwo from Spaceport America describes looking out the window and seeing not just the Gulf of Mexico but also the Caribbean Sea and the “rainforests of South America”; an impossibility given that, on a typical flight from that spaceport, one will be hard-pressed to even see the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, let alone the Caribbean and South America. After a while, those errors start to become a little grating, making you wonder what else is wrong.

One other area that Kemp touches upon in the book is training and medical requirements for people who will be flying on SpaceShipTwo. However, the extreme conditions that SpaceShipTwo passengers will be subjected to on their flights—brief moments of high acceleration and several minutes of weightlessness—are only the tip of the iceberg for future travelers whose journeys into space will go beyond short suborbital jaunts. In The Hazards of Space Travel, Neil Comins discusses all the potential pitfalls for future space explorers.

As a practical guide The Hazards of Space Travel is of limited use. It will be at least many decades, if ever, before tourists have to worry about surviving landslides and volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s moon Io.

Comins takes a very broad look at all the potential dangers people in space could face, from radiation to the debilitating effects of extended weightlessness to the hazards posed by dust on planetary surfaces. Given that broad scope, he doesn’t go into much detail about any particular hazard, just enough to discuss the danger and the ways it can be mitigated. He illustrates these dangers throughout the book with snippets from the log of a fictional late 21st century astronaut, Mack Richardson, who appears to have had more than his share of adventures and close calls traveling through the solar system.

As a practical guide The Hazards of Space Travel is of limited use. It will be at least many decades, if ever, before tourists have to worry about surviving landslides and volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s moon Io. Some of the hazards seem to be there to allow Comins, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Maine, to riff on topics in astronomy and planetary science. However, the descriptions do serve as a reminder that space can be an unforgiving, dangerous place, although also an exciting, promising new frontier. If The Hazards of Space Travel doesn’t diminish your interest in going into space, then, as both Destination Space as recent events demonstrate, there are plenty of companies interested in giving you the opportunity of experiencing at least a taste of spaceflight.