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Next challenge for space industry

Space tourist: "We're on the cusp of a new era"


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Training at Star City, Russia, April 2002
start quoteExperiencing Earth from space, that incredible sight of the Earth without borders, and then experiencing weightlessness and the feeling of looking into the universe, you realize just how small the Earth and solar system are, in the context of the broader universeend quote
-- Mark Shuttleworth, space tourist
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- On April 25, 2002, Mark Shuttleworth became the first African to enter space. He is one of only two people who have entered space as a "tourist." Spark's Robyn Curnow talked to him about his experiences and the future of space tourism.

Curnow: What made you want to become a space tourist?

Shuttleworth: I've always been fascinated by space. When I was little, I was playing with rockets, playing with rocket fuel, studying everything I could lay my hands on about space, about the exploration of space. So it really was one of those unattainable dreams to participate in the unfolding of the space race. In the early 90s I watched as Russia went through such traumatic changes, particularly in the space industry, and I remember speculating that it might be possible one day to fly, as a private citizen, with the Russians. And so it was incredible when I had the good fortune to be able to participate with that and to train with the Russians and to build a whole space mission for the first time.

Curnow: It wasn't that simple, though, was it?

Shuttleworth: No, it was quite a long process. There were several weeks of medical testing and qualification. I wanted to do that first. It's the least popular thing among cosmonauts and astronauts. Nobody likes the flight doctors. Nice as they are, they're the guys who can tell you, 'sorry, you're just not fit to fly.' So I wanted to get that over and done with right up front and that took some time. Then it took quite a long time to negotiate with the Russians and package the whole thing out and get their approval for the mission. And then of course all of the training. It took several months before I felt set to fly.

Preparing for take off

Curnow: So what exactly did you have to do to train and get fit enough?

Shuttleworth: The fitness requirements themselves aren't that daunting. I had to get quite fit but that was because one of the scientific experiments I was participating in required me to be compared to other athletes, so they had to get me into that sort of physical condition. But other than that there's no real requirement for extreme fitness. Quite a lot of the training is specialized training for weightlessness. So, to deal with motion sickness, the Russians had some training programs specially aimed at acclimatizing you and getting you to the point that you can still continue to work even when you feel terribly sick. You also have to sustain your fitness when you're up there. You don't want to get up there and find yourself losing physical fitness dramatically.

The price

Curnow: So you got through that and then you had to negotiate (the price). Was that the toughest thing?

Shuttleworth: It was certainly complicated. It's a big transaction and there were a lot of complications in terms of the scientific program we wanted to do. It was totally new ground. There had obviously been a precedent in terms of the Russian Space Agency's relationship with the European Space Agency, which flies their astronauts on a commercial basis with the Russians, and of course with NASA. So the Russians are used to having commercial relationships with other space agencies but not with private individuals.

Curnow: How much did it cost?

Shuttleworth: It's an expensive deal. I think the Russians will give you a sticker price of $20 million for a flight. Obviously, it depends on how you want to structure it. That's all part of the negotiation process. In our case, what added to that, was the scale of the science program and education program that we wanted to run around the whole flight.

Curnow: So how much did it cost you in the end?

Shuttleworth: I'm not going to answer that question.

Curnow: A lot more than $20 million?

Shuttleworth: No, not really!

Curnow: Was it worth it?

Shuttleworth: Absolutely. Every penny -- on a number of different scales. The whole experience of being in Russia for a year, working with the Russians, working with both the space agency at a very high level, and then also the guys on the ground who make this happen every six months. They send the Soyuz up there and bring it back safely. It was just a tremendous experience. I learnt a tremendous amount about myself. You can't go through something as partly traumatic as that without learning a lot about yourself and I learnt a tremendous amount about something that I'm absolutely fascinated about: the space industry and the people who devote their lives to space.

Learning Russian

Curnow: What are some of the things you had to deal with during that year? Things like learning Russian and the technicalities of the craft.

Shuttleworth: Russian language is critically important if you're going to fly with the Russians. If you want to be part of the crew, you have to be able to communicate in the flight language. All of the flight documentation is in abbreviated Russian, which is a little bit of brain surgery with a can-opener to get to the point where you understand that. But it's very rewarding because once you do, you can participate in the flight operations, which is fantastic.

In addition to that, you have to learn about the Soyuz vehicle itself, which is very similar to the Apollo vehicle. It's the same sort of era of design. It's also a capsule, except that it comes down and lands on the earth with a bit of a thud. It's a much smaller vehicle, so you have to get used to working in very compact and cramped surroundings. Three of you cramped on your backs, shoulder to shoulder. It's a very close and intense working environment. You spend hours and hours in the simulator practicing for various emergencies, practicing to use back-up systems, back-up procedures. It requires a lot of study and research.

Curnow: Were you prepared or was it one of those things you can never really be prepared for?

Shuttleworth: Russians are very good at certifying you, so if you really go through that full process you really do feel like you have graduated. But, despite that, the day before what you face is very daunting, and certainly I had deep and profound talks about, you know the sanity of what I was about to do. On the morning itself you just get up and you just go. You're absolutely ready. It's an assembly-line process to get you ready from the moment you wake up to the point where you're fully suited and sort of installed in the vehicle. At that point we were all very calm. You know that you're as prepared as you can get and you know that the technological foundations of the vehicle are trusted and tested and reliable, and you're ready to fly.

Future of space tourism

Curnow: You're one of the pioneers of space tourism. Is this something that will, one day, be as easy as getting on a bus?

start quoteIt's going to be a very rich interplay between commercial space flight, private space flight and a public exploration into the solar system for the greater good of humanity end quote
-- Mark Shuttleworth

Shuttleworth: We're just starting to see the first private vehicles being certified as safe for flight, carrying passengers to the edge of space and back. Now, to put that in perspective, 30 years ago NASA and the military had vehicles that were capable of doing the same thing. But these are now vehicles that have been entirely privately designed. So in the next year or two, we'll actually see the first privately funded space flights that take people out of the atmosphere and back. And those aren't sort of Mercury Star or Apollo Star or Soleal Star orbital flights; they don't go round the Earth and go into orbit. They literally shoot up like a canon ball, get you out of the atmosphere into space and falling back to land within a couple of minutes of your launch. That's the first step that will really lay the groundwork for a whole exploration of private space flight.

Within five years I expect that we'll have regular private flights, so that people paying relatively small amounts of money to have the privilege of being shot out of the atmosphere, experiencing the Earth as seen from space, that incredible sight of the Earth without borders, and then experiencing weightlessness and the feeling of looking into the universe, you realize just how small the Earth and solar system are in the context of the broader universe. So that's really what we'll see over the next five years. And then in 10 to 15 years, that will have grown to the point where maybe we can expect to see four orbital flights, entirely privately funded with vehicles that are entirely privately designed. There's a tremendous amount of capital now going into the private space industry on the basis of somebody having done it. It's like the four-minute mile. Once somebody does it the first time, everybody else wants to step up and give it a run. So, this really is the cusp of a new era.

Curnow: Which nations will dominate?

Shuttleworth: Clearly there is a lot of American capital going into private space flight at this stage. A lot of the technology, though, is still Russian and there are other countries entering the space race as well. India, China and Brazil all have developing capacity in space. I've no doubt though that it will be American-driven investment that leads the private exploration of space.

Curnow: What about private visits to the moon?

Shuttleworth: Well, the two are very intricately interlinked. It's space tourism that's going to reduce the cost of getting to space. Once you reduce the cost of getting to space, then national space budgets -- the amount of money that NASA spends keeping people in lowest orbit, for example -- can be used to take us that much further. It's going to be a very rich interplay between commercial space flight, private space flight and a public exploration into the solar system for the greater good of humanity. The two are absolutely interlinked and we couldn't realistically get to the moon without reductions in cost that will only come from private space tourism.

Curnow: Would you do it again if you had the chance to go to the moon.?

Shuttleworth: Oh, absolutely. There's so much more to discover and I very much feel that I've been privileged to have that experience and if the opportunity came up to explore further or play a different role or to fly in a different vehicle. I would absolutely consider that. It's something that one dreams about now from a different perspective. Instead of dreaming about it as something novel and untouched, it's like dreaming about something that you want to go back to, so I can relate when the astronauts tell me that it's the first flight that gets you hooked. And, the desire to fly again is very strong.

Floating in orbit

Curnow: Do you have to pinch yourself sometimes when you think about your experience in space?

Shuttleworth: Yeah, it does feel like it's something of a dream. The astronauts all say that. As you come back and as you readjust to your life on Earth, it just seems more and more surreal to have been in that kind of environment. Seeing the photographs takes me back immediately. Seeing the video footage takes me back immediately, but when I sit and think about it, it does feel like a dream. You can't see anything; you're in darkness effectively because the faring that covers the vehicle is completely sealed. And so it's only once you're out of the atmosphere that there's this explosion of light as the faring comes off and you've thrust sort of thrust into space. And you can see for the very first time, the curvature of the earth below you and the fact that you're well outside of the atmosphere. The sky is absolutely black in broad daylight. So you suddenly realize what a foreign environment you're in. There's a series of burns like that as the rocket goes through its various stages and then there's this sudden click as the final engines are shut down and you're in your last stage and you find yourself entering weightlessness. Everything around you in the capsule starts to float, so it's quite an extraordinary sort of moment. There's this half breath of silence before all of the fans start up and all the various pieces of equipment and air conditioning kick in. And as you look outside, clearly below you is Earth, that you're now in orbit around.

Curnow: How long were you up there?

Shuttleworth: It's a 10-day flight we spent two days getting ready for rendez vous and docking with the space station. The actual docking process takes a couple of hours because you have to be -- even though you're traveling at seven to 10 kilometers per second -- you still have to dock very gently with the space station. So that's a precision operation that takes a couple of days to get exactly lined up. We then had eight days on the space station which is where we were really able to do all of the work.

The space station is this flying laboratory, so it has living quarters and it also has areas where you can work. There's power, there's access to being able to view and photograph the Earth and stars and the moon and so on, so that's the platform for your work. And then the return is about six hours. The view of the Earth from space is something that profoundly changes the way you see us working together.

start quoteSeeing the Earth in that way, you can't help but change the way you feel about it and change the way you want to work while you're hereend quote
-- Mark Shuttleworth

When you go around the earth every 90 minutes and it takes you 25 minutes to get from North America to North Africa, you realize just how closely connected everything is. When you go from Morocco to Mozambique in 23 minutes you realize just how tightly connected the African continent is. Seeing the Earth in that way you can't help but change the way you feel about and change the way you want to work when you're here. Space is still something that truly captivates the minds of young people. People who are captivated by science and see themselves as wanting to play some sort of role in the future.


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