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Space, the final frontier

Yes, holidays in space, or in a screaming Mach 2 Russian MIG, but watch for that Swedish chain saw.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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ON 21 JUNE 2004, SOMETHING HAPPENED that will change the face of travel forever. At exactly 6.45am, high over the shimmering Mojave Desert, SpaceShipOne, streaked proudly into the skies, proving that compound words that run into one another have their place in the modern lexicon as well as in serious scientific exploration. Our boundaries of human knowledge were extended further as the pilot executed complex manoeuvres 100km above the earth. Said a tired but pleased Mike Melvill, “As I got to the top I released a bag of M&Ms in the cockpit. It was amazing.”

Women will be perplexed by all this. After all, the aircraft simply went up, and down. The pilot did not buy groceries, drop the kids off to school, or manage any useful chore. Like the grand old Duke of York who marched his men to the top of the hill and down again, not much was accomplished.

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Think again. This successful tryst with space, the first by a manned non-governmental craft, opens up the real possibility of something people have only dreamed of thus far – space tourism and, perhaps, the prospect of strapping Michael Jackson into a capsule and sending him into the farthest reaches of the galaxy to serenade other life forms with his enduring message, “I’m bad, I’m bad, you know it, you know it…”

These space cadets will dine exclusively on "hydroponic" food - stuff grown in water, like soggy burgers and limp fries

Californian Dennis Tito became the first space tourist on 28 April, 2001, when he blasted off in a Russian Soyuz. He booked his seat for just US$20 million, a bargain, considering the deal must have included some Coke, chicken a-la Kiev and maybe even a Siberian siren called Ludmilla. This was the culmination of an epic saga of courage, determination and discovery, which began in 1964, in Bombay, when I locked my four-year-old kid brother in a rattling cupboard and told him he was heading to Mars. India was later overtaken in the space race by countries with deeper pockets and, I guess, better cupboards.

The World Tourism Organisation believes that space travel will be spectacularly commonplace by 2020. “Hi I just got in from Mars.” “Don’t care buddy, this is US immigration. Take off your shoes, get scanned, fingerprinted, photographed, and DON’T EVEN THINK OF QUEUING ANYWHERE NEAR A TOILET.”

Work is already underway to devise an orbiting space resort. British architects WAT&G who built a Legoland theme park in Windsor, England, claim to have the answer. They visualise a giant bicycle wheel, 300km up, in which up to 100 people will be housed, enjoying zero gravity – but a lot more zeroes on their bill. These space cadets will dine exclusively on “hydroponic” food – stuff grown in water, like soggy burgers and limp fries.

WAT&G vice president Howard Wolff told the media the contraption would be running by 2017 and that “a flight up to the resort will be quicker than flying from Hongkong to Singapore”. The resort in question is to be built entirely from space junk, Soyuz, Apollo and satellite leftovers, abandoned fuel tanks and the like. I don’t know about you but I’d like to see a “Made in Japan” label on this somewhere, not that Legoland is a credential to be sneered at. It’s right up there with Telly Tubbies.

And there certainly is lots of junk floating around. Most of this space flotsam makes a fiery re-entry a few years later, splashing down in the Pacific or, worse, crashing some ritzy Kiwi state ball just as the sheep are getting warm and woozy on vodka.

Prices for these Russian MIG supersonic flights can be steep but, heck, they do give you a continental breakfast

I say, let WAT&G clean up the space mess. Who knows what they may find. I trust they’ll read the warning labels carefully. Some junk will pose a conundrum. For example, the packet of US Peanuts marked, “For indoor and outdoor use only”, or the Sears hairdryer that says, “Do not use while sleeping”, or the Japanese food processor that insists it is “not to be used for the other use”. And then there’s a Swedish chain saw with this terrifying warning: “Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands or genitals.” Okay. But what about those poor space tourists. “Hey Bob look, a Swedish chain saw. Let’s stop it with our genitals…” Bzzzumphh.

If you’re in a hurry for a sub-space experience, folks like www.SpaceAdventures.Com (Dennis Tito’s travel agency) can organize zero-gravity parabolic flights. They’re also taking bookings for suborbital flights to commence by 2007. Alternatively, www.Incredible-Adventures.Com can hook you up with Mach 2 flights on screaming Russian MiGs. Prices can be steep, running from thousands of dollars to millions, but, heck, you do get Continental breakfast. Or head to South Africa and Thunder City, just outside Cape Town, where an Electric Lightning will streak you up to 60,000ft in about 60 seconds. If you’re the scientific sort, bring along a packet of M&Ms.

Or visit me in Hongkong and I’ll introduce you to my new cupboard, free.

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