One small step for a tourist ... one giant cheque for the travel agent
IT IS the ultimate walking holiday - and it will set you back an astronomical sum.
The United States company that pioneered out-of-this-world holidays to the International Space Station (ISS) is offering ordinary citizens with extraordinary bank balances a new line in side-trips: space walks 220 miles above Earth.
For a mere 19 million, Space Adventures will broker 190 hours training at the Star City cosmonaut school near Moscow, 16 days aboard the ISS, round-trip rocket flights from Kazakhstan and the chance to float outside the station for 90 minutes - the time it takes to circle the planet. "To see the sunrise and the sunset and all the Earth in between is really a precious experience," Stacy Tearne, vice-president of Space Adventures, said.
"The only thing between them and space will be the visor on their space helmet. It's the most magnificent view mankind can have."
A cosmonaut will accompany tourists throughout their space ramble.
Space-walks - officially called Extra- Vehicular Activities, or EVAs - are considered the ultimate achievement during spaceflight. Fewer than 200 astronauts have ventured into the void, usually to perform technical tasks that allow them little time to marvel at the view.
Piers Sellers, 51, who holds the record for the most EVA hours logged by a British astronaut, likens the feeling to plunging off a skyscraper and falling endlessly, without ever hitting the ground.
"It's a totally extraordinary sensation," the former Edinburgh University student said. "You look down and float out and there's the world, this big blue shiny planet ... the sun is racing across the sky, it's the most beautiful thing."
Space-walkers must wear bulky pressure suits to keep them alive while outside their craft.
Worth 6.5 million each, the suits carry their own life-support systems and protect the wearer from the extreme temperatures - down to minus 82C when in shadow, and up to a sweltering 135C in sunlight. Safety tethers tie space-walkers on to the ISS, which hurtles around the planet at five miles a second.
Ms Tearne said: "Some people may be perfectly happy with taking a spaceflight and looking out the window - but others want to take it a step further. Literally."
Space Adventures, whose advisers include the Apollo 11 moon-walker Buzz Aldrin, sent the first private space tourist, US tycoon Dennis Tito, into orbit in 2001. It has since launched two others, and a fourth - Japanese internet entrepreneur Daisuke Enomoto - is set to fly in September. Their tickets cost 11 million.
Future guests will have the option to add a space-walk for an extra 8 million. The package deals are brokered through the Russian space agency Roscosmos, which uses the cash to help pay its share of the costs of running the ISS.
But some of its international partners, notably the US space agency, NASA, take a dim view of putting private thrill-seekers on the ISS. Their cynicism may be compounded by Mr Enomoto's announcement that, while he is there, he plans to dress as his favourite cartoon-strip anti-hero, Char Aznable, from the Japanese television series Mobile Suit Gundam.
He has also spoken of plans to spend time on the orbital laboratory building a plastic replica of Aznable, who is also known as the Red Comet and whose name is derived from that of the French crooner Charles Aznavour.
NASA will be hoping that, once in orbit, Mr Enomoto's enthusiasm for the fictitious space rebel does not get the better of him: Char Aznable is the Japanese equivalent of Darth Vader, with shadowy ambitions to destroy Earth.
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