In Arts + Entertainment

How to Experience Space Without Being an Astronaut

As Captain Kirk so eloquently described in the opening moments of Star Trek, space truly is the final frontier. It is the next step in humanity’s evolution, taking us beyond our humble planet and into the far reaches of space in hope of finding new life and new civilisations.

Though we’re not ready to venture beyond the stars just yet, mankind has come a long way since the Soviets made that very first step into space with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and it won’t be long until we’re ready to take the next one in our quest to infinity and beyond.

As we wait for the best and brightest to iron out the details, there are actually a few ways to experience the wonders of space on earth right now – no astronaut training required.

Virtual reality

Everyone has looked to the stars at one time and dreamed what it must be like to see the earth from above. Though fewer than 600 people have turned that dream into reality, it’s now possible to experience that same view with your feet placed firmly on the ground.

One of the most realistic options is Earthlight Spacewalk, an immersive virtual reality game developed in collaboration with astronauts and the people who support and train them. Released in 2017, it allows players to assume the role of Ana, a NASA astronaut on a repair mission aboard the International Space Station, thousands of kilometres above the earth.

Available to download right now and use on the Vive virtual reality system, it’s the closest thing to actually being aboard the ISS – and a lunar follow-up is just around the corner.

Zero gravity flights

Weightlessness aboard GForce One Photo: Zero G Experience

You don’t need to travel to space to experience the thrill of zero gravity. Operating from a series of hubs in the United States, Zero-G Experience specialise in zero gravity flights that allow you to flip, float and soar through the air without signing up for the space program.

There are no anti-gravity chambers needed; it’s all thanks to some seriously fancy flying.

Using a specially modified Boeing 727 aircraft known as G-FORCE ONE, the pilot performs a series of aerobatic manoeuvres known as ‘parabolic arcs’, ascending from 24,000 feet to 32,000 feet at an angle of 45 degrees, before ‘pushing over’ the top of the arc and then descending again. For around 20 to 30 seconds at the top of the arc, passengers get to flip, float and soar through the air as if they’re on the International Space Station.

The stomach-churning aerial manoeuvre is repeated 15 times, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out how the plane has become widely nicknamed ‘the vomit comet’.

With a price tag of USD$4,950 plus 5% tax per person, which is much less than Virgin Galactic’s rumoured price of USD$250,000 for a similar amount of weightlessness, it actually represents surprisingly good value for money – so long as you have the stomach for it.

Rocket launches and museums

Lunar Module LM2 Photo: Eric Long National Air and Space Museum

To truly understand the future of space exploration, it also pays to also look to the past.

The United States is home to several outstanding space and aeronautical museums, but the two best by far are the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. and the famed Kennedy Space Center, located just a small step from Orlando, Florida.

Both museums offer interactive exhibits and attractions that cover from the dawn of space exploration to current and ongoing missions in the United States and around the world, allowing you to get an up-close and hands-on feel for the story of humans in space.

Kenned Space Center also offers the closest public viewing of launches at Cape Canaveral, allowing you to witness the power of a rocket launch first hand. SpaceFlightNow is a handy resource to stay up to date with the latest launches in the U.S. and around the globe.

Cosmonaut training

Apollo Saturn V Photo: Kennedy Space Center

Not to be outdone, the Russians have taken the earth-bound space tourism to even greater heights at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, located in Star City near Moscow.

Named after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, the training centre is home to a full-scale simulator of the MIR Space Station, TsF-18 centrifuge, and hydro-lab where you may be lucky enough to see real astronauts training in the simulated weightlessness.

YGCTC offers guided tours of the centre, plus there are also multi-day cosmonaut training experiences in which you can learn from the same instructors who train current astronauts and cosmonauts, discovering what it really takes to overcome the challenges of space.

Though not many of us will have a chance to truly explore the final frontier, these earth-bound-yet-out-of-this-world adventures are the next best things to actually being there.

Published 19 October, 2018