While the space race of the 1950s and 1960s was an exciting time to be alive, humanity has never lived through a more fast-paced period of space exploration and human spaceflight. It seems almost impossible to catch up on the news without seeing a headline about a new Mars Rover, space telescope or astronomical event – and the public clamors for all of it.
We're finally on the cusp of a huge leap in space exploration: commercial spaceflight, also known as space tourism. But advances in space tourism are mostly due to billionaires and private development, and tickets have been primarily bought by the ultra-wealthy — for instance, it costs $250,000 to book a seat on Virgin Galactic for a trip to space. And when NASA said in 2019 that it would allow private citizens to fly to the International Space Station (ISS), it put the cost to stay there at $35,000 a night, and the price to get there at around $50 million.
However, while we wait for prices to come down, there are still ways to experience space tourism on Earth. These earthly adventures cover the range of experiences you could have in space, while still fitting the budget many people have for other "bucket list" travel, like visiting Antarctica.
1. Take a Zero-G Flight
If there's one constant force on Earth, it's gravity. Our measure of gravity on Earth forms the basis for our understanding of gravity elsewhere in the solar system. But gravity doesn't feel the same everywhere. The experience changes whether you're traveling through space (zero Gs) or visiting another celestial body like Mars (one-third of the gravity on Earth) or the moon (one-sixth the gravity). To simulate the differences in gravity, there are two companies that offer "zero-G" flights.
These companies, including American Zero-G and AirZeroG in Europe, use modified planes to simulate different gravitational forces through a series of parabolic flights. Over the course of a flight, the pilots take the plane through maneuvers that simulate Martian gravity, lunar gravity and zero gravity. Of course, this isn't really zero gravity – it's actually weightlessness as you fall back toward Earth. But try not to think about that too much as it's a bit disconcerting to imagine!
Zero-G flights range in cost from $6,700 to $9,500. Flights are offered in different states and cities throughout the year.
2. Visit Mars in Spain
Ever wondered what life on Mars is really like? Astroland can answer that question. As one might expect, this is a more challenging mission – physically and psychologically. Astroland is similar to the NASA HI-SEAS program, but is aimed at a wider tourist base. The company operating Astroland is based in Spain, expanding the access in space tourism on Earth to more of Europe.
The main experience at Astroland is Ares Station, a realistic habitat built into a cave to simulate one possible settlement plan for Mars. While details on how to join an Astroland mission are currently limited, the idea is that each person will pay for a place on a team; you'll then go through advanced training to determine your role on the team. Following that, you'll spend a designated time in Ares Station living and working full time – including conducting research projects and providing data about the psychological impact of living in isolation.
Initial pricing for Astroland was reported in the range of 6,000 euros ($7,000) for a month of training plus a three-day, three-night stay in Ares Station.
3. Go to Space Camp
If you'd rather keep your feet firmly on planet Earth but still experience a bit of outer space, there's nowhere quite like space camp. Made famous by the "Space Camp" family film of the 1980s, children have been attending space camp in Huntsville, Alabama, for generations. There's also a program for adults – both for those who went as kids and those who missed out.
The weekend-long Adult Astronaut Training program gives grown-ups the chance to get hands-on learning about planetary science, orbital mechanics and NASA missions past, present and future. Space camp is housed at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, part of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, and all programming is designed in coordination with actual NASA missions. This means you can spend time in simulations piloting the Orion Capsule, working in mission control, and doing a "spacewalk" to work on International Space Station modules. And before or after your adult space camp, you can add on training as an underwater astronaut!
Cost is $199-$299 per person for space camp and $150 per person for the underwater program.
4. Train Like an Astronaut in Star City
You can follow in the footsteps of real astronauts and cosmonauts by participating in astronaut training through a company called Space Adventures, which offers space tourism experiences ranging from watching rocket launches in Kazakhstan to actually launching tourists to the International Space Station.
But let's get back to learning how to be an astronaut for real. Spaceflight training through Space Adventures takes place in Star City, Russia, outside of Moscow. During the experience, participants learn how to fly Russian Soyuz spacecraft through a simulator, get to try spacewalk training, and ride the centrifuge to get a better understanding of the gravitational forces experienced during launch and landing. This experience offers a different perspective than others on this list as it focuses on the Russian space program, Roscosmos, rather than NASA.
Space Adventures' Spaceflight Training is a bespoke experience, and pricing is available on request.