Is space tourism safe?

Virgin Galactic employees sit in the cabin of a prototype Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, destined to be the first-ever vehicle for space tourism. See more astronaut pictures.
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Sometime in 2009, George Whitesides, the executive director of the National Space Society, and his wife will be the first private citizens to fly with Virgin Galactic, the private space tourism company started by billionaire Sir Richard Branson. Mr. and Mrs. Whiteside paid $200,000 each to launch 400,000 feet into suborbital space. They'll experience weightlessness for a few minutes before they're pulled back down to the Earth by gravity.

Although it's an expensive endeavor, space travel has reached a turning point, with private citizens able to make their own reservations for spaceflights. But how safe could a space tour actually be?

The space tourism industry is currently going through its own race -- although it doesn't have the same tense political implications as the nuclear arms race did, many people are concerned about the safety of sending citizens into space like they're on a roller coaster. The history of space flights and exploration is scattered with near disasters and fatal catastrophes, from Apollo 13 in 1970 to the Columbia explosion in 2003. These flights were funded, developed and launched by governments and organizations like NASA. Space tourism programs, on the other hand, are run and developed by private companies, and the whole concept is really just beginning. One would suspect the safety of paying customers, along with citizens on the ground, is a top priority to those interested.

Space tourism is a rapidly expanding industry that should appeal to wealthy travelers and extreme sports fans -- it's sort of like a modern-day safari, except on a rocket ship shooting through space. How safe would a tour into space be? Who's regulating these businesses in their early stages, if anyone? Has the government weighed in at all? How much do participants know going into a space tour? Do they have to sign anything?

To learn more about your chances of survival on a really expensive joyride, read the next page.