The Moon will soon be the dream destination for wealthy travellers – how close can the rest of us get without paying the earth? Jeremy Taylor travels across America to find out…
They call it the new space race – a billion-dollar battle to send paying customers on a trip around the Moon. Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson and PayPal founder Elon Musk are both staking their reputations on commercial rockets that will eventually offer intergalactic tourism at down-to-earth prices.
Both claim their projects will boldly go skyward by the end of 2018. NASA is already working with Musk’s SpaceX team on a mission to send two unnamed civilians around the Moon. The man behind electric car company Tesla wants to make space travel as easy as hopping on an aeroplane.
Meanwhile, Sir Richard has vowed to put passengers into space in the next 18 months aboard his Virgin Galactic programme, based in New Mexico. Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt are already signed up for the trip of a lifetime.
Despite their pioneering efforts to turn us all into space men and women, it could still be decades before space tourism doesn’t cost millions of dollars a ticket. So how can you have the space-themed holiday of a lifetime now – without actually leaving terra firma?
The Road Trip of a Lifetime…
I’ve organised a 2,000-mile road trip across America that includes some of the best space-related tourist venues in the country. It begins at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and will cross seven states
to Flagstaff, Arizona – where astronauts trained to drive the original lunar buggy back in the 1960s.
The concierge at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando is doing his best to explain how it feels to watch a rocket launch. He beats his chest with two fists and becomes more and more animated. ‘You can feel your heart pumping – the thrust from the engines vibrates through the landscape. There’s a flash of fire, the ground seems to move and then the flame soars into the sky.’
A rocket launch is visible from almost anywhere on the Florida peninsula. Some take their cars to New Smyrna Beach and soak up the atmosphere with a barbecue,others make their way to the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex, the closest and busiest viewing spot.
I timed my space age trip to coincide with a rocket launch but the mission has been delayed. Instead, astronaut Sam Durrance tells me what lift off feels like from the inside.
‘It’s like hanging on to a runaway train at 17,000 mph. You can’t stop it – there’s no getting off.’
Lunch with An Astronaut is one of the most popular activities at Kennedy Space Centre. Durrance is an American scientist who spent 25 days in space on two missions to the International Space Station.
He is still visibly moved by the experience during our conversation. ‘Space tourists will look back at our planet and see how fragile it is. Obviously there is nothing like it on Earth. I’m too old to go back but what I experienced up there will live with me forever.’
Durrance has degrees in physics and astrogeophysics but what are the most common questions people ask at the dinner table? ‘They want to know how we go to the toilet in space – and what the food tastes like. Neither answer is very edifying.’
A Long Drive
From Orlando it’s a nine-hour drive to the John C Stennis Space Centre – a rocket base on the Mississippi-Louisiana border that was originally used as a test centre for the Apollo programme. En route is the Battle House hotel in Mobile, Alabama, where NASA engineers and those early astronauts would sometimes break their journey.
I’m at the wheel of a hired Lamborghini Huracán, the closest I could get to a road-going rocket ship. It has air conditioning and cruise control, unlike the fast but uncomfortable Corvette Stingrays most astronauts were given to drive back in the 1960s. Even so, the historic hotel can’t come soon enough, with temperatures touching 39°C on the road. There’s a colonial atmosphere, although the best place to get close to stars is Dauphin’s restaurant, on the 34th floor of the neighbouring Trustmark Building.
Nearby New Orleans is a good base from which to visit Stennis. It’s also home to the Michoud Assembly Facility, where the first stage engines of the Apollo rockets were built. Later, the enormous external fuel tanks for the Shuttle were constructed there too.
The next day, it takes less than an hour to reach Stennis. The Infinity Science Centre is the official visitor complex and offers an educational approach, compared to the theme park razzmatazz of Kennedy. A guide confides that the best time to visit is when a rocket test is taking place, although it’s pot-luck choosing because there is no official schedule.
When I arrive in Houston five hours later, the Buffalo Bayou river has flooded. I’m staying at The Sam hotel in the city centre, unaware that, two weeks later, the entire area will be devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The historic hotel survived and even managed to stay partly open through much of the disaster.
Johnson Space Centre, on the outskirts of the city, is where NASA’s mission control directed flights from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Centre. Its visitor complex – Space Centre Houston – has an overwhelming number of displays, all dwarfed by the 747 aircraft parked outside and the Shuttle replica loaded on top of it.
Driving west again through San Antonio and onwards along the Mexican border, even the scenery in this part of Texas seems a little space age. The huge skylines and lunar-style desert have turned the sandscape into an other-worldly sort of place, where little seems to survive the extreme heat.
That evening, sat in the V6 coffee bar at the laid-back Gage hotel in Marathon, I’m told about strange lights that appear over the desert in neighbouring town Marfa. Everybody seems to have an alien story to tell here. And as if to prove it, just across the border in New Mexico is the International UFO Museum.
Into the Wilderness
The next day, en route to El Paso, I visit the McDonald Observatory, near Fort Davis. In the wilderness of Texas, the dome-like structures look like they could have descended from outer space. The weekly Star Parties aren’t a chance to enjoy cocktails with the Hollywood elite but an educational tour of space with a well-briefed boffin.
The final 800-mile drive west on the I-10 takes two days. In 40°C , the road often disappears in an illusory act caused by the heat haze. My final destination is Arizona – and for good reason.
The rocky landscape outside my window at the luxurious Phoenician hotel near Phoenix is a clue. Just up the road from the Waldorf Astoria resort at Flagstaff is the spot where a dormant volcano was transformed into an astronaut training ground in 1967 to trial the original lunar rover.
Thousands of tonnes of explosives were used to recreate the craters of the Sea of Tranquillity, the site where Armstrong and Aldrin would make their historic landing two years later. NASA used detailed satellite photographs of the moon to get the terrain just right – although, as I stand next to the area today, a relentless wind has reduced the surface to flat desert again.
The footprints of astronauts who trained here during the Apollo era have long disappeared. Only a handful of the 12 men who walked on the surface are alive today – Armstrong himself died in 2012.
Seeing their original boot marks in the dust of the moon could be the highlight of future space tourism. And think of the Air Miles you could clock up on a 478,000-mile round trip…
Hayes & Jarvis offers a 13-night USA road trip from Orlando to Phoenix on a room-only basis from £2,195 per person. The offer includes ‘standard’ car hire and return international flights from Gatwick with British Airways hayesandjarvis.co.uk.
Hire a Lamborghini from £1,160 a day orlandoexoticcarrentals.com