The realities of space travel: Why a holiday in space might not be a dream vacation

On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin blasted off into space aboard a tiny spherical capsule called the Vostok 1. Gagarin had beaten out six other potential candidates to be the Soviet Union’s first cosmonaut and each one of them had been “overtrained” on the off chance it would be them aboard the vessel and leaving Earth.

Fast forward to 2018, and space travel is on the cusp of becoming far less strenuous. Forget being a fully-trained astronaut –  according to Virgin Galactic boss Richard Branson, space tourists will be up in the air in the next couple of years.  

So is it time to start booking time off work? If you have to answer that question, you’re probably not rich enough to apply. But good news: it might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Here’s why.

1. Your bones won’t be as useful back on Earth

“That old saying – ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’ – is absolutely true,” says Simon Evetts, Research and Development director at Blue Abyss. “If we take away stimulus to our body – impact, loading, forces that travel across all our limbs when we have muscular contraction, the bones and the muscles will all degrade and atrophy.”

That’s the effect that microgravity environments have on the body, with muscle and skeletal atrophy likely to be a permanent problem. A heady mix of bisphosphonate and exercise can help a bit, but it’s hardly what you’d call fun in the sun.

“Without a doubt, when they return, they will be weaker”

“There are a number of things even now which show how physical conditioning is not as good after six months as it was before,” says Evetts. “If someone goes into space for a year or two and does not have an effective countermeasure programme to prevent the changes that occur in space. Then without a doubt, when they return, they will be weaker – they’ll be less able to deal with the strains of everyday life.”

Every cloud has a silver lining, though, and if you’re just planning on going on a space-based mini-break, then your body is less likely to be affected in the long run. However…

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2. You’ll feel sick. Really sick

“When astronauts go up into space for the first few days, their blood pressure control abilities are poor and they are prone to fainting quite easily,” Evett explains. Oh. “That tends to go away. Motor control and the ability to move is poor for a number of days. That tends to be recovered by a week or around ten days.”

Space sickness is very real – it even has an official-sounding name: space adaptation syndrome. About half to 70% of all astronauts experience space sickness in the first few days in space, Evetts says. Here’s what that’ll mean in real terms: you’ll feel disorientated, you’ll get headaches, you’ll feel nauseous, and you’ll probably vomit too. Think you’ll get over it for another go? You won’t. If you get space sick on your first flight, the stats suggest you’ll get it every time.

The general consensus is that the body just isn’t used to the change in gravitational forces when we leave Earth’s comforting atmosphere. “When you go into space, bodily fluid goes up to your upper body and stays there,” says Evetts.  “Without gravity, of course, blood/fluids that normally pool in our lower body are free to equilibrate around the body.”

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The fundamental causes and symptoms of space sickness may be very similar to seasickness, but the underlying physiology is still unknown. Charles Oman, director of the Man Vehicle Laboratory at MIT told Space.com that they “learned very early in the shuttle programme that it’s not just being in weightlessness and making head movements. It was getting up and moving around that was really a significant stimulus.” So if you’re happy just sitting completely still, you might be okay for the right price, but…

3. You can’t afford it

Space travel is going to be the preserve of the wealthy, at least for the foreseeable future. 

In April, Orion Span announced the launch of the Aurora Space Station, an “affordable” luxury space hotel with a view to accommodate space tourists in 2022. The Aurora Station will sit in orbit at an altitude of 200 miles – around 50 miles lower than the International Space Station. So how affordable is affordable? Try $9.5 million for 12 nights. Orion Span is already taking $80,000 deposits if that hasn’t put you off…

Don’t worry: budget options are available. A seat onboard Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo, for example, is an absolute bargain at $250,000. Relatively speaking, of course.

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(Credit: Virgin Galactic)

4. If space doesn’t make you throw up, the food might

For that price, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ll get a truly glorious five-star dining experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although it’s nothing as bad as the early astronauts, who had the most depressing menu imaginable, space food is pretty dismal. Take a look at the sad attempts at a pizza, and the Thanksgiving Feast which leaves very little to be thankful for.

When it costs £7,000 to take a bottle of water to the ISS, this isn’t hugely surprising but, once again, you’re better looking at a mini break in Europe.

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