Star Trek was right: Space is an undiscovered country. But what with the cost of launch, difficulty escaping gravity, the problem of space debris, and unwanted effects of radiation, space continues to remain less discovered than we’d like.
However, there are Earth-based activities we can explore, ones that give us the experience of space without having to leave terra firma. It’s not as good as going to space, but it’s the best we can hope for until XCOR, Virgin Galactic and others turn our dreams into reality.
One of the reasons most of us want to go to space is so you can bounce around a spacecraft free from the confines of gravity. Thanks to ZERO-G, you can bounce around a modified Boeing 727. These flights take a parabolic path, akin to the descent of a roller coaster, to dip passengers into weightlessness. Out of fifteen parabolic arcs, you get a little over six minutes of free-falling fun.
You may think that $4,950 plus 5% tax is a steep price for only six minutes. And, yeah, it is. But ZERO-G wants you to think of it this way: “That’s about as much zero-gravity time as Alan Shepard experienced on America's first human spaceflight.”
That pricey ticket comes with perks, such as professional photos like this one, above, of friend and former participant Elizabeth Kennick.
Attend space camp
Space Camp is typically for kids, but Space Camp has an Adult Space Academy for grownups who want to take a giant leap for mankind. Attendees experience the nifty parts of astronaut training, such as whirling around in a multi-axis trainer and jumping around in a chair that simulates 1/6 of Earth’s gravity. And for $549 for three days/$649 for four days, you don’t have to spend two years training, plus pass NASA’s onerous eyesight requirements. (Damn you, NASA.)
Space campers get abbreviated experience of life as a NASA astronaut or mission control specialist, solving potential real-world/real-space problems as they arise. Note: Unlike in space, if you press the wrong button at the wrong time, everyone can hear you scream.
Visit a space center
NASA has facilities that visitors can enjoy, from the Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Here is where you can deep dive into the history of the American space effort, visiting the places where the shuttle’s main engines were tested, as well as see where NASA is aiming its sights on next. Because these facilities are also places of employment, check with the individual websites to see visiting hours.
Fans of space can also visit New York City’s Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, where the Enterprise demonstrator shuttle now makes its home, and the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, for a jaw-dropping look at air- and -spacecraft of all kinds. (Lunar modules!)
See Earth and space...from space
Satellites in space aren’t new, but this application is: SpaceVR will be sending its Overview I satellite in orbit “to capture extremely high resolution, fully immersive, 360-degree video of every breathtaking moment that occurs on our home planet”—which you can watch with any VR device. The experience could be the next best thing to being there without actually leaving your sofa.
Sadly, you’ll have to cool your jets until June 2017, when SpaceVR’s satellite flies to the International Space Station via SpaceX’s CRS-12. But early adopters can preorder a one-year viewing subscription for $35 or $99 for a lifetime subscription. Hopefully, you’ll be viewing space with your own eyes before your lifetime runs out.
Join a space advocacy group
You’re not the only one who wants to explore strange, new worlds. There are over a dozen nonprofit groups across the world who are actively promoting space tourism and off-world colonization, as well as envisioning the future.
In fact, if you have a taste for a particular space niche, such as rocket racing, chances are there’s a group of like-minded people for you to space out with. I’ve been a member of several space advocacy groups, including the Space Frontier Foundation, the Space Tourism Society, and Space Renaissance International, and the people I’ve met there are some of the most forward-thinking I’ve known.
Take a simulated mission to Mars
The Mars Society is more than advocacy group. It hosts two research facilities: one run in Utah from September to May, one run infrequently in Northern Canada. And part of their research includes sending crews of six to seven people on a two-week journey to Mars…in simulation.
Unfortunately, this isn’t for everyone, as the Mars Society only accepts scientists (and occasionally journalists). But considering 32.6% of all degrees in the U.S. are science- and engineering-based, that’s a reasonably large pool of potential crewmembers.
According to the Mars Society, some crews come from a single university or even a single country. But the Mars Society will gladly insert a nonaffiliated crew person into a mission if their application is accepted.
Invest in a space business
If you want to make space a reality, you may be able to get in on the ground up. Investor groups such as these (<-- scroll down) invested $1.8 billion in space startups, from vehicles to satellite companies—in 2015 alone.
Again, this isn’t for everyone. You need to qualify as an accredited investor, and many venture capital groups requires a minimum investment (one starts at $100,000). But if you have the cash and have a desire to further space-based companies and potential innovations, you can help reach for the stars by reaching for your wallet.
Get your kid’s teacher involved
Teachers in Space is a nonprofit for, you guessed it, high-school educators of STEM subjects. And it exists to engage schoolchildren by engaging their teachers. Teachers and students design performable experiments and TiS helps to realize them. In August and September, nine Teacher in Spaces will be flying their Cubesat experiments on a Perlan research glider.
Note that the experiment takes place on the edge of space, but not actually in space. Although Teachers in Space’s activities are currently limited to the upper atmosphere, it's actively working to put teachers in orbit. Consider dropping that piece of info in the next parent-teacher conference.