Where would you like to go today?

English: Hong Kong SAR passport stamps

English: Hong Kong SAR passport stamps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I started work, I had never been up in an aeroplane (unless you count a brief flight over Dunstable downs in a glider). As kids, holidays consisted of a couple of weeks in a holiday camp or caravan park. I think the furthest we ever went was Minehead in Somerset. The entertainment was a mixture of bingo and the odd knobbly knee competition.

When my employer said that they wanted me over in Zurich for a few days, it was a cue to my fellow employees to start winding me up about how scary flying was. Although I had grown up on a diet of 1970s aircraft disaster movies, I took no notice and as the thrust of the aircraft’s engines pushed me back in my seat, an involuntary smile lit up my face. I loved the sensation of speed and the feeling of lift as the aircraft took off. The view through the window of the verdant English countryside slowly shrinking away was sublime. After hundreds of subsequent flights, the appeal has somewhat diminished.

At the time, the only people who flew were either on business or a package holiday. Air travel was expensive and usually booked through travel agents. 30 years ago, budget airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet didn’t even exist. Today, they fly the best part of 130 million customers per year on a combined fleet of over 600 aircraft. It’s fair to say that they revolutionised the way we book, pay for and undertake our international travel. They were among the first to offer direct internet booking and their variable prices per seat tended to significantly undercut the prices of the traditional operators. The other airlines eventually followed suit and air travel is probably cheaper than it has ever been, opening up ideas like commuting to another country or just nipping over to see the Geneva motor show for the day.

Cruise ships also used to be way out of reach for most travellers being solely the reserve of the rich and famous. Most cruise ships up to the 1960s were converted liners rather than purpose built. Over the past few decades, there has been an explosion in the number of companies offering cruises. Both the number and size of cruise ships have ballooned. Coupled with the cost reduction in air travel, prices have tumbled in real terms. Not only that, but today’s cruise ships have gone to great lengths to outdo each other in terms of the entertainment offered on board. On some ships you can play golf in the morning, go surfing in the afternoon and go climbing in the evening.

A NASA astronaut jokingly advertises a recover...

A NASA astronaut jokingly advertises a recovered defective satellite for sale during a space walk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the whole, people have become much more adventurous about where they go on holiday although it varies from country to country (roughly 38% of people in the USA own a passport compared with 80% in the UK).  It wasn’t so very long ago that travellers heading to Africa would probably go on a steamship and be accompanied by a big game hunter in a pith helmet. Nowadays, many people go on safari for their honeymoon.

What will tourism look like 30 years from now? There is no doubt that for many of us, spaceflight tourism will become commonplace. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture has all but sold out of the first 500 seats at $200k a throw. You can even charter a spaceship from him for a million dollars. The American government have even come up with a set of procedures for space travellers. Will I be partaking? Well, no, not at that price. Even if it was cheaper, it all sounds a little bit dangerous with roughly 1 flight in 50 resulting in fatalities.

I wonder how long it will be before we get an “Easyrocket” or “Ryanspace”

To infinity and beyond…

Apollo insignia. Italiano: Stemma del programm...

Apollo insignia. Italiano: Stemma del programma Apollo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a child, I had such a thirst for knowledge, I used to enjoy reading encyclopaedias from cover to cover. I found them absolutely fascinating. Every page I turned over, I read about something completely new which I knew nothing about. One of the areas that particularly piqued my interest was space travel.

The thing about space is that it is so vast and so full of the unknown that the possibilities seem endless. If anything, the literature I was exposed to and the TV and films I tuned into during my youth only reinforced my obsession with all things cosmic.

I was born in the seventies (just) and things looked so very promising. Man had just walked on the moon and the Apollo missions were in full swing. All the textbooks were quite confidently predicting that there would be a 2001 style space station in orbit and we would have established bases on the moon and Mars. I used to look up at the sky and think that one day, I would walk on another world.

Films like Star Wars and TV programs like Star Trek and Space 1999 only reinforced this notion and I used to revel in fiction like the Stainless Steel Rat. The first time I saw Alien, I thought it was so realistic even though the prospects of long range space travel and discovery of aliens have yet to be realised decades later.

So here we are and we have seen all the significant dates like 1984, 1999, 2000 and 2001 fly past. I have to confess to being bitterly disappointed with mankind’s progress into the universe. In every other endeavour, we have made leaps and bounds but truth be known, we would struggle to repeat what we did in 1969 – put a man on the moon.

There have been glimmers of hope, like the space shuttle, skylab and the International Space Station, but by and large progress has been glacial. As the old cold war superpowers have lost interest, other emerging nations have stepped up to the plate, but to date, no-one has really set their sights much higher than that amazing mission in 1969.

More recently, I have been encouraged by some green shoots. Governments seem to have largely given up, so it is left to entrepreneurs like Richard Branson with his Virgin Galactic programme to commercialise space travel. Today, I spotted a news story on Twitter about Peter Diamandis who is widely expected to launch a startup company to mine asteroids for diamonds. How cool is that?

So do I still harbour ambitions to walk on another world? Well, no, probably not. But I’m sure by the time we get there – they will have jet powered disabled scooters – with twin lasers mounted front and rear…

May the force be with you – engage and make it so!