Recently, Virgin mogul Richard Branson unveiled the SpaceShipTwo, the world's first commercial space-plane. With three bodies, five hybrid rocket engines, and (apparently) zero room for spaces in its title, the SpaceShipTwo will carry passengers 70 miles above the earth and give them five minutes of weightlessness before returning them to earth $200,000 lighter. Flights start in 2010.
Virgin is getting into space tourism just as their only competitor, the Russian space agency RosCosmos, is getting out.
In fact, even NASA is done with sending humans to space; they've grounded all their space shuttles and are asking astronauts to hitch their way to the International Space Station with the Russians until 2015, when their new space jitney is ready. (With American astronauts on board their Soyuz rockets, there's no room for civilian customers, the Russians say.)
That leaves the Virgin plane (its components diagrammed above) way out in front of an industry that a lot of people are pretty excited about. Many of us may even be wondering if "space tourism" is going to become just another type of vacation, like a cruise or an Atlantis resort or a Vegas hotel. To answer that question, we must ask: for what does any self-respecting person actually go to one of these places?
The answer? Food. For the thermosphere to become an Expedia hotspot, it'll have to invent its own distinct cuisine--Vegas has the famous buffets, resorts have their dozens of restaurants, and cruises have those pay-ahead meal deals. So what does space have?
Tang and astronaut ice cream, the freeze-dried stuff seen above that we all enjoy so much, and which, according to NASA, "wasn't that popular" with actual astronauts when it was introduced in the 70s. (Perhaps they were disturbed by the fact that the ice cream was made by none other than Whirpool Corporation, which isn't exactly famed for confectionary talent.) Tang, by comparison, has no dirty secrets besides the Spill of 1970 (better known as the cause of the Apollo 13 incident). But it's no square, either: You can add bourbon to it and make a something called a "moonbeam."
So besides moonbeams and ice cream, what has space got to offer the common astro-gastro-tourist? Best to ask the space people themselves, and according to NASA, modern astronauts eat lots of normal stuff including oranges and brownies. Other foods are of the "add-water" type: mac and cheese or spaghetti heated in a little oven. On Thanksgiving, they get add-water turkey and asparagus. (Below, Bill Clinton trying some of Sen. John Glenn's space-food in 1998. No, it was not McDonalds.)
When in space, you're not allowed to have salt and pepper--it would fly everywhere--so you have to add seasonings to water and make a solution to squirt on food. This is both inconvenient and definitely gross, but is a big upgrade from the food in the '60s and '70s (there's a reason early astronauts were excited about something as banal as orange drink). Space food back then was usually baby-food-like mush, squeezed from a foil tube (think toothpaste). Below, a modern space-ready freeze-dried fruitcake, courtesy of the Smithsonian.
If Virgin wants to improve on this mediocre gourmet record, it'll be in defiance of the times. Space tourism has actually been decreasing in the last decade; its heyday was back in the late 1980s, when corporations started buying seats on shuttle flights in both U.S. and Russia. For NASA, the first guy was a McDonnell-Douglas engineer; for Russia it was a Japanese journalist. After that, NASA added a kind of permanent buyable position on the shuttle and called it "payload specialist." More often than not, it was a representative of a company (or Congressional district) involved in the space program. Then somehow this private company finagled itself the right to send private paying customers into space. (There have been a total of seven space tourists excluding payload specialists, estimates Wikipedia.)
Virgin is doing its part to bolster the industry by keeping its price relatively low: its flights cost only $200,000 with a $20,000 deposit, which is a lot less than the Russians' multi-million dollar fee. Got the scratch for a Virgin Galactic ticket? Book a ticket here. If that's a little rich for your blood, space ice cream is a "top five" seller at Kennedy Space Center in Florida -- and it only costs $4. If even four bucks is spendy, just watch this unappetizing video of how, thanks to the physics of surface tension, astronauts have to eat liquid like it's viscous goo.
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