In the very near future space tourism is going to be the ultimate in adventure and experience travel, and with a galaxy’s worth of space orientated experiences that any travellers bucket list would be proud of, Huntsville in Alabama will be at the very heart of this exciting new aspect to the travel industry.
Adventure travel is already one of the biggest and most popular sectors within the travel and tourism industry. With a focus on the experience as much as the destination itself, the lure for many backpackers and travellers of doing something unique or different can often make a destination popular in and of itself.
I myself travelled to Peru for the first time specifically to hike the Inca trail. I travelled to Nepal after visiting India with the express ambition to see Everest Base Camp. I have travelled to so many destinations just because it was unique, or beyond imagination, or sometimes even risky.
Adventure travel means different things to different travellers of course, for some it may be something as simple as trying out an adrenaline fuelled adventure sport, for others it may be immersing themselves in unique cultures in destinations that most people would never dream of, or pushing themselves to the extreme in the worlds most inhospitable environments, just to say they could!
And what could be more adventurous, more uniquely beyond imagination, more adrenaline pumping, than the thought of travelling into space itself?
All of these are valid motivators to push intrepid travellers to head to any given destination, and these experiences are what have put so many destinations around the world firmly on adventure travellers and backpackers radars.
But there is one destination that has for some reason escaped that radar up until now. There is one destination that has everything backpackers and adventurers are looking for, and with space tourism very quickly becoming the ultimate experience for adventure seekers to covet, Huntsville in Alabama will very soon be on as many travellers bucket lists as the Antarctica or the Australian outback.
Huntsville in Alabama has very quickly become one of my favourite travel destinations. It is one of those unassuming and underrated places that few people have heard of, but will blow the mind of any traveller who is willing to head a little off the beaten track and give it a chance.
And that is exactly what happened to me the moment I stepped off the plane from Atlanta. Even the airport itself is one large homage to the city’s pride in its military and space industry background. I instantly felt at home here, and after seeing the arrivals lounge looking like it had been decorated by the US Army and NASAs recruitment departments, my mind was blown and I already knew this would be a place I would quickly get to like.
Huntsville is a fantastic city for travellers in its own right, with a great deal of unique sites and activities to keep any tourist happy. But since it is known – for good reason – as the Rocket City, it is hardly a surprise that a lot of the city’s attractions and appeal center around it’s close affiliation with NASA and historical ties to the space programme.
The beginnings of space tourism.
With evidence of its links to mankind’s reach for the stars everywhere in Huntsville, and a large chunk of its tourism industry centred around and based on the space industry, it will be no surprise to anyone in the know that Huntsville will be at the forefront of any future evolution of tourism in space, and after spending just a little time here, I am more convinced than ever that a gap year in space is not just going to be a possibility in my lifetime, but an absolute normality!
Space tourism is by definition one of the most adventurous activities that anyone can dream of doing. The sheer act of going into space as a tourist, setting foot on alien worlds and moons and venturing further and further into deep space is still by and large firmly in the realm of science fiction, for now at least, with pioneering private companies only just starting to build on the trailblazing exploratory work that NASA and other space agencies have done for the last 50 years or more.
Yet for those travellers with an adventurous spirit, space tourism is tantalisingly close, and recent advances have made it an absolute possibility within our lifetime.
What is space tourism?
Space tourism is quite simply the act of going into space for recreational purposes. The act of going into orbit or beyond for the sheer experience, as opposed to any specific scientific, exploratory or military endeavour.
Of course there are already a number of terrestrial space tourism activities and experiences, all of which Huntsville does spectacularly well, but the next step is putting paying travellers and tourists into orbit, and with private organisations such as Virgin Galactic, Space X and Blue Origin, joining NASA and building on their work, Huntsville is right at the heart of that mission too.
NASA itself is working hard with private companies to usher in this new era. The NASA Centennial Challenge has been a huge success in bringing private industry in to fill the gaps in NASA’s own research and development by offering a $100,000 cash prize and the prospect of lucrative future contracts within the space industry. This has led to innovation on an unprecedented scale, who would have thought that the practical solutions to the problems astronauts were having with their space suits would come from a fashion designer working with materials in the textile industry? Who would have ever imagined that the solutions to transporting human habitats on the moon would lie in manufacturing them on location with 3D printing?
But this approach makes a lot of sense, it is utilising the expertise of a wider base of industries, and is allowing NASA to divert resources to what it does best and concentrate on exploring deeper and further into space and getting people to Mars and beyond.
And it is for this reason that the space tourism industry is going to boom. NASA is empowering a wide range of industries to make a lot of profit in normalising the relatively routine aspects of space travel, allowing the feasibility of tourists going into orbit, staying in an hotel module on the International Space Station or even stepping on the moon itself to become more of a reality. Where there is profit to be made, more people will work to make it happen, and that will allow NASA to improve exponentially and concentrate on further exploration.
Put quite simply, the interest and the tourism dollar generated from routine space tourism is what in the very near future will allow NASA to go deeper and further into space than it ever has before.
The ultimate adventure.
The idea of an adventure in space is so tantalisingly close I can feel it. For me, and for many backpackers and travellers alike, world travel is in general one giant adventure that feeds the spirit and quenches the wide eyed wanderlust that has inspired us to trek to some of the worlds most extreme environments, to visit some of the worlds most awe inspiring destinations and forge a life for ourselves filled with tales of adventure.
I have spent the better part of the last two decades backpacking my way around the world, and in that time I have seen and experienced more than a lifetimes worth of adventure that most people will still only ever dream of.
As well as enjoying the stereotypical backpacker lifestyle of partying on Khao San Road and island hopping from beach hut to beach hut, I have trekked through jungles and deserts just for the sheer experience. I have hiked up active volcanoes and learned to dive just to see what was under the ocean. I have travelled to places so far off the beaten track I empathised with those ancient explorers who thought they had reached the end of the world and have ticked off countless bucket list items of seeing the great Pyramids of Giza or hiking the Inca trail. I have fulfilled every Indiana Jones fantasy I had as a child and made the most of every experience travelling the world has given me.
Yet in all that time, through all of those experiences, I never once thought it would be possible to fulfill my other childhood dreams, the dreams involving the ultimate adventure, the dreams about going into space.
Imagine being able to blast off into orbit, or spending the night experiencing weightlessness in a space station pod. Imagine setting foot on the moon itself or actually staying on the surface in a lunar hotel resort.
Travellers and adventurers alike are going to clamour to add these once unimaginable experiences to their bucket lists in the same way they now add diving the great barrier reef or trekking to Everest Base Camp. That same breed of traveller who now dream of trekking across Antarctica one day are going to dream of hiking the Shackleton crater on the moon.
And all of this is not as far fetched as you think. Tourists have already paid to go into space, with Dennis Tito widely regarded as the first fee paying civilian to visit the ISS. Private companies have the technology already and are at this very moment perfecting the business plans to make taking travellers into space economically viable. Space tourism becoming a normality is not beyond the realm of possibility in our lifetime.
Space tourism in Huntsville, Alabama.
But in the meantime, whilst our feet remain planted on the ground, Huntsville in Alabama is providing travellers with education and inspiration to keep that dream of space tourism alive.
Huntsville already has some of the United States most impressive terrestrial space tourism facilities. The aptly named Rocket City is a living, breathing homage to mankind’s impressive achievements in space, and an enthusiastic cheerleader for what achievements can be made in the future.
The Wernher Von Braun Planetarium.
Located in Monte Sano State Park, which is a pleasant area in and of itself with great views over the rocket city, this vastly underrated planetarium is a fascinating piece of Huntsville history, owned and built by the Von Braun Astronomical Society who hold regular educational talks and lectures here, this was the place that the space race began, where the dreams of sending mankind into space started to form, and where Wernher Von Braun promised Buzz Aldrin the moon.
The sheer thought of all that history, just thinking about the conversations that must have taken place here, the meetings between some of the most influential and pivotal people in NASA’s history, really make this otherwise relatively simple attraction something truly special.
The U.S Space and Rocket Center.
NASA’s first visitor center, the U.S Space and Rocket Center is a vast complex of facilities that showcase and celebrate the space agency’s accomplishments as well as providing an envioronment of hope, optimism and education that will inspire and teach future generations to continue its work.
The outside areas of the complex are home to the historic shuttle park and rocket park, as well as the realistic reconstruction of the lunar surface and the moon landing, and among the screams of the people enjoying momentary weightlessness on the Moon Shot and G Force fairground rides and the families enjoying the atmosphere in the glorious sunshine, I could barely tear myself away from seeing the rockets and vehicles on display.
But it was the Davidson Center for Space Exploration that really – without exaggeration – blew my mind. Enjoying the artifacts and exhibitions held in the main atrium as I walked up to the hall, nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared me for the sheer size of the Saturn V rocket that is displayed there. Apart from the knowledge that this was the rocket that sent men to the moon for the first time and is a genuine modern treasure that has rightly been dedicated as a national landmark as a result, it was the simple, gutteral reaction to its sheer size that made my jaw drop.
I have always been a huge geek and my interest in space has been a passing hobby since I was a child, helped in no part by endless re runs of Star Trek, obviously, but seeing this legendary rocket stretching out above me was truly an experience akin to seeing the pyramids of Giza for the first time, and it is events like this that are about as close as I will ever get to a religious experience. Pictures really cannot do it justice, I promise you.
But my awe and open mouthed wonderment was nothing compared to the excitement and enthusiasm that the NASA docent who gave me a tour of the Saturn V hall displayed as he waxed lyrical about each artifact and display.
Introducing himself simply as Kenny, with the deceiving facade of a friendly granddad with an endless supply of sweets and a happy smile, and obliviously and self deprecatingly dismissive of the fact he probably had more letters and accolades after his name than a bag full of scrabble pieces, he began to explain the history of NASAs achievements in space with an enthusiasm of a small boy talking about a new toy. It was only when he handed me his business card, in the form of a collectible baseball card of course, because what else would you expect from a gloriously geek friendly mecca like this, that he mentioned that he had worked for NASA for over forty years and had worked on the Saturn programme itself!
This level of love and enthusiasm for the work he had done in reaching space was truly infectious, and gave a whole new level to learning about the history of space travel. It gave a glimpse into what it took to make it all possible, the sacrifice and the heroism of the astronauts, engineers and scientists, the passion behind the science and engineering and most importantly the dream itself.
Marshall Space Flight Center bus tour.
Leaving from the Space and Rocket Center, and colloquially known as the NASA tour, the bus for the Marshall Space Flight Center gives tourists a glimpse of the MSFC facilities and an awe inducing look at the test stands actually used to test rockets and the laboratories and facilities used to research and develop them.
Apart from the impressive museums and exhibits that Huntsville boasts about, the Rocket City has been hiding one of the biggest bucket list adventure that no one realises they can actually experience! Space Camp!
What young kid doesn’t dream of being an astronaut and going to space? What adult of a certain age didn’t watch the 1986 eponymous movie Space Camp and wish JINX would send them into orbit?
It is at least fairly well known in the US at least that kids can go to Space Camp and encourage and nurture a love for STEM fields in their young minds as they go through the training and education that is required to become an astronaut. What isn’t quite as well known is the fact that this is an experience anyone from all over the world can have at any age, and travellers, just as they would by heading to Australia for the Great Barrier Reef or Nepal for Everest Base Camp, can add to their round the world experiences with a bucket list adventure at a three day space academy!
I mean climbing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro or seeing the Northern Lights is all well and good, but this is Space Camp! For grown ups!
Strap yourself into a multi axis trainer, practice an EVA ‘space walk’, put yourself through your paces as a trainee astronaut and live out every childhood fantasy you ever had of going to space!
The simulated space mission we had been assigned to went off to a flying start as I christened myself Captain, a small upgrade from Commander, and renamed our little shuttle simulator the Enterprise. The disembodied voice from mission control threw a series of instructions at our small team to flip switches and land our shuttle safely, not an easy feat when mission control kept making things go wrong and I excitedly started pressing as many buttons and switches as I could whilst quoting Scotty off Star Trek.
I could totally be a real astronaut!
Of all the amazing things I have been privileged to experience in my lifetime, I honestly never thought going to Space Camp would be one of them! And there is nothing stopping any traveller exploring America from heading to Huntsville, enjoying the amazing experiences and warm welcome the city offers, and taking part in one of the most unique bucket list experiences out there.
And you know what? It’s surprisingly cheaper than hiking to Everest Base Camp or trekking the Inca Trail too!
The future of space tourism.
This comprehensive package of terrestrial travel experiences that Huntsville offers can already give any space geek, adventurer or traveller a taste of what it would be like to travel in space, but the Rocket City is ideally placed to usher in the next era of space tourism too.
By paying homage to the achievements of NASA and celebrating the history of space travel, Huntsville is inspiring both current and future generations of traveller to look beyond the travel experiences here on Earth and for the first time genuinely imagine what it would be like to travel to the stars as a civilian.
And bucket list experiences such as Space Camp can in the future very easily play a larger role in that by helping to prepare travellers for that journey. For now it may only be a taste of what can be, but that doesn’t mean that in the future Huntsville won’t be the launchpad of many traveller’s gap years into space.
With private organisations such as Virgin Galactic and Space X working to make orbital flights and journeys to the International Space Station both economically viable and routine, the increased normality will allow them to perfect the technology and procedures that will allow travellers to venture into space as easily as they now step on a cruise ship to take them to the Antarctic, a bucket list item that was only a decade or two ago itself seen as an impossibility for many travellers.
And once orbital space tourism has become routine, and demand and technology from private industry has driven the price down far enough that it is within reach of ultimate bucket list seekers, that will allow NASA to divert resources – and take advantage of the renewed passion for space as well as the coveted tourism dollar – to drive space exploration further than it has ever gone before.
Space tourism will be a reality in my lifetime. I have no doubt. Not only will it be normal for tourists to go into orbit and even step on to the International Space Station, it is not unreasonable to expect tourists to at some point be staying on the moon and eventually heading further and further out into deep space.
And Huntsville, the Rocket City, will be right at the centre of it all!
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This article was written in partnership with the Huntsville and Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Space Camp and NASA. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.