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German astronaut Dr Ulrich Walter was an unlikely guest at the ITB Travel Fair in Berlin last week, a trade show usually concerned with terrestrial exploration. Walter showed a series of exclusive Earth shots taken on the STS-55 Columbia mission: Egyptian pyramids, deserts and oceans silenced the crowd as Walter described how he traveled 4.1 million miles in 160 Earth orbits during the 1993 mission, logging in more than 239 hours (nine days) in outer space.
Space tourism is on the rise, to the point that it's starting to enter the mainstream. Richard Branson plans on lifting off into the stars with his family this summer, along with a handful of celebrities and their hangers-on. The hype of space tourism, from Space Florida’s tourism marketing plan to a Las Vegas space-tourism enterprise charging £45,000 to gaze at the Earth for a few hours, is not going away. It might not exactly be affordable yet, but it's getting closer; a low-fare company called Bristol Spaceplanes is already working to provide space tourism at a cheaper rate for space tourists (be prepared to wait 15 years).
Since Walter landed safely back on planet Earth 21 years ago, he's spearheaded the Institute of Astronautics at the Technical University in Munich. I caught up with him at the travel fair to talk about space sickness, the ethics of space tourism and why the Inspiration Mars mission better hurry up already.
Motherboard: Is it true you were only paid $34 (£20.45) to fly into space with NASA?
Ulrich Walter: That’s life. It’s true – $34.10 (£20.52). They just pay you for regular travel expenses. They provide you with everything on the shuttle, eating and sleeping, and that’s it.
Your trip was amazing. How do you feel about space tourism? Are you critical of it?
Actually, no. Critical only in the sense that someone who is flying sub-orbital, just touching space... That is not someone who circles Earth and flies orbital. There are less people doing that, notably Dennis Tito and Anousheh Ansari. It’s much more expensive to become an astronaut. Maybe £40 million rather than £150,000, which Virgin Galactic is charging per passenger.
Have you heard about the Space Tourism Society, which is having a conference on the 28th of June and is trying to really fuse forces in space tourism and make it a real thing?
It’s a fascinating story. I’m pro – I’m supporting space tourism, because if only some people by profession are flying to space, that’s not enough. Everyone should do that. In particular, many people telling other people about space is more convincing. Everyone needs to see that. We need more people flying to space, but it’s very expensive. Prices are only dropping in the far future, not right now. The very first cars were very expensive; now they are £12,000 or £15,000.
Is it safe?
That’s a good question. I consider the Dream Chaser a safe thing because NASA is behind that. I'm not sure about the SpaceShipOne or SpaceShipTwo by Virgin Galactic. I don’t know. If you asked me to fly the first flight, I would say no. After ten flights, I would say yes.
The funniest thing I read from your space mission – is it true you get constipated in space?
This is true, but not for all people. I got constipated; others did not. I would say 20 to 30 percent get constipated in outer space. The other astronauts had vomiting; I did not. The symptoms are different with space sickness syndromes.
If space tourists went into space, could they expect that?
If they’re just flying sub-orbital, which only takes three minutes, then no. If it’s an orbital flight for a week, then yes, but the space sickness syndromes only last for the first two to three days. After that, it’s fun.
The US and France plan to go to Mars in 2018 for 500 days. What are your thoughts on that?
The Inspiration Mars mission – I think it’s a good idea, but they have to hurry. It will soon be 2018, and they don’t have a second try for this launch window. All the other stuff – Mars One is unethical because people know they are going to die on Mars within one or two months. They get the money from the media showing this live on TV, and I think that is unethical. I'm not supporting such missions, and this is not space tourism; it's killing yourself.
You said there's only an 80 percent chance of coming through the atmosphere, from Mars?
I'm guessing the chance to get back safely is roughly 80 percent. But with the Mars One, you’re not returning.
You said 2046 is the best time for a return flight to Mars. Do you think a manned mission is possible before then?
This is what I call a good mission, an international mission by NASA and the Russia Space Agency and the European Space Agency; they put together money and they go to Mars safely and bring the astronauts back. This is a lot of money to make it safe, and in order for it to be not so expensive, every 15 years there is a flight slot in the constellation between Earth and Mars. This slot opens the first time in 2016, then 2031 and then 2046. We won’t do it in 2016, of course; not 2031, because NASA says it’s not ready to go back to Mars until 2024 or 2025 and you cannot make this technical jump between the Moon and Mars within five years. That’s why I’m guessing 2046 for a good and safe mission to and from Mars.
As one of your book titles asks, "Are we alone in the universe?"
It depends on what you mean by universe – the entire universe, which is infinite? Yes, there must be others.
You're used to teaching; you’re a professor, after all. Above all else, what do your students need?
What I can give them the most is the fascination about space flight, technology and to give them the right guidance to do it right.
Who was your mentor or role model? You went far into space – I’m sure you had guidance.
He died before my flight. It was my professor, Dieter Wohlleben. You know these old German professors, those guys… but he was an American guy, friendly. He wore casual clothes, was more relaxed, but he was a bright guy with a bright mind – very smart, and this impressed me. It’s a way of dealing with science in society.
You’ve been quoted saying that “weightlessness is an inconvenient thing”. What do you mean?
It isn’t a convenient thing. It’s a pleasure, but it’s not a convenient thing. [Laughs] Well, it depends on what you mean by convenient. It’s a very new experience, being in space; it’s a lot of fun. At the beginning, you get space sickness, but after a few days, its pleasure.
Dr Walter, would you ever go back into space?