For a growing number of thrill-seeking travellers, the deep void of outer space is among the most appealing destinations imaginable, in part because of its inaccessibility. Soon, however, for a hefty sum, well-heeled adventurers will be able to experience weightlessness and even gaze down at the Earth from far above.
For $75,000 per passenger, the American firm World View will offer a trip into the stratosphere at altitudes of over 30 km above Earth. Passengers will take their seat in a pressurized capsule attached to a helium balloon.
At this altitude, just a little closer to the stars than before, travelers will remain within the Earth's atmosphere, but during a two-hour trip, they will be able to admire the curve of the planet's surface and the blackness of outer space. The capsule will be released from the balloon, and a parachute will ensure a safe landing. According to World View, the first flights will take place in around three years' time.
Celebrities: first in line for the cosmos
Over the past few years, a few companies have invested millions in researching and developing technologies for space tourism, with the goal of launching commercial flights into space.
British entrepreneur Richard Branson started this trend when he founded Virgin Galactic, whose first commercial flight is expected to launch in early 2014 from the company's space center in New Mexico.
A total of 350 people, including Justin Bieber and a number of other celebrities, have already reserved a seat on a future voyage on the SpaceShip Two, which can carry six passengers to altitudes of around 100km, just at the edge of the atmosphere.
There are just a few conditions for prospective riders, who must pass a health exam, follow a three-day physical training program with a zero-gravity flight coach, and of course, hand over the sum of $250,000.
Cheap tickets to space
Dutch company Space Expedition Corporation, meanwhile, is planning its first commercial space flight for the final quarter of 2014, with a departure from the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean. This September, the brand's most famous client, the rock star Bob Geldof, began training in a flight simulator. Like Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two, the Space Expedition Corporation's shuttle will reach altitudes of around 100km, but for less than half the price: $100,000 (around â‚¬72,500).
Earlier this year another company based out of the United States, Golden Spike, led by planetary scientist and aerospace engineer Alan Stern (who ran the NASA directorate from 2007 to 2008) and former Apollo flight director Gerry Griffin officially announced plans to offer commercial travel to the moon as early as 2020.
In anticipation of taking a flight into space, aspiring astronauts can see how they handle weightlessness by taking part in a training program such as that of Novespace in Bordeaux, France.
For several years now, this affiliate of the French national space program (CNES) has offered the chance to experience a zero-gravity environment for a few minutes aboard its Airbus A 300 Zero-G, which uses a parabolic flight pattern to recreate the gravity conditions outside of the Earth's atmosphere. The experience costs 6,000 euros (around $8,300).