Tourists in Space

27 03 2009



Forty years ago this July, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin donned bulky white spacesuits and became the first to set foot on a Styrofoam set in a California movie studio designed to look like the moon. Incredibly, there are conspiracy theorists out there who actually believe that the two astronauts really walked on the moon, and ignore the overwhelming evidence that it was just shot on a back-lot using grainy 8mm film and beamed to televisions around the world.


Although tourists can follow in Armstrong and Aldrin’s footsteps and visit Hollywood, it’s not yet possible for them to spend Spring Break on the moon. Several years ago Sir Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic to give those so inclined the opportunity to join the select group of almost 500 people who have flown in space by trying a sub-orbital hop beginning next year…for a mere $200,000 a ride. But there are less expensive ways to reach the edge of space…slightly less expensive, anyway.


Since the retirement of Concorde, the only way for civilians and non-astronauts to see the curvature of the earth and the darkness of space without doing heavy-duty drugs is to pay hefty sums to fly in a fighter jet. In Cape Town, South Africa a sound-barrier breaking flight in a Cold War vintage English Electric Lightning sets you back the price of a second-hand minivan, while in Moscow there’s the opportunity to sample a whirl in an aircraft that was amongst the most highly classified and sophisticated in the world: the MiG 31 Foxhound.


The Foxhound was until recently a top secret Soviet aircraft and flies at almost three times the speed of sound and 60,000 feet altitude – or 8,470 Shaquille O’Neals. When little more than a rumour and the focus of western intelligence attention, it was laughable to think that one day western tourists would be allowed to take one for a spin to the edge of space. Yet 20 years later there’s no shortage of adventure seekers heading to an airfield near Moscow on a day-trip with a price-tag almost as lofty as the dizzying heights the double-engined jet itself attains.


Although they don’t serve meals or show movies on the flight and the experience lasts less time than the average hunt for a car in an airport parking garage, at least your luggage won’t get lost this time…and you won’t have to drink Tang!



Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan

Simply First Class

25 09 2008

“Quick, check for pyjama smugglers!”    (QANTAS Boeing 747, Perth, Australia)

Upon setting foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong proclaimed “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Earlier, after summiting Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary had uttered the less famous “We knocked the bastard off.” When I recently conquered the most-pointy of pointy-ends and attained the comfiest of comfy seats, my first words from the first class cabin were “…like, awesome.”


Although I had been blessed by business class, first class had remained an elusive Nirvana hidden behind heavy grey curtains. Having enjoyed the luxuries of the second cabin, I would console myself that first class couldn’t possibly be better than the splendours of its less aristocratic neighbour. Much the same way as someone claims that their rusted 1988 Ford Pinto is just as good as a Lamborghini Countach because both get you from A to B, I claimed that first class held no interest.


They’re both lies.


My upgrade had come moments before boarding and “Mr Adventure Blogger” had been directed to the left, through those curtains and into a sumptuous secluded cabin of barely a dozen enormous thrones. The only thing missing was a chocolate fountain and toga-clad serving wenches.  I was divested of my jacket, handed pyjamas and asked if I wanted a drink. Although craving water, in my desperate bid to blend in, I instead requested champagne. My attendant slipped away.


When no one was looking, I buried my trashy war novel in my carry-on and retrieved a more classy freshly-purchased historical biography. I then attempted to look intelligent, important and thoroughly unimpressed.


“I’m sorry sir, but I’m afraid we only have Dom Perignon.” My attendant gravely announced upon his return.


I politely stammered that it would do and was handed a tall glass flute of bubbling bliss. My companions had changed into their pyjamas, but I resisted the temptation lest the moment I slipped into something more comfortable, the airline realised the error of their ways and slipped me into something less comfortable: economy.


My seat was more sophisticated than an early NASA spacecraft and more intimidating. I could barely find the seatbelt never mind the reading light or hidden magazine bay, and the thought of trying to master the controls in the massive armrest left me in a cold sweat. Straining my eyes to the very corners of their sockets, I attempted to follow the examples of my nonchalant companions.


Once the door was closed and I felt safe from eviction, I grabbed my jammies and disappeared into the spacious washroom. I slipped out of my clothes, hung them on a hanger, sampled all the hand lotions, aftershaves and towels and grabbed a chocolate truffle on the return to my seat. My clothes were whisked away to a wardrobe and I was handed a very large a la carte menu to select from while my glass was re-filled.


After a fantastic feast served on a large tray that had mysteriously materialised from deep within the recesses of my chair and which was adorned with a crisp white table cloth, cutlery and small silver condiments tray, I was presented with a dessert trolley of staggering variety. My attempt to feign disinterest was under severe siege. I fought to maintain my outward stoicism but the profiteroles, tartlets and ice creams taunted until I nearly lunged like a malnourished Great White after a juicy Ahi. Clearly, this was a standard test to see if I belonged. With shaking fingers and a twitching eye, I denied my bourgeoisie tendencies and selected the smallest of delicate pastries…and emphasising my right of abode, a glass of dessert wine.


With dinner cleared away, an assistant came to make my bed. As I sat on a neighbouring vacant seat, mine was reclined fully flat and prepared with fluffy pillows, blankets and sheets. The lights were dimmed, and I slipped into a 35,000 foot slumber, gently rocked by light turbulence.


After an equally impressive freshly-prepared breakfast, my clothes were returned to me from the wardrobe. When everyone else was distracted, I quietly stuffed my souvenir pyjamas and toiletry bag into my carry-on. The aircraft taxied to the gate, and while the creased, bedraggled, exhausted and smelly masses were held back, Mr Adventure Blogger was thanked for his patronage, wished a safe journey and directed to immigration ahead of the heaving hordes.


It was only when I collected my luggage from the carousel that my fraud was rumbled. As my fellow Firsties gathered their Louis Vuitton luggage, the absence of a gold ‘Priority’ tag on my well-worn nylon number stood out like a ball gown at a Monster Truck race. There was an audible gasp from my former fellow pointy-enders and looks of distinct disdain that I encroached on their royal realm and was actually merely one of… those.  I collected my bag, and with my pyjamas hanging out of my carry-on, slinked away to the airport shuttle and my budget hotel beyond.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan