By Angie Argabrite, Monday, April 30, 2012, at 9:01 am.
Looking for an out-of-this-world vacation? Well, look here: Commercial space travel might be possible by 2014, in which case it could become our next billion-dollar industry. Rocket planes and spaceships are being designed to blow past the earth’s atmosphere or, for those craving a shorter jaunt, there’s talk of commercial flights that will ascend 62 miles into the atmosphere—allowing passengers to experience weightlessness and catch a glimpse of the earth set against the blackness of space. Potential passengers might want to be cautious about their long-term health, though: Scientists found that 33 percent of astronauts who’d spent at least a month in space had extra cerebral-spinal fluid around the optic nerve, while a smaller percentage showed changes to the pituitary gland. (Most space missions last anywhere from a couple of weeks to six months, but a planned Mars mission might last a year and a half.) Space tourist trips won’t be so lengthy, of course, which Ashton Kutcher was surely cognizant of when he became the 500th customer to sign up for a trip on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for the low, low price of $200,000. In preparation for Branson’s fleet of spaceships, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority approved the $7 million price tag to lengthen a runway built for commercial space travel. Though NASA might not be the leader in manned space exploration these days, it still has its eyes on the sky; funding for the agency’s Kepler space observatory has been extended through 2016. Since 2009, the instrument has discovered more than 2,300 alien planets during its search for habitable zones of parent stars—places with the potential to support water (and maybe a hotel complex or two?).