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After performing press-ups on Mars and making giant leaps across the moon, we step up into the weightlessness of space. There I float for a moment, astounded and uncertain, before crashing back to Earth.
‘Earth’ in this case is the padded floor of a modified Airbus A310, or what the astronauts of the atomic age called a ‘vomit comet’. Up front, Captain Eric Delesalle is flying parabolic arcs that recreate extraterrestrial conditions for his cargo of wannabe astronauts as we soar over France’s Atlantic coast.
I lie still as he prepares the next. “Ten,” comes a voice across the tannoy. The big plane climbs and a weight near double gravity presses onto my chest. “Forty.” Each number reports the angle of the plane’s climb, and then: “Injection!” It’s the moment the plane enters freefall. I float up, nose to a swirling globe of blue water released by the real-life astronaut Jean-François Clervoy. The ball seems like a tiny Earth.
And then it is shattered by the boot of a spinning space entrepreneur. A handful of prospective space tourists who have paid $30,000 for a three day ‘astronaut orientation’ surround me. The wife of a beauty magnate gently rotates past. The founder of a French version of Amazon climbs the walls. A Pernod Ricard executive floats by, head over heels.
I attempt to levitate Buddha-like in the centre of the cabin but there is a shout of “feet down” and we all collapse to the floor. All that remains of that tiny globe of water falls with us, leaving a rivulet running down my face.
When the invitation to take part in three days of astronaut training at one of France’s finest hotels arrived at my home in Havana, I was skeptical. It sounded as preposterous as that sentence.
Having grown up on The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the early pioneers of space, I’ve felt a little cynical as contemporary billionaires buy their way into the heavens. But Nicolas Guame, a French hotelier and entrepreneur tells me I'm trying to stop the tide. “This is the year space tourism takes off,” he says. “And you are going to be a pioneer.”
Guame is big, circus tall, and has the impresario's gift for entertainment. He wants to give potential space tourists a flavour of what they will be in for, while cosseting them in comfort. He comes from hospitality, his great-grandfather bought a swathe of swamp south of Arcachon which is now one of the chicest holiday spots in western France. By his own account, Nicolas made and lost a billion in a computer game company by the age of 30.
Twenty years on, he has set up Orbite with his friend Jason Andrews, a boyish Dan Dare from Seattle who doesn’t "generally describe myself as a rocket scientist but in this case it seems relevant”. They met when Guame wanted Andrews to help age a case of wine (a Petrus 2000 - very nice) on the International Space Station; he thought Andrews, who ran a space cargo company at the time, could get it there.
Now they stand in the lounge of La Co(o)rniche, a Philippe Starck designed hotel owned by Guame on the edge of the otherworldly, 105m high, Dune of Pilat. Andrews explains to the eight trainees, of whom I’m one, what’s currently happening in commercial space tourism, beyond Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos’ recent suborbital flights.
“People are buying missions and flying themselves,” he says, referring to the tech billionaire Jared Isaacman who by the time you read this should have become the first amateur astronaut to fly a full orbit (using SpaceX’s Dragon capsule).
There’s Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa who has booked a cruise round the moon on SpaceX’s bigger vessel, Starship. “And there’s Axiom [a Houston based company mostly made up of ex-Nasa employees] that plans to build its own space station.”
There are believed to be a million people rich enough and interested enough to take a trip to space. According to wealth managers Canaccord Genuity, suborbital tourism alone is expected to be worth $8bn by 2030. These tourists, Guame and Andrews believe, need “mental, physical and spiritual” preparation.
To offer this, they have hired Brienna ‘Brie’ Rommes as Orbite’s director of astronaut training. Brie is a Floridian in a white pencil skirt channeling strong vibes of Kelly McGillis from the original Top Gun. Some years ago she trained Branson and his son Sam at the NASTAR centre in Pennsylvania. She says: “You could spend $450,000 on a trip and not even know if you’ll enjoy it.”
As we break from our initial briefing, Guame tells us we have the run of the hotel for the four nights we are there, but warns: “Given the programme, maybe not too much drinking.”
One of our group, Julian Hemard, nurses a tumbler of pastis as we look out over the mouth of the Bay of Arcachon. It’s an appropriate drink for the chief transformation officer of Pernod Ricard. “I think the magic of the idea of flying through space was always in the back of my mind, of doing something impossible,” he tells me.
La Co(o)rniche - the (o) is an irritating Starck conceit - is set high among tall pines. The glistening waters below, streaked by the wakes of boats heading to and from an offshore sandbar, are alone reminiscent of the shimmering flanks of the International Space Station which we try to spot in the dusk. Otherwise its 29 rooms and cabins, which start around €600 in August, are pale, soft and welcoming.
The entrepreneurs fit easily into each other's company, and with the smooth good manners of the French elite they seamlessly include scuffy parvenues such as me. Camaraderie is increased by the arrival of champagne, followed by plates of oysters.
Across from me sits Karine Courtin, an investor in another of Nicolas’ businesses. She runs a cosmetic packaging company, and is married to Christian Courtin-Clarins, one of the billionaire brothers behind skincare brand Clarins. “I’m an enthusiastic girl,” she says. “You have to face unknown situations to see how you handle them.”
Guame has ensured our team the best table, at the edge of a terrace where 1,000 people will eat, drink and dance, as they do every August night. It’s a chic scene. The pure light of the setting sun flatters us. I wonder which dessert - rum baba or chocolate caramel - would be best suited to space travel.
The following morning I wake in the white of my cabin, already feeling on another planet. Soon I am in a conference room with the other trainees, trying the various launch ‘vehicles’ currently on offer to the space tourist. Orbite has created a virtual reality experience that draws on everything known about Virgin Galactic’s SS2, Blue Origin’s New Shepard and SpaceX’s Dragon and Starship.
We start with a ten minute up-and-down on Bezos’ Blue Origin as it rises 66 miles above the dreary brown scrub of west Texas. None of us are taken by that. Branson’s Virgin Galactic is better, but there is a consensus afterwards that suborbital flights are somewhat suboptimal.
While we don’t necessarily ask for the Moon, it seems we want to circumnavigate the Earth. For this we board a virtual version of Musk’s Dragon capsule.
The VR only takes in part of the trip - several of us would have happily sat through the full hour and a half the real Dragon capsule takes to circle the globe - but we see night become day in the Far East. Cuba appears though, and I feel ghostlike as I sail over my adopted home. Julian later tells me that he cried.
During a break in this first day, Brie calls us together so we can express any concerns about lifting off. “I am a little worried about how comfortable it will be,” says Pierre Dupond, a 37-year-old who until 2018 worked at Alibaba, the Chinese Amazon, but who has returned home to Paris to run his own business. (He says later that he regrets the comment, that it made him “sound like a diva”).
And yet Pierre’s concern lies at the heart of Guame’s genius. While several travel agencies, including Stellar Frontiers who booked this trip for me, offer space flight training at spots like Star City outside Moscow, it has taken a French hotelier to see what’s wrong with such military-style installations.
“Last year we were in Cape Canaveral to see some of our experiments launched and Nicolas said, ‘All the hotels are ugly, we need to build a five-star hotel, a place to train future astronauts’,” Karine tells me.
After three more events like this one - the others will be at the Four Seasons in Orlando later this year - Orbite will build its own 50-room luxury training facility. Guame has already bought 66 acres in the US, although he won’t say where (Florida would seem likely).
True luxury isn’t just champagne and oysters, it’s access to amazing people and experiences. Orbite, it’s fair to say, provides them all.
Chefs from Alain Ducasse’s catering consultancy, Ducasse Conseil, arrive to demonstrate how they make tinned meals for the International Space Station (Ground control to Major Tom / take your blue lobster and quinoa and put your helmet on.)
They then make us lunch at which we are joined by Lionel Suchet, head of the French space agency. Asked if he is worried by the commercialisation of space, he shakes his head, saying: “The only surprise is that it’s happening so fast.” We wash this down with 1969 Mumm, which seems to have been both a good year for champagne, and landing on the Moon.
As I walk out onto the apron of Bordeaux airport for the zero-gravity flight the following day, I can’t help but worry that all the peerless hospitality of the last few days has turned me into a fat-tronaut.
The jetliner in front of us flies six ‘experience’ flights a year, the €6000-a-head fee contributing towards a further 24 flights that carry scientists. We are greeted by Jean-François Clervoy, who in the 1990s went up three times on Nasa shuttles and has spent more than 28 days in space.
We take off in seats at the back that would embarrass Ryanair but are soon moved into the white padded interior of the main cabin. The plane heads for some nearby military airspace, at a lower altitude than your average airliner. Weightlessness is created instead by making dolphin-like jumps 20,000ft, parabolas that last for 22 seconds each.
How to describe weightlessness? Imagine you are lying in bed and you just start to float away. Push too hard and you slam against the roof, be too shy and you’ll regret a missed opportunity forever. It took 10 of the 17 parabolas for me to gain enough confidence to cartwheel. The whole flight is over in two hours.
It’s no Disney rollercoaster though. Among the 40 passengers on board I later see a neck-brace. Two of our team get sick. I sit down afterwards with Captain Delesalle who says the plane’s three pilots work to tolerances so exact that if they get it wrong, “We’d recover everyone from the front toilets.” To my silence, the fighter and test pilot says: “It’s a real job.”
There’s not much room for cynicism in space. Having floated across the Caribbean in virtual reality, I’d found myself thinking about Christopher Columbus exploring those seas. He’d greeted every island by saying “it’s the most beautiful that eyes have seen” which I’d always believed was marketing to keep his royal backers engaged, but now I wonder if he was as irrepressibly optimistic as Clervoy. Space travel once seemed exuberantly full of promise - perhaps now those times are returning.
The following day I am on the tarmac at Arcachon’s local airfield with my fellow astro-students. We are taking turns to go up in a GB1 Gamebird, the very latest in aerobatic planes. Orbite has employed the stunt pilot Benoit Buffiere, in a flying suit so tight he seems to have been stitched into it, to show us what the high-G of a rocket launch feels like.
We have 20 minutes each in the tiny machine and so, above the remaining swamps on this star-studded coast, I ask him to show me his best moves. Soon we’re looping and spinning and stalling before Benoit performs a ruade, a manoeuvre invented in France in 1983. The pilot causes the plane to trip, so it cartwheels over itself, and in that outlandish moment I’m spinning free in space.
That evening after the group’s graduation ceremony, I am calming my stomach with a pastis before tackling the biggest pile of shellfish I’ve ever seen. At the same time, I watch the go-pro footage from the flight with Benoit. All traces of scepticism have disappeared from my face. All I can hear is my voice, singing. “Whee,” I go. “Wheeee, wheeeeeeee.”
Stellar Frontiers can arrange this three-day, four-night Astronaut Orientation experience from £30,000 per person. This price includes five-star hotels and all space-related activities. International flights not included.