Published: December 23rd 2011December 23rd 2011 In search of a memorable adventure out of this world, explorer Desiree Capstick uncovers a Space Tourism Industry which has firmly landed on the Isle of Man.
Fenella Beach in Peel, a place shrouded in Celtic and Viking history.
Orbital Space Tourism is not the first thing you think of when considering the Isle of Man as a holiday destination. Amongst the controversial world championship series of TT motorbike races, cultural heritage, and outstanding and diverse natural beauty, the Island has a fascinating history of folklore and traditions. Yet the thought of exploring the Milky Way or other galaxies takes a quantum leap away from the notebook of “traditional” tourism. And no longer can it be said that the Island of Manannan Mac Lir (the legendary Celtic sea god) lies remote and mysterious beyond the horizon of mist and fables for twenty-first century holidaymakers.
I drive along the narrow roads, heading to Onchan. Slowly, with dawn, the island comes to life. Around me are a group of raucous Seagulls, they contrast with the throatier sounds of geese flying low across the land. There’s a faint smell of dried grass mixed with a fresh pureness in the air. The lack of pollution makes the Isle of Man the perfect destination for
Get hiking along off the beaten tracks and loose yourself in another world.
star gazing. Aquarius, Sagittarius, Capricorn to Aries; they all at some point made their appearance to the local folk, who eagerly point their telescopes towards the heavens.
This increasing interest in outer-space or “Orbital Space Tourism” has grown on the island through the developments of projects and organisations. These projects are being marketed towards orbital personal space flight, but are still all in the early stages. The projects include the Excalibur, Galactic Suite and Bigelows Space Complex Alpha, as well as the Russian Orbital Technology plans.
This increasing demand for a potential market based on Orbital Space Tourism is being set in motion for the period of 2012-22, and a flight above the earth’s atmosphere will range in the price tag of $5-20m. However, flights will not be based on the island, rather the developments, planning and arrangements hosted from here.
But this fascination with space is surprisingly not a very recent development on this island. It was the Victorian era that brought a deep curiosity about outer space and the Universe. The Great Union Camera Obscura, located on Douglas Head overlooking the sea was opened in the 1890s. Owned by the Heaton family from 1907 to
Literally steps away from the sea, this historic building continues to stand.
1990, the site gradually fell into disrepair. Eventually the Isle of Man government came to the rescue, restoring the camera to its full glory. A flag waves high when the Camera is open and this is usually during the summer months. A series of mirrors and a dark room, allows perfect viewing of the night sky.
In the early morning, as the sky lightens with delicate shades of blue and tangerine, there’s a chirping of crickets, and in the distance an old stone-bridge white-washed with paint casts its shadow through a spilling stream. This is the time when traffic starts to peak. Nearby the road are a herd of distinctly brown Loghtan sheep grazing in a field.
Around 7,500 years ago the earliest inhabitants arrived on the island, an eye-blink in geological time. Fishing, agriculture and mining were the dominant forms of survival. But the self-governing Crown Dependency, with its own parliament, language, laws, currency, stamps and tax structure began to churn other means of wealth for the economy. Tynwald (the Manx parliament), the oldest form of continuous parliament in the world, announced in 2006 that it would make the island a land of opportunity. The Manx economy adapted to the slogan of ‘Freedom to Flourish’ for business and people. Several new business ventures began to take shape, like the space industry.
Early July plays host to Manx National Day. Here a bill will become a law. This traditional open-air sitting of Tynwald Hill is undeniably symbolic for the Manx national identity. A part of Tynwald Hill has even made the pilgrimage into space, with the assistance of an American Astronaut. In 2011 Tynwald ceremony played host to six Astronauts. They participated as guests of honour, representing the Manx rapidly expanding space industry. The astronauts were also guest speakers for the Manx space industry to all the high schools on the island, aiming to educate the school children on the possibilities and new growth of economy.
The Mansat space industry, based in Onchan, grew from the vision of Chris Stott, a Manxman, who now lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife Nicole. Nicole is an Astronaut for NASA and will be part of the Tynwald ceremony this year, with her fellow colleagues. A joint venture between the Isle of Man, the US, Russia and Japan is on-going, concerning the Excalibur project, aimed at Orbital Space Tourism and cargo deliveries.
Director and Chief Financial Officer, for Mansat, Ian Jarrett (see Appendix) states “as far as Space Tourism is concerned the Isle of Man is home to the Excalibur Almaz company which plans to improve on Richard Branson's proposition by offering its customers orbital flights.” He adds that this will entail “transporting the travellers to orbiting space stations where they will stay for a number of orbits and then return to earth via the Almaz capsule, one of which was displayed at King William's College two years ago.”
It seems hard to believe that a small island, described as ‘the jewel in the Irish sea,’ can be such an important player in a space race against the superpowers. Industry analyst Ascend has even rated the Island to be “50-1” for placing the next man on the moon, following behind the USA, Russia, China and India. While another source stakes its claim that the Island will be the fifth most likely jurisdiction to be responsible for the next moon landing.
When the first developments of the space industry were being planned the Island showed great enthusiasm, with a tax infrastructure and rate argument. The island can be viewed by many outsiders as the vehicle of funding for growth of the space industry within the next several years, but there is far more to it than one may first comprehend.
By mid-morning, I have arrived at my destination, the small rural community of Onchan, where the Mansat space industry overlooks the hurried pace of life in the busy capital, Douglas. English, French, Spanish, German, Italian parties, they all start arriving this season to admire the historical sites and gasp at the modern TT motorbike races whizzing past along the way.
However, many tourists are oblivious towards the Island being a niche player for a space industry. Mr Jarritt explains to me “all of this is combining to make the Isle of Man an internationally recognised jurisdiction within the commercial space industry, which is very much in line with the Government's stated aim of finding business sectors in which to diversify.” He points out that “the Isle of Man is building an expertise which is recognised within the industry with local advocates, accountancy firms, banks and insurance companies all contributing to this [industry].”
It’s impossible to travel here and not be stunned by the contrast of old world charm, with new world comfort. A modern nation mirrors a distant past of Celtic and Viking explorers who arrived from faraway shores. Could space be the final frontier for the Island? After all, the very ancient symbol for the Isle of Man, the three legs of man, is believed to be associated with sun worship. Mr Jarritt argues “tourism in space will happen.” No doubt the Isle of Man is proud of its achievements. The space stations on the Island are approximately 11 metres long and four metres in diameter. This is directly related to the module design used on the International Space Station as well as the earlier Russian Salyut and Mir space stations.
Other unique features of the Manx stations include the largest window ever developed for a spacecraft, boasting more than two metres of panoramic view of the earth and stars. And, according to Mr Jarritt “it is an interesting time and with the commercial base the Island has established and the education programmes it is sponsoring, the indications are that the space sector will grow in importance over the coming years.”
The International Space University (ISU) and the Manx Government have a mission to become the leading think-tank in the study of the economics of space. Not only loyal to the Industry and Space Academia, it shall perform studies, evaluations and provide services that promote and enhance world’s space commerce to the general public.
Founding member of the IOM Astronomical Society and current Chairman, Howard Parkin (see Appendix) explains more about why there is such a growing interest in the role of space and Cosmology on the Island.
“In my role as Public Services Manager with Manx National Heritage, I am pleased to be able to have the opportunity to talk about the Heritage of the heavens, as much part of our heritage as the landscape and people within it.
We are very fortunate that we have a fantastic observatory which is the envy of many Astronomical Societies on the adjacent Isles. A few years ago the British Astronomical Association had a meeting on the Island and commented that our facilities were one of the best in the British Isles.
As regards space, the island has developed a pro space strategy that has led to it being a leader in the world of the commercial aspects of space exploration. This has led to a considerable number of Companies setting up on the island and this is growing at a very healthy rate, not just for taxation purposes, but as a consequence of the realisation that the Island has a very much a pro space environment.”
When I first came to the island, around 17-years ago as a small child, the idea of space tourism only ever crossed my mind when skipping across the four television channels, and passing through the legendary series of ‘Star Trek.’ The rapid advancements evoke a scale of cosmic time in which human lives are poignantly brief. But there is a solace here- a feeling of peace and wonder, and the knowledge that this natural beauty of the land will outlive us.
According to Parkin, “it is inevitable, man will always want to explore and as with the aviation industry the future will develop and become affordable. However unlike the aviation industry which has predominantly remained the domain of private industry, Space exploration is now moving away from the public sector into the commercial world.”
Yet, by the end of the day, I stand alone, watching the sun set over the horizon. There’s a flickering of plane lights floating in and out of the pink clouds, tinged with red. Eeriness falls in the stillness of the air. A celestial figure of the late TT motor bike rider, Steve Hislop overlooks Douglas Bay, standing tall and proud, yet the statue has grown blurry with the passage of time. Most people come here for a deep sense of privacy, of getting lost in time. But the countdown of a new type of tourist will soon arrive, in search of great adventures one can only imagine, for now.