In this photo provided by Virgin Orbit, a rocket is shown attached to the wing of a Boeing 747 airplane on the tarmac of the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave. Picture: AP

Washington - Space suddenly seems a little more reachable - at least, for those who have cash to burn.

Virgin Galactic's announcement that it is going public through a merger with an investment firm came with an update that the company is preparing to send its first customers into space within a year, CNBC reported. 

Virgin isn't alone in the space race: Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' space exploration company, is promoting "the largest windows in space" on its New Shepard capsule, although test flights with humans onboard have not yet taken place. 

Elon Musk announced last year that his company, SpaceX, has a customer lined up who will pay to fly around the moon. Last month, Nasa made a change in policy and said it would allow space tourists to visit the International Space Station as soon as next year. 

So will we all be jetting around space with our cameras, orbital passports and zero-gravity fanny packs in a decade? Not so fast. Here's what potential space explorers need to know.

What does space tourism involve?

The most widely touted versions involve rocketing passengers more than 80km into the atmosphere and achieving minutes of weightlessness and witnessing Earth views before returning to land. 

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin differ in the details of how they will get to space and the altitude they'll reach, but they are promoting relatively similar experiences and plan to carry six passengers at once.

There are even more ambitious offerings: Space Adventures, which has sent seven people to space as tourists, offers multiday experiences including a "circumlunar" mission, a trip to the International Space Station and a spacewalk add-on; the company has contracted with Boeing to help sell seats aboard its spacecraft. 

How much does it cost?

Virgin Galactic is reportedly charging up to $250 000 (about R3.5 million) for its trips. Reuters reported that Blue Origin will charge between $200 000 and $300 000.

For the biggest spenders, Bigelow Space Operations has set the price of a space station trip at $52m; most of that cost is to get there. Nasa estimated that staying at the station would set travellers back about $35 000 a night..

Who can go?

Other than prohibitions associated with cost, no companies have announced any limitations on who can travel. On its website, Virgin Galactic says its plan is to "open space to everybody", from ages "spanning the teens to the 90s."

How soon can people go?

This has been a moving target for more than a decade, and initial dates are still not firm. Virgin Galactic's chairperson said that it expected to fly its first customers within a year, but with a backlog of hundreds, the wait would still be extensive. Blue Origin has not yet opened reservations or even flown a test flight with humans. And SpaceX has said its trip around the moon could not happen before 2023.

What kind of training is necessary?

Astronauts who fly with space programmes are subject to high fitness standards and rigorous training. Space tourists, not so much.

Blue Origin says passengers will learn everything they need to know the day before launch, including "mission and vehicle overviews, in-depth safety briefings, mission simulation and instruction on your in-flight activities such as operational procedures, communications and maneuvering in a weightless environment."

Virgin Galactic says training and preparation would take three days: "Pre-flight training will ensure that each astronaut is mentally and physically prepared to savor every second of the spaceflight and fully equipped to fulfil any personal objectives. 

Where do I sign up?

For the most part, companies that are moving closer to spaceflight are taking names on their websites. There are also a handful of travel agents accredited for space trips with Virgin Galactic. Bigelow Space Operations essentially tells people to stay tuned: "As you might imagine, as they say 'the devil is in the details,' and there are many."

The Washington Post