The rooms are cramped to the point of extreme discomfort, the food isn't fresh, you can't choose your roommate, if you step outside you'll find the environment downright hostile and it's the most expensive holiday you can dream of... it's a holiday in outer space. With the world's second ever space tourist - 28 year old South African technology millionaire Mark Shuttleworth - entering orbit last month, it's already clear that the next great space race will not be driven by a grab for technological supremacy or even national pride, but by the strength of the almighty tourist dollar.
Shuttleworth has just become the second civilian to reach orbit and like the first ever 'space tourist' - Californian millionaire Denis Tito who spent time in space as a paying customer in mid 2001 - Shuttleworth will journey to the International Space Station on board a Russian Soyuz craft, and like Tito, the adventure will come with a hefty price tag of around US$20 million.
The difference with Shuttleworth's trip is that, unlike Tito, whose role was to simply "sit and watch", Shuttleworth will participate as a trained crew member.
He will be responsible for communications and life support systems and conduct experiments including monitoring embryos and stem cells in weightless conditions and monitoring his own heart rate, blood pressure and energy expenditure in space.
The experiments will take place in the relative luxury of the International Space Station, with perhaps the real challenge being the two-day shuttle ride in the Soyuz rocket where the technology at hand may be a little more primitive than the e-commerce security specialist - who made his fortune from encryption business Thawte Consulting - is used to.
The Soyuz craft was developed in the late 60's - that's before computers - and Shuttleworth, along with his two Russian counterparts, will make the trip lying on his back with knees pressed against his chin operating the buttons on the console panel with a pointer - all within an area not much bigger than the average office desk.
The initial drive towards space tourism has come via the cash strapped Russian Space Agency, with NASA displaying some well-publicised differences of opinion when Tito visited the ISS.
However the company who facilitated the journeys of both Tito and Shuttleworth - Virginia based Space Adventures - has much broader plans for the space tourism sector with a range of space-related tourist experiences in planning and currently available.
If you have a quiet 20 million to spare opportunity to follow Shuttleworth's into orbit is still open, but the real space tourism boom will begin when aircraft built specifically for the purpose take to the skies as early as next year.
Since 1996 a cash prize of $10,000,000 has been on offer from the St.
Louis based X PRIZE Foundation for the first non-governmental organisation to fly three people to a height of 100km (the height recognised by the US as being worthy of astronaut status) and then bring them safely back down.
The mission must be repeated within 2 weeks and the spaceship must be privately financed, built and launched.
Designed to give impetus to the fledgling industry in the same way that cash prises were on offer early last century for feats of aviation - for example Charles Lindbergh won a prize of $25,000 when he became the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris in 1927.
The 'X Prize' has attracted 20 entries from 5 countries and Australia could host the launch of leading contender Starchaser from Woomera as early as August 2003.
British based Starchaser are currently developing the Thunderbird, a sub-orbital passenger vehicle that will give its three passengers a 23-minute ride into space, allow them to see the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space as well as experiencing four minutes of weightlessness.
There are still two-seats up for grabs at US$650,000.
Another X Prize contender is the Russian based Cosmopolis XXI Aerospace System (C-21), a reusable spacecraft designed specifically for sub-orbital space tourist flights beginning in 2005.
The C-21 can fly one pilot and two passengers on a sub-orbital space flight to an altitude of over 100km at the peak of its parabolic trajectory.
At a cost of US $98,000 - there are already 100 bookings for the flight - passengers will undergo four days of space flight training before heading into orbit to experience several minutes of weightlessness and what must be a mind-blowing view of the Earth from space.
Other projects to put tourists into orbit are also on the horizon with the first purpose built orbiting 'motel' known as Mini Station One due for launch in 2004.
A joint venture between the Russian Space Agency and Netherlands based 'MirCorp', a 20-day visit to Mini Station One will still cost around US$20 million.
For those of us who don't happen to be multi-millionaires, there far more attainable tourist opportunities available right now in 'near space'.
Space Adventures offers a number of unique packages including an 'edge of space' journey in a Russian MiG-25 that takes you 25kms above the earth's surface - that's 3 times the altitude of Mt Everest) in - at US$12,595 per person and Zero Gravity Flights - which deliver 30 seconds of weightlessness - at US$5,400 per person.
Neutral buoyancy and Centrifuge G training is also available and for those with slightly deeper ambitions (and pockets), there are also seats available on the MIR Submersible which dives a depth of 2400m below the sea to view rarely-seen ecosystems based around hydrothermal vents at a cost of US $21,950 per diver.
And if you make the grade as a spaceflight participant you could even make it all the way to the moon with hopes of a permanent station there by 2015 and an entire village by 2040.
How much fun is it anyway?
Whilst aboard the ISS space, Shuttleworth will not have all the luxury-extras he might be accustomed to in a room on the French Riviera, with day to day life in being sparse given the restrictive environment.
Apart from the rigorous pre-flight training in Moscow, which includes an intensive medical check-up conducted by some 25 Russian doctors over three weeks and long sessions behind the flight simulation desk, Shuttleworth will face some interesting challenges during his 10-day visit.
Clean air and water are the most obvious challenges in a destination so far from the protection of the Earth, and on the ISS, almost nothing goes to waste.
Moisture lost by crew (and tourists) through sweat and exhalation is eventually captured, condensed and returned to the water supply and with the fully-fledged ECLSS Water Recycling System (WRS), waste water will also be reclaimed waters from the Space Shuttle's fuel cells, from urine (this includes contributions from any research animals who happen to be in tow), hand washing and oral hygiene.
Amazingly this high-orbit Perrier is expected to be cleaner than the water most of us drink on Earth.
The air-supply systems on board the ISS are also tightly controlled and although there isn't an all you can eat buffet in sight, meals on the ISS are nutritionally controlled and not as bland as might be imagined.
Salt and pepper is only available in liquid form because the floating crystals would cause havoc with the instrumentation (tortillas are preferred over bread for the same reason).
And don't forget to make sure you sleeping bag is attached to the wall and you're your pockets are velcroed to your trousers.
Getting your ticket into space will also mean facing even tougher tests than Shuttleworth and Tito underwent before being allowed on board the International Space Station.
NASA is drawing up formal guidelines for tests ranging from physical fitness and compatibility to language and computer skills that will set a benchmark for who will and who wont be allowed to travel into space.
Despite the fact that many technological, safety, legal and financial issues still need to be sorted out there is little doubt that space tourism will become a serious industry in the near future. According to study commissioned by Space Adventures, the sub-orbital space tourist market has the potential generate revenues of over $1 billion annually and if prices drop in accordance with demand and technological advances, would be tourists could be faced with a choice between a cruise to the Seychelles or a week on the moon.
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