From Kiruna into space

Your next flight might be beyond the Kármán Line and into space. And you might be leaving from Kiruna, the city in Arctic Sweden that’s leading Europe’s commercial space race

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, November 2013. Illustration by Thomas Danthony)

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” This was Neil Armstrong experiencing the Overview Effect, a feeling of life-changing awe so consistent among the 534 astronauts who’ve seen our planet from space, psychologists saw fit to give it a name.

In the near future, you may be able to experience the Overview Effect – and you may only need to travel to Sweden’s Arctic outpost of Kiruna to do it. The tiny city, best known for the world’s largest iron ore mine and the famous Icehotel, is also home to Spaceport Sweden, which is leading Europe’s new space race – the goal being to send us above the border of Earth.

Spaceport Sweden, based at Kiruna Airport, is in talks with Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, the two companies who are in the testing phase for spaceships that will be able to take passengers more than 100km above the surface of the Earth – above the Kármán Line, the border of space, and high enough to see the curve of the Earth’s surface. Virgin Galactic believes it could launch its SpaceShip Two into space by 2015 – and 640 people have already signed up to pay US$200,000-250,000 (up to NOK1.5 million) for a flight, among them Stephen Hawking, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

While those first flights will take off from Spaceport America, in New Mexico’s Mojave Desert, Spaceport Sweden has been working since 2007 to build the infrastructure for space travel. “We want to put Kiruna on the map as the gateway to space in Europe,” says Karin Nilsdotter, Spaceport Sweden’s enthusiastic CEO, on the phone from Los Angeles. She’s been meeting with Virgin Galactic in New Mexico and is about to attend a conference run by SpaceX, the space exploration company started by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, whose ultimate goal is to enable life on Mars. It’s little wonder she sounds excited.

“Putting normal people into space is the next big development for mankind,” she says. “We think it will be transformative, not just in terms of creating this opportunity for people, but in terms of the innovations and new technologies that will come from it. We think this will be a big industry.”

Kiruna has previous when it comes to space. It’s clear, dark skies, due to its sparse population (around 18,000 people call the city home) and relatively dry climate, make it one of the best places to see the Northern Lights – and to look at the stars. The Kiruna Geophysical Observatory was established here in 1957; it later became the Swedish Institute of Space Physics. Since 1966, the Esrange Space Centre – part of the European Space Agency – has been firing rockets and balloons into space just outside town. Luleå University of Technology’s Department of Space Science is here, as is the Swedish Institute of Space Physics. There’s even a Space High School, an independent institution where talented students can do a three-year programme specialising in space science and technology.

But what’s different about Spaceport Sweden is that it’s not just for physics geeks. As it pushes to get regulations in place for the eventual goal of commercial space travel, it has started laying on cool space-related experiences to establish itself as an educational centre. As well as offering unique Northern Lights viewing flights above the clouds, since last year it’s been facilitating parabolic trips, where you get to float weightless on the inside of a specially-designed Airbus A300, with the seats in the middle taken out. And this year, for the first time, normal people can use a centrifuge at Linköping, south of Stockholm – basically a giant spinning arm used to test how astronauts react to the kinds of intense G-forces they experience in space.

“We’re trying to combine science with tourism and education,” says Nilsdotter, who studied engineering and space travel, but has spent most of her career working in tourism. “Parabolic flights have been used to train astronauts since the 1950s, and centrifuges since the ’80s. What we’re trying to do now is to bring those experiences to normal people, and to educate them. The point is space travel is coming, and we want to be ahead of the curve.”

As for when space flights will begin from Kiruna, Nilsdotter says: “the short answer is – when it’s ready,” adding that Spaceport Sweden is working hard to have infrastructure and a legal framework in place when the spacecraft are ready. Plans of how flights will work are already advanced – for example, you’ll have to check in three days in advance for a space flight, to allow enough time for training. “We want to make it so that as many people as possible can go,” she says, “but it’s still not a cake walk. The G-forces on your body can be quite intense, and you have to learn how to relax and breathe through it.”

But space passengers who do will be rewarded with that view of the curved Earth luminous against a backdrop of black. “A lot of astronauts say that once you see it, you’re never the same again,” says Nilsdotter. “They say it’s suddenly so clear that we’re one planet. When there are no country borders, you realise that we are one people and need to start acting like that.”

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