AMERICA'S FIRST CORPS of astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven, had it pretty rough back in 1959. Selected from hundreds of elite pilots, they had to endure a battery of grueling tests: running on treadmills for hours, blowing up balloons repeatedly to gauge their lung capacity, being exposed to extreme heat, vibration and loud noises. None could weigh over 180 pounds or be taller than 5-foot-11. And they needed to have logged at least 1,500 hours of flying time in a traditional aircraft.
The bar has since lowered drastically, especially for ordinary citizens hoping to catch a ride aboard the commercial "space-tourism" flights that have either launched or have plans to do so as soon as early next year. Just ask the 700 ticket holders who've paid up to $250,000 to ride with Virgin Galactic 50 miles above the earth, or the 300 who have signed up for a similar offering by XCOR (at a cost of $95,000). Overweight? Probably not a problem. Heavy smoker? The sky may still be the limit. Even if you think you haven't got the right stuff, you might. It could just take a bit of training to get you there.
Surprisingly, the baseline medical requirements for commercial space travel are lenient—and that's true whether you're taking a "suborbital" flight that barely leaves the earth's atmosphere (as Virgin Galactic and XCOR's flights will do) or going all the way to the International Space Station (a trip offered by a company called Space Adventures).