Space tourism is a fast-emerging market with a handful of competitors vying to make vacationing in space an accessible reality. Now, as the race to space is speeding up, several aeronautical tourism projects are almost complete.
The history behind space tourism
While commercial space tourism sounds like the stuff of science fiction, you might be surprised to learn that it’s already a reality. However, orbital space tourism has only ever been accomplished by the Russian Space Agency in the early 2000s.
American entrepreneur and engineer, Dennis Tito was the first fee-paying space tourist. Tito, who was accepted by the Russian Space Agency as a candidate for commercial spaceflight, joined a mission dubbed Soyuz TM-32, which launched on April 28, 2001. Having paid $20 million, Tito spent seven days, 22 hours and four minutes in the International Space Station (ISS).
Tito shared his experience during an interview with the BBC in 2011. “It was a little surprising when lift-off occurred. I thought it would be much more rigorous. You could barely feel it and you could not hear it.”
After Tito’s journey to space, only seven private space tourists followed suit in the 20 years that followed. The Russian Space Agency ceased its space tourism operations in 2010. Since then, numerous private enterprises have started to enter the fast-growing market.
Companies vying to make you an astronaut
A handful of space companies are competing against each other in a race to launch commercial space flights. For those wishing to take a vacation in space, recent news suggests that Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, may be the first company among its biggest competitors to launch the first space tourist by summer 2021.
According to a statement, released on May 5, 2021, Blue Origin aims to fly its first astronaut crew to space on July 20, 2021. The company is offering one seat on its first flight to the winning bidder of Blue Origin’s online auction. This means that the exact price of private space voyage with Blue Origin is yet to be determined.
During the company’s announcement, Bezos stated: “this seat will change how you see the world.”
Once the first space tourism trip is completed, the company will reportedly conduct a few further flights to space during 2021. The spacecraft, called New Shepard, was designed as a commercial system for suborbital space tourism and is capable of carrying six passengers onboard more than 100 kilometers above Earth. Passengers will be able to experience weightlessness and witness the curvature of our planet before returning.
Blue Origin began prototype engine and capsule testing in 2006. The full engine development began in 2010 and was completed in 2015. The vehicle was named after the first American astronaut in space, Alan Shepard, who was one of the NASA Mercury Seven astronauts having ascended to space on a suborbital trajectory.
Several other private space enterprises are in rivalry with Blue Origin in the quest to make space tourism accessible. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, founded in 2002, is a widely known private space company targeting space tourism. However, its ambitions exceed Blue Origin’s as SpaceX is aiming to travel beyond Earth’s orbit.
In 2017, SpaceX stated its plans to send space tourists to the moon on an inaugural mission to lunar orbit. The mission was initially scheduled to be launched in 2018. However, it was postponed until 2023. On March 2, 2021, SpaceX announced that Yusaku Maezawa, who spearheaded the mission called dearMoon, is gathering an eight-person crew to accompany his own journey to the moon in 2023.
“We will be going on the rocket called Starship, currently being developed by SpaceX,” Maezawa said. “I have bought all the seats, so it will be a private ride.”
The rocket developed by SpaceX will make a week-long journey to the moon and back, with spaceflight from Earth to the moon lasting three days.
Musk said: “What’s really significant about the dearMoon mission is that it will be the first private spaceflight, first commercial spaceflight with humans beyond Earth orbit.”
Meanwhile, with the dearMoon mission still being organized, SpaceX aims to launch an all-civilian spaceflight to earth orbit no earlier than on September 15, 2021. The company is targeting Falcon 9’s launch of a mission called Inspiration4, from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, United States.
Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments has donated the three seats alongside him aboard Dragon spacecraft to members of the general public: Hayley Arceneaux, Chris Sembroski and Dr. Sian Proctor.
Isaacman said: “In fulfilling a personal and lifelong dream, I recognize the tremendous responsibility that comes with commanding this mission. While a historic journey awaits us in space, I hope this mission reinforces how far inspiration can take us and the extraordinary achievements it leads to here on Earth.”
The Inspiration4 crew will receive commercial astronaut training by SpaceX on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the Dragon spacecraft, including orbital mechanics, operating in microgravity and zero gravity. The crew will go through emergency training, spacesuit and spacecraft ingress and egress exercises as well as spaceflight simulations.
This mission will use the same Dragon vehicle that was successfully docked at the International Space Station (ISS) with four NASA astronauts in 2020. The Dragon spacecraft is able to carry up to seven passengers to and from Earth’s orbit and beyond. It is the “only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth” and is the first private spacecraft to take humans to the space station.
Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004, is yet another company endeavoring to provide regular suborbital space voyages for private citizens in the near future.
To date, the company has already sold more than 600 tickets for customers to travel into space, with passengers paying as much as $250,000 each. While early customers were primarily celebrities and other wealthy people, the long-term goal of the company is for the spaceflights to also become accessible for general public.
“Virgin Galactic spaceships are built specifically to deliver a new, transforming perspective to the thousands of people who will soon be able to experience the wonder of space for themselves,” Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, commented. “Our hope is for all those who travel to space to return with fresh perspectives and new ideas that will bring positive change to our planet.’’
Although, Virgin Galactic may seem well-positioned to deliver a space tourism program in the near future, it had some issues regarding spaceflight launch delays. Virgin Galactic initially planned to launch its first spaceflight by 2009, but it was postponed.
“On the day we started, if I had known it was going to take twelve years I suspect I wouldn’t have gone ahead with the project either—we simply couldn’t afford it,” Branson wrote in his book Finding My Virginity.
In addition, Virgin Galactic also faced hurdles with spaceflight tests. The VSS Enterprise, a reusable suborbital rocket, crashed during a test flight on October 31, 2014, resulting in one fatality and further postponing its space tourism program for several years. However, recent news suggests that the Virgin Atlantic’s space voyage launch is nearing fruition. In the company’s Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2020 Financial Results, Virgin Galactic announced that it would launch its space tourism program in ‘early 2022’.
On March 30, 2021, Virgin Galactic unveiled the VSS Imagine, the company’s first SpaceShip III class and an addition to its growing fleet of suborbital spaceplanes. The VSS Imagine is set to commence ground testing with glide flights from a Spaceport America in New Mexico during summer 2021.