(THE CONVERSATION) For most people, reaching for the stars is nothing more than a dream. On April 28, 2001, Dennis Tito achieved that lifelong goal – but he was not a typical astronaut. Tito, a wealthy businessman, paid $ 20 million for a seat on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to be the first tourist to visit the International Space Station. Only seven people have followed suit in the next 20 years, but that number is set to double in the next 12 months alone.
NASA has long been reluctant to welcome space tourists, so Russia – in search of sources of cash after the Cold War in the 1990s and 2000s – was the only option available to those looking for this type of space. extreme adventure. However, it seems that the rise of private space companies will make the space experience easier for ordinary people.
From the perspective of a space policy analyst, it is the start of an era where more people can experience space. With companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin hoping to build a future for humanity in space, space tourism is a way to demonstrate both the safety and reliability of space travel to the general public.
The development of space tourism
Space flights like Dennis Tito’s are expensive for a reason. A rocket has to burn a lot of expensive fuel to travel high enough and fast enough to enter Earth orbit.
Another cheaper possibility is a suborbital launch, with the rocket going high enough to reach the edge of space and descend right away. While passengers on a suborbital journey experience weightlessness and incredible views, these launches are more accessible.
The difficulty and cost of either of these options means that traditionally only nation states have been able to explore space. This started to change in the 1990s as a series of entrepreneurs entered the space arena. Three companies led by billionaire CEOs have become the main players: Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX. While none of them have taken private paying customers into the space, all of them plan to do so in the very near future.
British billionaire Richard Branson built his brand not only on business, but also on his love of adventure. By pursuing space tourism, Branson has brought both of these elements. He created Virgin Galactic after purchasing SpaceShipOne – a company that won the Ansari X-Prize by building the first reusable spacecraft. Since then, Virgin Galactic has sought to design, build and fly a larger SpaceShipTwo that can carry up to six passengers in a suborbital flight.
Things were more difficult than expected. While Branson predicted the business would open to tourists in 2009, Virgin Galactic encountered significant obstacles – including the death of a pilot in a crash in 2014. After the crash, engineers found problems important with the design of the vehicle, which required modifications.
Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, heads of SpaceX and Blue Origin respectively, started their own businesses in the early 2000s. Musk, worried that disaster of some sort would leave Earth uninhabitable, was frustrated by the lack of progress. to make humanity a multi-planetary species. He founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of first developing reusable launch technology to reduce the cost of accessing space. Since then, SpaceX has seen success with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX’s ultimate goal is the human establishment of Mars – sending paying customers into space is an intermediate step. Musk hopes to show that space travel can be done easily, and that tourism could provide a source of income to support the development of the larger Mars-focused Starship system.
Bezos, inspired by the vision of physicist Gerard O’Neill, wants to expand humanity and industry not to Mars, but to space itself. Blue Origin, created in 2004, proceeded slowly and quietly to the development of reusable rockets. Its New Shepard rocket, launched successfully for the first time in 2015, will eventually offer tourists a suborbital journey to the edge of space, similar to that of Virgin Galactic. For Bezos, tThese launches represent an effort to make space travel routine, reliable and accessible to people as a first step in enabling further space exploration.
Now SpaceX is the only option for someone looking to go to space and orbit the Earth. It currently has two tourism launches planned. The first is scheduled for September 2021, funded by billionaire businessman Jared Isaacman. The other trip, scheduled for 2022, is organized by Axiom Space. These trips will be expensive, at $ 55 million for the flight and a stay on the International Space Station. The high cost has led some to warn that space tourism – and private access to space more broadly – could reinforce inequalities between rich and poor.
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s suborbital travel is much more reasonable, with prices ranging between $ 200,000 and $ 250,000. Blue Origin appears to be the closest to allowing paying customers on board, claiming that after a recent launch, crewed missions will take place “soon”. Virgin Galactic continues to test SpaceShipTwo, but no specific schedule has been announced for tourist flights.
While those prices are steep, it’s worth considering that Dennis Tito’s $ 20 million 2001 bill could soon pay for 100 flights on Blue Origin. The experience of observing Earth from space, however, can prove invaluable to a whole new generation of space explorers.