There are many styles of travel; from luxury to budget to adventure as exciting as space tourism and everything in between. We all know those people whose idea of a relaxing vacation is to skydive into an active volcano or hand feed great white sharks but, with enough money and training, you now have an opportunity to make those things look like afternoon tea at The Ritz. I’m talking about taking a Russian rocket to the International Space Station and going on a space walk. If that sounds far fetched, you may be surprised to learn that it’s already being done.
In the history of the human race, fewer than 550 people have ever visited space. Some argue that if the human race has a chance of survival that we’ll have to do better and get sizable portions of the population off the planet and settle somewhere ostensibly safer. A first step in reaching this long-term goal is far less altruistic and a bit more self-serving. Although space tourism appears indulgent and extravagant on the surface, it’s a dress rehearsal of sorts; a baby step in service of putting civilians in space. The wealthy who are able to participate in these fledgling programs are our test pilots, offering themselves as designer-clad lab rats, assuming all the risk inherent in such a venture.
Everyone seems to be asking if there is an actual market for space travel. Is the market too young to even make predictions? Who is the customer now, and who will it be once costs make it feasible for non-millionaires and celebrities? What are the risks? What are customer expectations? There are a number of legitimate financial, logistical, technological and safety concerns. Putting someone on an airplane is one thing. Strapping them into a Russian Soyuz space vehicle atop a rocket bound for the International Space Station is something else altogether. Until Dennis Tito did just that in 2001 for a reported $20 million, only trained astronauts travelled to space. In fact, the crew originally refused to train with him.
Even sub-orbital travel has its risks as the Virgin Galactic accident in October 2014 proved. In fairness, the incident happened after a run of 54 successful test flights and may have been due to pilot error. Even so it is inarguably a new frontier with all the risks that entails. Losing a test pilot is difficult enough, but should an accident occur with say, a Justin Bieber or Ashton Kutcher aboard, things may grind to a halt.
There is evidence for a robust potential market. Projections indicate revenues in excess of USD 500 million per year by 2026 according to a space tourism market study by the Futron Corporation. The Tauri Group 2012 estimated a lower amount of USD 50-150 million in 2012. As of July 2012, the combined total business disclosed across the sub-orbital space tourism operators is more than 900 reservations (Virgin Galactic claims just over 700 of those) and about USD 80 million in deposits or fares. It is assumed that as prices go down, reservations will go up. Public perception may also change as sub-orbital flights begin and the hypothetical becomes reality.
So you decide you want to be a space tourist. What are your options?
Suborbital spaceships would take passengers up to space at an altitude of about 50-62 miles (the edge of space) while experiencing several minutes of weightlessness. The flights would depart from a spaceport and require several days of training.
Virgin Galactic’s founder, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, has been a strong advocate and innovator in the space tourism arena. He founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 after finding great success with Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic airlines as well as many other business ventures.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo space plane is designed to be carried into midair by the company’s massive WhiteKnightTwo mothership. At an altitude of about 50,000 feet, the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, which fires its rocket engine and climbs toward the edge of the atmosphere. Passengers will experience roughly five minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to the spaceport.
SpaceShipTwo mimics the performance of a capsule or of a winged vehicle at the appropriate parts of its trajectory. By changing its configuration in flight, SpaceShipTwo can benefit from the advantages of both types.
The company reports more than 700 customers who have made deposits for spaceflights. The biggest known names on the list are actor Ashton Kutcher, singers Justin Beiber and Lady Gaga, although rumor has it that Katy Perry, Russell Brand, Leonardo DiCaprio, Princess Beatrice, Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Lance Bass have also purchased tickets.
You’ll have to open your wallet a bit (OK, a lot) further to have the chance to rocket into low-Earth orbit and visit the International Space Station. The $20-$35 million price tag gets you to the ISS via Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, just as NASA astronauts do currently. You will stay aboard the ISS for approximately ten days after extensive training. Spacewalk optional. (But since you’re there…) Coming soon; an opportunity to fly around the moon.
The Virginia-based Space Adventures is a space tourism company that arranges multimillion-dollar trips to the International Space Station for extremely wealthy clients. The firm is the only company that has booked private flights to the space station, and brokered those deals with the Russian Federal Space Agency, to charge customers about $35 million for rides on Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft.
Dennis Tito, a California-based multimillionaire, became the first-ever space tourist when he launched to the station in a Soyuz capsule in 2001, when he spent nearly eight days in orbit as a crew member of ISS EP-1.
He was soon followed by a number of wealthy space enthusiasts, including American billionaire Charles Simonyi and Ansari X Prize backer Anousheh Ansari – the first female space tourist. In total, Space Adventures has arranged eight private space tourist flights to the International Space Station for seven people (one customer flew twice) since 2001.
The most recent flight occurred in October 2009, which sent Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberte, founder of the circus troupe Cirque du Soleil, on an 11-day space excursion.
Sarah Brightman (Singer and ex-wife of Andrew Lloyd Webber) is next up to head to the ISS, and is scheduled to launch in 2015.
Although Russia temporarily shut down the program, Russian officials say they will resume space tourism in 2018 after years of only sending professional cosmonauts and astronauts into space (with Brightman the recent exception).
Upcoming: Circumlunar Mission
If you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous than a week on the ISS, Space Adventures hope to be able to send space tourists to the far side of the moon and back aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft within the next three years. Tickets for the trip cost $150 million each and the first mission is expected to launch by 2018. Each flight will host two private citizens and one professional cosmonaut on a free return trajectory around the far-side of the Moon. They will come to within 100km of the Moon’s surface, where they will see the illuminated far-side of the Moon, and then witness the amazing sight of the Earth rising above the surface of the Moon.
When Elon Musk isn’t inventing the Tesla or selling Paypal for over a billion dollars, he’s using his spare time to create a commercial spacecraft company that contracts with NASA to carry cargo to the ISS. If he has his way, transporting human cargo will be next.
Musk founded his third company, Space Exploration Technologies (or SpaceX) in June 2002, with a focus on advancing the state of rocket technology.
He’ll accomplish this via Dragon, a free-flying spacecraft designed to deliver both cargo and people to orbiting destinations such as the ISS. Currently Dragon carries cargo to space, but it was designed from the beginning to carry humans. Under an agreement with NASA, SpaceX is now developing the refinements that will enable Dragon to fly crew. Dragon’s first manned test flight is expected to take place in 2-3 years. Whether or not Musk will be able to achieve his long-term dream of sending humans to Mars is a big question, and whether or not civilians will be up to the task is another.
Boeing’s planned “space taxi,” which will ferry U.S. astronauts to the ISS, will include a seat for paying tourists to visit the facility. It will be a first for the U.S. space program and an alternative for those not wanting to make use of the Russian Soyuz vehicle, although the pricing will be similar. The CST-100 craft will hold up to seven astronauts for the six-hour journey.
The apparent abundance of potential options certainly signals that the aerospace industry wants to keep the momentum going and hopefully drive prices down in the process.
Whether or not prices will come down far enough for a non one-percenter to join the ranks of the spacefaring few is yet to be seen. There is no doubt that the desire is there, and investors are taking the risk that the general public will be on board, both literally and figuratively.
NASA seems quite happy to partner with private companies such as SpaceX and Space Adventures, and the public interest will likely increase as more civilians are able to travel into space, even if only for a few minutes. Those few minutes will eventually turn to days, months or more as the technology improves exponentially over time. Humans are explorers, with a healthy sense of adventure and a thirst to discover the unknown. We will take these next steps into the unknown bravely and enthusiastically. I can’t wait.