Space tourism: Ground control to… anybody with a big enough bank balance
To date, only about 560 people have gone into space, however rapid advances in technology mean that we’re getting closer to a new era in space tourism
The commercial space race is on, and we’re on the tantalising cusp of a new era in travel.
The world’s first space tourist, American entrepreneur Dennis Tito, paid a reported US$20m for a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2001. Tito had to work hard to get his place on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft – he was over 60 and physically could never match the fitness level of a trained cosmonaut. But his persistence eventually paid off, and the dream he’d held for over 40 years finally came to fruition as he successfully made it into orbit and spent nearly eight days in space. Since then, a further seven space tourists have made flights with Russia from 2001-2009. But as NASA retired its shuttle fleet and with the ISS crew size increased from four to six in 2010, Russia put a stop to orbital space tourism. This gap has given rise to a host of private companies who are keen to break new ground by taking humans into space.
Virgin Galactic, a spaceflight company within the Virgin Group in New Mexico, has been developing two commercial spacecrafts with a plan to offer suborbital space flights to space tourists. The founder, Richard Branson, initially proposed that there would be a maiden flight by the end of 2009 but soon it became apparent that the date was too ambitious.
After a series of test flights, eventually, in 2018 the company achieved a major accomplishment when their VSS Unity test vehicle reached the boundary of outer space. In 2019, it successfully flew to space with a test passenger in the cabin. Following the success, Virgin Galactic is in the process of getting itself ready for commercial operations.
A suborbital trip pales in comparison with a flight to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2019 NASA announced that it would open the ISS for private astronaut missions of up to 30 days with the first mission commencing as early as 2020. SpaceX, the first commercial company to deliver cargo to the ISS in 2012, aims to start taking private passengers there for about US$52 million each, an eye-watering sum of money. Before making the journey, private astronauts must undergo strict training and meet NASA’s medical requirements.
Apart from the ISS, SpaceX also sets its visions to the moon and Mars – a BBC report in September 2018 revealed that SpaceX is planning its lunar mission for 2023 and Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire and online fashion tycoon, would be the first human making the journey since 1972. However, it must be said that the planned rocket has not been built and therefore “it’s not 100% certain we can bring this to flight,”; a word of caution from its CEO Elon Musk.
With a billion dollar a year funding from Jeff Bezos through his sales of equity in Amazon, Blue Origin has made several successful sub-orbital flights since November 2015. The achievements have allowed the company to sign a US$500 million contract with the US Air Force to develop its next-generation New Glenn rocket, a US$10 million contract with NASA to develop a moon landing system, as well as partnerships with United Launch Alliance to develop a new rocket engine.
In May 2019, Bezos held a press conference in Washington DC to unveil the Blue Moon lunar lander. During the conference, he told the audience that Blue Origin could help NASA to meet its target to put astronauts on the moon by 2024. At the same time, the company is also developing its New Shepard rocket which aims to compete in the space tourism market.
World View Enterprises
For those less wealthy, World View Enterprises could be the answer. This private exploration and technology company, founded in 2012 with headquarters in Arizona, has already completed nine commercial flights in 2017 in its Stratollite balloons which flew up to 95,000ft (29km), according to its CEO Jane Poynter during an interview with CNBC.
In due time, the company aims to launch Voyager, a successor of Stratollite, which can send eight people to the edge of space (more than 100,000ft or 30.5km) in a capsule with massive windows to provide exceptional views; and you can do so without special training. While no date is set for Voyager’s first flight, the company is offering tickets for US$75,000, plus a US$7,500 deposit each.
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