Space tourism: Ground control to … anybody with a big enough bank balance

Published on: Friday, June 16, 2017
Space tourism: Ground control to …  anybody with a big enough bank balance - oth-Virgin Galactic-web 1440x823

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To date, only 559 people have gone into space, although rapid advances in technology mean we are getting closer 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, the American entrepreneur Dennis Tito, paid a reported $20m for a trip to the International Space Station in 2011 and is said to have paved the way for a new generation of private companies eager to take civilians into space.

Tito had to work hard to get his place on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft – he was over 60 and naturally could never be trained to the level of a cosmonaut. His persistence eventually paid off, though, and he managed to realise the dream he’d held for over 40 years, successfully making it into orbit and spending nearly eight days in space. Since then, a further seven space tourists made eight flights with Russia from 2001-2009. But none have gone since then, although this year Russia’s Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and spacecraft manufacturer, RSC Energia, announced it would take tourists to the ISS and the moon from 2022.

Virgin Galactic

These kinds of declarations almost always turn out to be overly ambitious. Take Virgin Galactic. Over 700 people have paid $250,000 each to be one of the first civilians to take a suborbital flight to just beyond 100km/63 miles altitude – the officially accepted point where outer space begins. Richard Branson’s team of rocket scientists, engineers and designers have been hard at work for over a decade in order to build the world’s first commercial space airline.

Citing the value of the ‘overview effect’ from being in space – an experience that leads to a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all life and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the planet – the company has built a spaceport in New Mexico and is working on building two spaceships. Progress was hindered after a fatal crash in 2014 that took the life of the test pilot, however, and Branson is now reluctant to give a specific launch date. What we do know, though, is that you’ll shoot into space at incredible speed, experience 5-6 minutes of weightlessness while you look back at earth through giant windows in the spacecraft, and then hurtle back to earth. Applications are still open if that sounds appealing. Sign up to the Mission Updates if you’re still mulling it over.

Space X

A suborbital trip pales in comparison with the commercial space company Space X’s ambitious plan to take civilians around the moon towards the end of 2018 – making it potentially the first lunar mission with humans in 45 years. According to founder Elon Musk, two confirmed passengers will pay an estimated $70 million each to take an automated trip on the company’s Dragon V2 spacecraft launched by the Falcon Heavy Rocket. Musk won’t divulge any details beyond that they are “not from Hollywood”. The trip will take a week, skim the moon and then go further into deep space, before looping back to earth. According to Musk, tourist travel like this could be a major source of revenue for the company and thus fund further technological progress. Like Virgin, his timelines have been unrealistic: an original estimate of 2014, made in 2001, did not come to fruition.

Blue Origin

Then, there’s always Blue Origin, founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2000 but kept highly secretive until 2015 – the first journalists were only allowed to view their headquarters in Kent, Washington, in 2016. Blue Origin’s stated aim to lower costs and increase reliability sounds much like the aims of Amazon’s online ordering and delivery service, although it’s probably not as profitable. Bezos has ploughed billions of his own money into this enterprise, and his predictions have also been off. In 2008, he stated that the first unmanned flights to the edge of outer space would take place in 2011, and manned flights in 2012; although he did manage four successful unmanned trips in his New Shepherd spacecraft in 2015 and 2016 – three of which went beyond 100km/63 miles – and is now aiming for the first crewed flights to start in early 2018.

As with Virgin Galactic, you’ll have the experience of spending several minutes weightless in space looking back on earth before returning home. Reservations are not open yet, but you can sign up to be notified when they are. Another reason to be first in line? They’re working on a spacecraft that can go even further into orbit, the New Glenn orbital rocket, and priority will go to previous passengers on New Shepherd trips. Prices haven’t been disclosed. It’s certain this will be a trip for the super-rich only – though Bezos is aiming to create reusable rockets and spaceships, and expects thousands of people to be living and working in space.

World View Enterprises

The poor man’s option. With World View Enterprises, you will be able to float 32km (20 miles) above earth in a spacecraft powered by high-altitude helium balloons. No training is necessary and the company describes the spacecraft, which can carry two crew and eight passengers, as “comfortable and stylishly appointed”. At that height, you’ll be able to see the curvature of the earth (although you won’t experience zero gravity), and it’s described as a gentle, unrushed and safer experience compared to the others.

Although these excursions were originally supposed to begin at the start of 2017, the company did manage a successful trip with an unmanned scientific payload in October 2016, so theoretically they shouldn’t be far off. The team behind the organisation has serious space credentials, including two crew members of the original Biosphere 2 (a three-acre, hermetically sealed environment in the Arizona Desert), as well as a senior NASA officer and former NASA Space Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly. They later went on to found a company that provides hardware for spacecraft. Reservations are not being taken yet, but estimates are that the trip will be a modest $75,000 a ticket.