Since the dog, Laika, orbited Earth on board the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 2 in November 1957, spacecraft and rockets have evolved a lot, but the potential for viable space tourism is relatively new.
In April of 2001, American engineer and multi-millionaire, Dennis Tito, was the first private traveller that paid for his own trip to space. This was a pointed historical event, the first time a private citizen decided to go to space and made it happen. Dennis Tito was the first of eight space tourists who have reached the ISS using Space Adventures private company services.
A lot has changed since the first tourism flight in 2001. Space Adventures has become just one of several companies that have desire and money to send citizens on orbit, suborbital or near-Moon trips. Companies like Virgin, Blue Origin, StratoLaunch and SpaceX started building their own ships and launch systems with the aim to cut the cost of space tickets from tens of millions to a few hundred thousand dollars. Other companies, such as Bigelow Aerospace, are hard at work designing space station modules that will be cargo and living modules for visitors to orbit.
For now, potential tourists don’t have as much choice as we would think the sixty-year-old industry should have. For now, most people are limited to approaching the space line to witness the curvature of the Earth and see bright stars in the thin, black atmosphere above. Or, they can take a high-octane plane toward the Karman line, or ride on the nose of a giant rocket – probably Russian, possibly soon SpaceX – to orbit Earth. There are some possibilities, but it is still very hard to get too far off the ground.
Space tourism continues to require as much patience as it does cash. The next company to take tourists to space, will likely be Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin, but not before many more stringent tests have been carried out.
Space Tourism: How Much Should You Save For A Space Trip
Orbital flight is expected to remain extremely expensive for many years and the next best option is to take a short trip into space on a suborbital, reusable vehicle.
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are two companies that are poised to be leaders of space tourism, but neither will take passengers into orbit. Instead, they’ll touch the edge of space, crossing the imaginary boundary known as the Karman line, 62 miles up.
Soon, commercial passengers will get to experience what Alan Shepard felt during his first flights into space. Most proposed trajectories would allow passengers about five minutes of weightlessness and the entire ride will be 15 to 30 minutes. They would experience the full range of space adventure experiences: few minutes of weightlessness, a clear view of the curvature of the earth, and bright stars in a black sky above.
The differences come down to propulsion and design. The Virgin Galactic design is the two-winged SpaceShipTwo and plans to launch it attached to a carrier vehicle, WhiteKnightTwo. At an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,200 meters), the carrier plane releases SpaceShipTwo, which fires its rocket engine and rises to the edge of the atmosphere. The stated price per passenger — $200,000.
Blue Origin, which is founded by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, is developing a fully reusable suborbital vehicle called New Shepard. The rocket with a crewed ship on its top is capable of flying three or more passengers for suborbital flights. A single ticket will cost between $200,000 and $300,000.
So, if these options are just coming into view, how did a private citizen get to space? Right now, the options are simple, earn tens of millions of dollars, call Space Adventures and go to Star City near Moscow to begin a 12-week training program. Then get into a Soyuz spacecraft and launch for a one week stay on the ISS. Anyone planning to go to space needs to take intensive training and preparation since the Russian systems that tourists use today aren’t actually designed for mass consumption.
However, there may be more choices soon. Boeing, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada are testing vehicles and launch systems that will deliver American ships crewed with astronauts to the ISS. This development is planned as a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. And while astronaut flights are not tightly connected with tourist business, they can still fill a big gap in progress for the entertainment industry.
If private companies are going to start exploring space with passengers and return them safely to the Earth, they need to start below the edge of space. Before companies get to that point, they will have to meet the safety standards imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration — rules more in line with commercial airliners than space shuttles. Suborbital flights don’t need to meet NASA’s strict safety regulations and control as they travel at lower speeds and actually don’t break of Earth’s bounds. This is the key advantage for tourism businesses.
Everything You Need To Know About the Space Tourism Market
How many people would pay for such a ride, especially if the cost is $100k to $200k? There is actually quite a bit of interest among wealthy people. As Virgin Galactic representatives said, they already have sold more than 400 pre-paid tickets with a price of a few hundred thousand dollars each.
Many ordinary things began as something only done by the very rich: passenger flights on airlines were originally very expensive, consumer electronics started out as very expensive “toys”, mountaineering in Everest used to cost a small fortune. Eventually, the prosperity of the mass production and market competition took over and prices dropped to the level the middle class could afford.
The starting high cost of a flight is intended to fund research and initial modelling to be sure they are safe and successful. While the rich turn space into their new playground, it is also expected to open the gates for new opportunities in education, science, technology (especially for space apps), finance, law, and commerce. It won’t be long before we see the days of traditional earthly events and activities (i.e. Olympics, NBA, FIFA) developing orbital aspects.
When the first female space tourist, the U.S. entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari came back to Earth, prospective entrepreneurs from Spaceport Associates and Incredible Adventures held the Adventurers’ Survey that focused on the feelings of travellers who wanted to follow in her footsteps.
The Adventurers’ Survey provides some customer perception feedback about spacecraft architectures and spaceports to those offering space transportation and related services.
The results of the survey pointed out:
- The prices for a “star journey” is still too high.
- As respondents pointed out, suborbital flights will be financially attractive at $25,000, and orbital flights at $500,000. Two-thirds of the respondents pointed out that they would want to go on a round-the Moon adventure.
- Those surveyed didn’t have any ideas about spacecraft design, but the majority of adventurers wanted either a direct vertical launch or a “horizontal all the way” approach, like an aircraft.
- The survey indicated that 31 percent would go “anywhere provided it was in their country”, while 48 percent would go “anywhere” for the experience.
- Upwards of 70 percent are interested in EVA applications, but only 14 percent would be willing to pay a 50 percent premium for this service. Only 21 percent indicated the need for a hotel/space station destination on their orbital trip, but of these, most would pay up to a 30 percent premium for the facility.
Ansari’s flight can be called “a well-managed exercise” that showcased industry’s dedication and commitment to new endeavors. And what is more important, we need to look forward to the time when we can start a space race between Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) with their vehicles.
Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures said that it is possible to have 140 individuals fly by the 2020s. If we can extrapolate the same results on the period after the 2020s, then we might find a couple thousand flying to orbit thanks in large part to new, privately funded rockets and capsules.
“The travellers who have the money, the time, and the courage to try space tourism are and will be great ambassadors,” said European Space Agency astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy. “They know people will want to hear about their adventure and that is what explorers and pioneers are supposed to do. Bring back the experience.”
Photo: The Washington Post
One of the latest trends that will gain traction in the space tourism market in the coming years is the decrease in the cost of space tourism. The cost of getting into space will decline rapidly if the next generation of space planes can reach orbit.
And the first entrepreneurs are already here:
- SpaceX — the California-based company announced plans to send ten passengers into lunar orbit aboard a Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) before 2023. It will be the first journey to the Moon since the last Apollo astronauts went there in 1972. Only 24 people have been close to the Moon and SpaceX will be the next to resume their mission. The price for the flight has not been disclosed.
- Sierra Nevada company is developing the Dream Chaser — a seven-person vehicle for private spaceflight. The vehicle is being designed to launch vertically on a rocket and land horizontally as aircraft. It is expected that the spacecraft will carry its first cargo to the ISS in the 2020s. The price for a flight has not been disclosed.
- Stratolaunch — is the largest aircraft carrier in the world by wingspan developed by a Scaled Composites company. Aircraft are designed to carry rockets, including eventually a crewed spacecraft, to the edge of space and launch them. It is still in development.
- Engineers at the academy in Beijing’s southern outskirts are designing a new spacecraft to send anyone willing to pay $200,000 to $250,000 on a suborbital journey. Engineers said that after one flight they will need to provide only a few testing procedures to start the spacecraft again. This is both exciting and worrying for non-mass production spacecraft developers.
- The NASA attached a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, also is known as BEAM, for testing to the International Space Station in 2016. Bigelow Aerospace wants to sell time aboard the expandable space station to countries as well as to multi-million-dollar tourists as hotel apartments. Two 55-foot-long inflatable improved modules developed by Bigelow Aerospace will be ready to launch in 2021.
- Space Adventures predict two destinations. One is to the International Space Station in two private space modules – US and Russian. The other is a trip around the moon. The company is already negotiating with the Russian Space Agency to use versions of the Soyuz spacecraft for the two-week journey.
The company is aiming to reduce the ticket price for reaching space and being in space, but also its rare opportunity to expand commercial cooperation with the government that regulates the main space laws and provide multi-million dollar contracts. It’s important to point out that even NASA’s` Flight Opportunities program currently buys flights on suborbital vehicles, including New Shepard of Blue Origin and SpaceShipTwo of Virgin Galactic.
NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, frequently clarifies that the agency must take advantage of commercial capabilities to be more efficient as it carries out more ambitious exploration objectives. “The goal is to maximize the utility of every dollar that we spend, and taking advantage of the commercial is the best way we can do that,” he said.
We see not only a cooperation or a collaboration, but maybe even interdependence between government and the private sector.
“Without a thriving spaceflight entrepreneurship sector, I don’t think that deep-space exploration with [regular] people is sustainable. And I think using the way in which the private sector has demonstrated they can reduce costs, through more nearly assembly-line production techniques, is really critical to sustainable space exploration in the future,” said Scott Hubbard, an adjunct professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University.
Another space tourism promise
Still, too many questions go unanswered about laws governing space travel, as well as personal liability and insurance in space. If private companies are going to start exploring without serious control from governments — building a human settlement on the moon and Mars, launching tourists into space or even building luxury space hotels in orbit — the world will need clearer laws. But it’s still the early days of commercial space transportation.
The desire to conquer space is driven primarily by scientific interest, courage and the pioneering spirit, which is why it can have such a profound effect on humanity. It started off as a military project, but it is primarily research, education and commercial applications businesses that are out there leading the way today.