Featured image: A NASA vintage design poster circa 2015. (Image credit: NASA/KSC)
Space tourism. The very term sounds like something from the far distant future. However, it is currently 2020, and this year could very well be the year in which the super-wealthy begin travelling to space as tourists. Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin seem to be on the cusp of bringing untrained, untested, but extremely wealthy individuals to space, if even for only a few moments. How did we get to this point, and what does the future hold for those who wish to “boldly go” to the edge of space, or even beyond?
The History of Space Tourism So Far…
In all actuality, space tourism, in some sense, has existed since the 1980’s and the Shuttle program. NASA left some seats available on the Shuttles for Payload specialists, trained in a specific piece of equipment. These specialists were not trained as astronauts and were not employed by NASA, but other agencies. In 1983, Ulf Merbold from ESA and Byron Lichtenberg from MIT (engineer and Air Force fighter pilot) were the first payload specialists to fly on the Space Shuttle, on mission STS-9. In 1984, Charles D. Walker became the first non-government employee to fly on the Shuttle. He was a contractor from McDonnell Douglas, and the company paid $40,000 for the trip.
In the lead-up to the Shuttle program, and a potential selling point to Congress, Rockwell International proposed a $250 million cabin which could be mounted in the shuttle payload bay. This cabin would allow for 74 passengers to fly for 3 days. In 1983, after the program was up and running, Space Habitation Design Associates proposed a similar cabin that could hold 72 passengers. Another proposal was based on the Spacelab habitation modules, which provided 32 seats in the payload bay in addition to those in the cockpit area. In 1985, the National Space Society noted that these seats would cost $1-1.5 million each, but that cost could be lowered to $25,000 within 15 years, with 30,000 paying passengers flying per year. In their view, this would lead to paid flights around the Moon within 30 years and paid Moon landings within 50 years.
As the shuttle program began to mature, NASA began the Space Flight Participant program to allow citizens without specific governmental or scientific goals to fly. The first program under these auspices was the Teacher in Space program, which Christa McAuliffe was chosen as the prime candidate. After the catastrophe of the Challenger disaster, this program, and other planned programs were discontinued. (McAuliffe’s backup, Barbara Morgan became a NASA astronaut in 1998, and flew on STS-118 as a Mission Specialist.)
In the 1990’s post-Perestroika Russia needed money to continue operations, and were not against the idea of space tourism to fund their programs. Toyohiro Akiyama of the Tokyo Broadcasting System was launched to the Russian space station Mir in 1990, and stayed there for one week, broadcasting from space each day and conducting experiments for Russia and Japan. The trip cost somewhere between $10-27 million. In 1991, Helen Sharman became the first Briton in space flying under the auspices of Project Juno, which failed to meet funding goals, but was green-lighted by Mikhail Gorbachev as a gesture of goodwill.
The first fee-paying space tourist was Dennis Tito. He was slated to fly to Mir in the 1990’s under the MirCorp project. However, after the deorbiting of Mir, his destination was switched to the ISS. With the assistance of American startup Space Adventures, Tito made his voyage on Soyuz in 2001, and stayed aboard the ISS for seven days
In the 2000’s, Roscosmos began selling seats aboard Soyuz capsules for $20-25 million dollars. For this price, the tourists were launched aboard a Soyuz capsule to the ISS. After Tito’s successful flight, April 2002 brought South African Mark Shuttleworth. After the Columbia reentry disaster, tourism was put on hold until the Shuttles returned to service in 2005. In September of 2006, Anousheh Ansari (think Ansari X-Prize, discussed below), an Iranian American businesswoman, flew to the ISS. Charles Simonyi, a Hungarian-born American businessman, flew in 2007 and 2009. Richard Garriott, an American software designer (aka Lord Brittish to those in the Ultima Online community) and son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, flew in 2008. Guy Laliberté, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, was the last space tourist to visit the ISS in 2009. After the retirement of the Shuttle program, the extra space on Soyuz was needed to ferry NASA astronauts to the ISS, so there have been no space tourists in the time since.
The State of Space Tourism
Despite the delay in mass space tourism as a whole, there have been many companies working on bringing space tourism to fruition. So-called sub-orbital space tourism is the next big thing, and it has been on the horizon since 1996, when the Ansari X-Prize was established. This prize would be awarded to the first non-governmental team to launch a reusable spaceship to the edge of space (100km) twice within two weeks. While there were many contenders for the X-Prize, it was awarded in 2004 to Tier One (aka Mojave Aerospace Ventures or Scaled Composites), which was designed by Burt Rutan and funded by Microsoft co-founder Steve Allen. The winning craft was called SpaceShipOne. It was air launched from a specially designed airplane called White Knight and landed like an airplane. The Tier One project made two successful competitive flights: X1 on September 29, 2004, piloted by Mike Melvill to 102.9 km; and X2 on October 4, 2004, piloted by Brian Binnie to 112 km.
After their maiden voyages, Scaled Composites came to an agreement with Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, to develop a new company, The Spaceship Company, which would produce SpaceShip-class vehicles for use with paying customers. Under the name Virgin Galactic, Branson has been overseeing the development of SpaceShipTwo which is configured to take six paying passengers to space (SpaceShipOne could carry two pilots plus one passenger). Virgin Galactic hopes to operate a fleet of five SpaceShip Twos and five White Knight Twos for passenger service at a cost of $200-250,000 per passenger. Even at such a high cost, as of 2013, Virgin touts 573 paying customers waiting for their few minutes of spaceflight.
Branson, speaking for Virgin, has made many promises as to when the first flight, which he will be on, will take place. As of Jan. 2020, no commercial flights have taken place. Tis has been due to setbacks in design, and a fatal accident with a SpaceShip named VSS Enterprise which killed one pilot and injured a second. This accident happened during a full test of the system. The co-pilot, who was killed, released the “feathering-system” when the ship was sub-Mach, which caused the craft to become unstable and break up over the Mojave Desert.
Following Virgin in their quest for commercial suborbital flight is Blue Origin, which is developing the New Shepard system. Blue Origin was founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. This system will launch vertically on reusable boosters. Once above the Karman line (i.e. in space), the booster will separate from the passenger capsule, which will then descend back to Earth and land in the desert under parachute. This is akin to the Mercury-Redstone flights which took Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom on suborbital flights in 1961.
They have conducted several tests of the New Shepard system to much acclaim. They are much more tight-lipped about costs and numbers of passengers that have signed up, but it is safe to assume that these flights will cost about the same as a flight with Virgin Galactic.
Blue Origin is not focusing exclusively on the New Shepard system, but has also designed a New Glenn orbital class heavy lifter. This system is designed to carry passengers and payloads into low earth orbit. They are also a potential provider of the Artemis missions lunar lander, which they are calling Blue Moon. Blue Origin is the newest company on the block that can provide passenger service on sub-orbital and orbital flights in the near future.
SpaceX is best known for their Falcon 9 launch system, which touts a reusable first stage. SpaceX is close to providing the first crewed launches from US soil since the end of the Shuttle program in 2011. The Crew Dragon capsule is rated for four passengers plus cargo. Per their contract with NASA, one seat is available for SpaceX to sell as they please, which give them freedom to lease that seat to space tourists. It could very well be that the first full-fledged Crew Dragon flight will feature a visit to the ISS by Elon Musk. Flights on Crew Dragon will reportedly cost $55 million per seat, per the Office of Budget and Management, but Elon Musk wonders if that price is accurate when reusability is factored in.
While space tourism is not necessarily a stated goal (Musk is more into colonization), SpaceX announced in September of 2018 that a Japanese entrepreneur, Yusaku Maezawa, had placed a “substantial deposit” toward a circumlunar flight aboard the Starship craft, which should take place in 2022. The name of this flight will be “#dearMoon” and Maezawa would be flying with six to eight artists on the journey, which he states is to “inspire their creativity.”
This has also led to one of the more interesting pieces of space news to be released in several years, as Maezawa recently separated from his girlfriend and has started a contest in Japan looking for a female companion on his journey around the Moon. His announcement made it seem as if there is a potential for “extracurricular” activities while on the free-return trajectory flight.
This actually lit up the Twitter-verse with how cringey the thought of taking a prospective wife on a trip around the Moon is. One commentator stated it was as if he was “trying to get some strange while going to the moon”. Be that as it may, this will most likely be a minor distraction in what will be a very interesting flight. This flight will happen after Starship has been tested and has successfully conducted a free-return circumlunar flight while uncrewed.
Boeing has developed the CST-100 Starliner as part of the Commercial Crew program. Like the Crew Dragon, Starliner is rated for four passengers plus cargo, and, per their contract, they are able to lease the fourth seat as they wish, which includes tourism. After their semi-failed Orbital Flight Test at the end of December, it is uncertain when they will be launching a final crewed test, but Boeing officials and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine have both stated they expect the next Starliner flight to be crewed. These flights will supposedly cost $90 million per seat, a cost Boeing believes to be overstated by the Office of Management and Budget.
But Wait, There’s More
Not interested in just doing a few orbits of the Earth? Would you actually like to stay in space on an extended trip? This is where a couple of hotels would come in handy…
Bigelow Aerospace is a company that builds modules. Specifically, they have built modules for the ISS, which are rigid inflatable, able to be launched flat and then inflated once in place or berthed. They have been testing an inflatable module at the ISS since 2016, and they have had plans to develop their very own private space station in Earth orbit.
This station will be launched in sections, each being inflatable. They have contracted with both SpaceX and ULA for launch services. No numbers are available as for cost, but rest assured if you want the best view a hotel can possibly offer, you’ll be spending the BIG BUCKS to get it.
Not to be outdone, newcomer to the field, Orion Span, announced in 2018 that it was developing a flagship space hotel; the Aurora Space Station. Per their announcement, the hotel can hold up to six people, two crew members and four guests. Each flight would be 12 days in length. Their proposed cost will be roughly $9.5 million per guest, and requires an $80,000 deposit to book. In February of 2019, it was announced that they fell far short on their crowdfunding campaign to raise money to actually build and launch the station, but they continue to operate under the assumption that it will eventually come to fruition.
What Does This All Mean?
Space tourism en masse is coming. It is highly likely that it will arrive this year, with either Virgin or Blue Origin minting the first sub-orbital space tourists. Once SpaceX and Boeing begin Commercial Crew operations, it is only a matter of time until several civilian astronauts per year make the journey to the ISS, and beyond. However, if you are looking for a weekend getaway, you’ll need a hefty bank account. None of the options are cheap.