The State of Commercial Space Travel in 2016

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo
••• Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo in Flight. Virgin Galactic

For some adventurous travelers the ultimate trip doesn't involve hiking in the Himalaya, traversing the Amazon, or visiting the South Pole. In fact, some of us have quite literally set our sights a lot higher. The dream of commercial space travel has been an enticing one for some time, and while it has inched closer to reality in recent years, it still seems as if it is always just out of reach. But 2016 just might be the year that space tourism finally takes off, with several companies promising big things in the months ahead.

Of course, Virgin Galactic has probably been the most high profile company working on delivering space travel for the masses. It even bills itself as the "world's first commercial spaceline." While that isn't exactly true just yet, it is probably the closest to delivering on the promise of taking tourists into space. 

The company is still recovering from the horrific accident that took place back in October of 2014, during which two pilots were killed when the SpaceShipTwo aircraft came apart mid-flight. That accident was blamed on pilot error when it was determined that the co-pilot engaged the aircraft's breaking system at the wrong time. Virgin says that a newly designed version of the SpaceShipTwo has addressed this problem, making the vehicle much more safe as a result. The new model will be unveiled next month, with test flights to resume shortly there after. 

Despite ramping up an aggressive schedule for Virgin Galactic's return to the skies however, the first commercial flights aren't expected to take place until 2018.

That means that the more than 700 people who have already signed up to fly aboard the SpaceShipTwo will have to wait another two years before they can takeoff. 

Meanwhile, rival company XCOR Aerospace is moving ahead with its plans to take tourists into orbit this year. In fact, it has begun offering pricing and bookings on Kayak.com for later this year, with flights carrying an appropriately large price tag.

XCOR's specially developed aircraft can achieve low Earth orbit and make flights of up to one hour in length, carrying the pilot and one other passenger. 

Other companies have thrown their hat into the ring, and are hoping to make commercial space travel a reality using other modes of transportation. For instance, the Spanish company Zero2Infinity is planning on using high-altitude balloons to carry a specially developed pod into low orbit, which is the same approach that another organization known as World View is using. That company completed a 10% test flight back in October of 2015, and now plans to begin launching commercial flights next year. 

At the other end of the spectrum are commercial space flight companies like SpaceX (founded by Tesla's Elon Musk) and Blue Origin, which was started by Amazon's Jeff Bezos. Both have been focused on creating reusable rockets with the ability to takeoff and land vertically. Of the two companies, SpaceX has been by far the most successful so far, even garnering contracts with the U.S. government to make supply runs to the International Space Station. 

So far, SpaceX and Blue Origin have focused mainly on carrying cargo and satellites into space, but as their launch systems become more sophisticated and safe, it would not seem out of the realm of possibility that either would consider taking passengers into orbit too.

That isn't going to happen anytime soon however, as neither has committed to designing a passenger craft as of yet. 

Boeing isn't about to let these start-ups grab all of the glory however. As one of the largest manufacturers of aircraft in the world, it has a vested interest in developing next generation technologies for space travel as well. The company has already announced that it is developing a commercial spacecraft called the "Starliner" that will begin shuttling passengers to the ISS in 2017. It isn't clear whether or not it will eventually begin taking regular travelers like you and me into space as well, but as the market for space travel expands, it wouldn't be beyond the realm of possibility. 

Reviewing the current state of affairs for space tourism, it seems clear that there won't be a lot of options available to us in 2016, despite there being a lot of optimism in the fledgeling industry.

Barring major setbacks, it now seems more likely that we'll see true space tourism take off in 2017, or more likely 2018. But even then I wouldn't hold my breath. For now, the dream of commercial space flight remains elusive, although it is starting to edge a bit closer to becoming an actual opportunity.