While 2020 has been an abysmal year on many counts, there’s one industry that’s thriving: space exploration. Within the first eight months of the year, we’ve seen the successful launches of three Mars missions, promising tests of new rockets, and the return of crewed spaceflight to U.S. soil—aboard a privately built spacecraft, no less! But we’re also getting much closer to the launch of the space tourism industry, meaning your dream of becoming an astronaut could become reality quite soon. We’re still a little ways away from regular flights into space for paying customers, but here are all the developments you need to know about.
The History of Space Tourism
Traveling to space has long been the domain of professional astronauts, not ordinary citizens. But that all changed when American entrepreneur Dennis Tito flew to space in 2001 with space tourism company Space Adventures, who organized the trip with Russian space agency Roscosmos. Tito was the first of only seven true “space tourists,” each of whom traveled to the International Space Station (ISS) via Roscosmos's Soyuz spacecraft for about a weeklong stay—or for two separate weeklong stays, in the case of one space traveler—for a reported cost between $20 million to $35 million per trip (plus months of training). The final space tourism excursion was made by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté in 2009, after which Roscosmos had to end touristic flights: when NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011, each seat on its Soyuz spacecraft needed to be reserved for crews heading to the ISS, not tourists. Since then, space tourism has been halted.
Nearly There: Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic
The issue with Space Adventure’s program is that it relies on other operators for transportation, which limits its access to space. But the next wave of private spaceflight companies have been developing their own vehicles to propel clients into weightlessness. The two frontrunners in the space tourism race are Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, both of which are in advanced testing phases—Virgin Galactic has even opened ticket sales already, with more than 600 passengers booked. While both aerospace companies will provide their clients with suborbital trips into space, they’ll do so in entirely different fashions.
Blue Origin plans to send tourists to space in its New Shepard vehicle, named after the first American in space, Alan Shepard, from its launch site in West Texas. New Shepard, which is an entirely autonomous craft that doesn’t need a human pilot, is similar to Roscosmos’s Soyuz and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicles in that its six passengers will be housed in a capsule and vertically launched into space via a rocket.
After a day of training, passengers will get to experience a launch just as professional astronauts do: they’ll feel the intense G-forces pressing down on them as the rocket shuttles them to an altitude of approximately 62 miles, which is widely accepted as the boundary of space. When the engines cut off, passengers will be weightless, and they’re free to float about the capsule, taking in the views of the planet and of the darkness of space through the capsule’s large windows. After a few minutes, the capsule will fall back to Earth under parachutes. All in, the trip lasts just 11 minutes—it’s a pretty short flight considering tickets will likely cost about $250,000.
Blue Origin has successfully launched New Shepard on 12 un-crewed test flights since 2015, but it’ll need to get humans up into space before it’ll be certified to start carrying paying customers. The company originally hoped to launch a crewed test flight in 2019; however, it still has not done so, nor has it announced a new timeline for the test.
Virgin Galactic, on the other hand, will fly passengers to space aboard a winged vehicle called SpaceShipTwo, which bears similarities to NASA’s space shuttle. But whereas the shuttle launched vertically via a rocket, SpaceShipTwo is launched horizontally. The vehicle, which seats six passengers plus two pilots, takes off from a runway like a regular plane via its carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo. Virgin Galactic currently launches from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, but it will also launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
After takeoff, WhiteKnightTwo ascends to 50,000 feet, after which SpaceShipTwo is released, and its rocket-powered engines kick in to bring it all the way to a maximum altitude of roughly 68 miles. As with Blue Origin’s New Shepard, passengers will enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth, but instead of a parachute landing, SpaceShipTwo will land on a runway like a plane—which is also how the space shuttle landed. Total run time: between two and three hours in flight, plus two-and-a-half days of training, with a price tag of $250,000.
Virgin Galactic has been conducting test flights since 2010, but progress has been a bit slow—and deadly. In 2014, a test pilot was killed after a SpaceShipTwo vehicle broke apart during a flight, primarily due to pilot error. Testing resumed in 2016 and is ongoing, with no official word on when commercial operations will begin.
Other Companies Dreaming Big
Of all the space tourism operations out there, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are by far the closest to launching passengers. (Elon Musk's SpaceX, which has already successfully launched NASA astronauts into space, is not focusing on tourism, though it will provide lifts for third-party companies.) But coming in hot on their heels is Boeing, whose Starliner vehicle is being developed for NASA's Commercial Crew Program; its contract, however, allows for tourists to potentially join flights.
The other viable space tourism companies on the horizon are not developing their own vehicles, rather, they plan on hitching rides with other providers. Space Adventures is still in the game, having entered a partnership with SpaceX to fly passengers on Crew Dragon as soon as next year. It’s also revived its tourism operations with Roscosmos: two tourists are booked on a trip to the ISS in 2023. Another company, Axiom Space, plans on taking passengers to the ISS via SpaceX’s Crew Dragon as soon as 2021, before launching its own private space station by the end of the decade. Similarly, Orion Span has announced its intentions to launch its Aurora Space Station in 2021, though construction on the project has yet to begin.