For years we have been told a new space tourism industry is just on the horizon. However, except for a handful of millionaires, taking a vacation in space has not been possible. We take a look at how close we are to commercial space flights, what companies will take us there, and what technologies they will be using.
Technically, space tourism began in April 2001 when millionaire engineer Dennis Tito made a trip to the International Space Station (ISS). A company named Space Adventures brokered the deal. Tito received cosmonaut training at the famous Star City training center in Russia’s Moscow Oblast and was flown aboard a Soyuz rocket to the ISS where he stayed for nearly eight days. While there he conducted research for his company. He reportedly paid $20 million for the trip.
Between 2001 and 2009 Space Adventures brokered flights for six other space tourists, all through Russia and all to the ISS. Trip prices ranged from $20 to $40 million. Despite the astronomical ticket price, Hungarian businessman Charles Simonyi went twice, making eight trips in total with Space Adventures.Space Adventures’ trips to the ISS ended in 2009 because Russia no longer had extra seats on their rockets. After the space shuttle was retired, their remaining seats were being taken by NASA astronauts. However, Space Adventures still has trips to the ISS listed on their website as a possible destination. They also list spacewalks as an optional excursion.Another trip Space Adventures is planning is in lunar orbit. According to their website, Space Adventures is working with the Russians to send two people with one cosmonaut on a trip to orbit the moon.“They will come to within 100km of the Moon’s surface,” according to Space Adventures. “If you chose to join this Circumlunar mission, you will see the illuminated far-side of the Moon, and then witness the amazing sight of the Earth rising above the surface of the Moon.”Space Adventures plans their first launch of a “Circumlunar Mission” to occur in the early 2020s. The trip is reported to cost $100 million. Google co-founder Sergey Brin has already put a $5 million deposit down to save his spot on the first of these trips.Space Adventures does not list prices on their website, but given reports that tourists are asked to pay between $20 and $100 million per trip, their services exclude the average vacationer. However, they are the only company currently offering trips to space. But if you do choose to fly with Space Adventures, it might be wise to also brush up on your Russian.
SpaceX has been taking supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) and has plans to shuttle humans there by April of next year. They also plan to take humans to Mars by 2024 and have recently announced they will be flying a Japanese billionaire and his guest on a trip around the Moon in 2023.Last year, SpaceX announced that it would be flying an anonymous couple around the moon in late 2018. However, in February 2018, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk said their focus on developing their Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) rocket would delay the couple’s trip. However in September 2018, during a webcast, Musk announced the trip is back on and set for 2023.When the trip to the Moon was announced last year, the plan was to use the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule. The same configuration that will be used for SpaceX’s first human-crewed flight for NASA next year. However, in the webcast, Musk says the new plan is to use the BFR. The BFR is a much more massive spaceship than the Dragon capsule, giving Maezawa the opportunity to bring more guests.”As the host, I would like to invite 6 to 8 artists from around the world to join me on this mission to the Moon,” says Maezawa.According to Musk, this group will be the first private citizens in deep space.To accomplish their audacious plans, focus on the development of the BFR is time well spent for SpaceX. They plan to send a cargo ship to Mars in 2022 with humans to follow in 2024. At some point after that SpaceX hopes to offer trips to Mars for the general public, but when that may occur is anyone’s guess.Besides going to Mars, SpaceX also touts the BFR’s ability to make long-distance trips from one location on Earth to another much faster than airliners.“In addition to vastly increased speed, one great thing about traveling in space is there is almost no friction,” according to the SpaceX website. “Once the ship leaves the atmosphere, there is no turbulence or weather.”SpaceX claims that most long-distance journeys on the BFR would take about 30 minutes or less. In a list provided on their site, they estimate a trip from Los Angeles to New York, which would take an airliner five and a half hours, would only take the BFR 25 minutes.The longest trip listed, from London to Hong Kong would only take 34 minutes in a BFR. According to SpaceX, the same flight on an airliner takes just under 12 hours.These BFR trips could technically be considered space tourism. Other planned space tourism offerings propose similar trips that take passengers into space for a few minutes before coming back to Earth. Although SpaceX threw the idea of the BFR Earth to Earth trips out there as a possibility, the BFR is still under development. SpaceX plans on making test flights next year. But if the BFR is scheduled to make a trip to Mars in 2022, then maybe intercontinental BFR flights are only a few years out as well.SpaceX did receive exciting news recently regarding human-crewed space flights. The first astronauts to fly in SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft have been chosen, as the company will shuttle NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins to the ISS in April 2019.According to SpaceX, this program “will return human spaceflight capability to the United States for the first time since the Space Shuttle Program was retired in 2011.”
Virgin Galactic is the company that first got the world excited about space tourism. Through the late 2000s, founder Sir Richard Branson promised flights into space in which passengers would enjoy incredible views and experience weightlessness. Dozens of celebrities signed up and put down hundreds of thousands of dollars to reserve seats. However, setbacks and tragedy delayed their plans. Now Virgin Galactic is back on track and Branson projects they will start getting those celebrities into space by the end of the year.Virgin Galactic is part of Branson’s Virgin Group, the home of Virgin Records and the airline Virgin Atlantic. Virgin Atlantic has had a longtime relationship with Scaled Composites, LLC, and its founder Burt Rutan. Rutan is famous for his aircraft and spacecraft designs. Rutan’s SpaceShipOne was the first privately built, funded, and flown spacecraft to make it into space.In 2005, a year after his first spaceflight, Rutan and Branson partnered to create The Spaceship Company to build spacecraft for Virgin Galactic. They creatively called the Virgin Galactic spacecraft SpaceShipTwo.Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft are much different than others in the space tourism industry. Most other companies are using rockets that look like the traditional cylindrical tubes. SpaceShipTwo looks more like something Chuck Yeager would have flown to break the sound barrier records in the 1950s. As opposed to launching from the ground like most rockets, SpaceShipTwo is flown by an aircraft named WhiteKnightTwo up to 50,000 feet. SpaceShipTwo is then detached, its rocket is ignited, and it shoots up into space.“At the appropriate moment, the pilots will shut off the rocket motor, immediately allowing those on board to leave their seats for several minutes of true, unencumbered weightlessness,” according to the website. “The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and the blackness of space, while raising the vehicle’s wings to its ‘feathered’ re-entry configuration.”The “feathered” configurations entail the wings moving above the craft as it drops down to the Earth. The wings help decrease the velocity of the ship like netting on a badminton shuttlecock.
Related: Lunar Ice Discovery Could Aid Future Moon ExpeditionsThe entire flight is expected to take two and a half hours, but only a portion of that is in space. Passengers would experience weightlessness for about 6 minutes. Passengers will take off from Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. They will spend a couple of days training at the Spaceport before their flight.Although Branson’s early predictions were that the first passenger flight would take place in 2010, setbacks pushed that date further and further. In test flights, the first SpaceShipTwo, named the VSS Enterprise, was not achieving the speed and altitude predicted.In 2014, tragedy struck, and the VSS Enterprise broke apart during its fourth powered test flight. There were two pilots onboard, one died and the other suffered major injuries. Pilot error was blamed, and critics claimed pilot training was insufficient. Virgin Galactic continued the program, but redesigned their training program and refocused on cargo other than humans, namely small satellites.However, testing for commercial spaceflight has continued and is going very well.Branson recently told Bloomberg, “Before the end of the year, I hope to be sitting in a Virgin Galactic spaceship, going to space.”The new SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, VSS Unity, has already gone nearly twice as fast and over three times higher than the VSS Enterprise. Branson’s goal of flying to space by the end of the year might be realistic, which means after all of the setbacks and the emergence of many new private space companies, Virgin Galactic may still be the first to open up space flights to the public. It is a good thing too because according to Branson they have already sold 800 tickets, many paying $250,000 a pop. Virgin Galactic says only 3% of their customers asked for refunds after the crash of their first spacecraft.“I never thought it was easy when I signed up, and really nobody knows how it will affect each participant physically and emotionally until one takes the actual flight,” journalist Xin Liu told NBC News in an email. “I believe that most of us knew it was risky when we signed up.”
Co-founded by Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com co-founder and, according to Forbes, the world’s richest person, Blue Origin may start selling tickets on their New Shepard rocket as soon as next year.Blue Origin’s space flight experience will be more like that of a traditional astronaut. Passengers will be strapped into seats in a large capsule on top of a massive rocket that will blast them into space. Once past the altitude commonly regarded as the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere and space, the capsule is released from the rocket to float in space for a few minutes before dropping back down to earth, eventually being slowed down by large parachutes to achieve a soft landing near the location of liftoff.“Featuring windows that comprise one-third of the capsule’s surface structure, the largest windows ever in space, you’ll have a view of the curve of the planet and the vast darkness of the cosmos,” according to a Blue Origin marketing video.“At the apex of your flight, you will experience weightlessness. Unbuckling from your seat, you are free to explore different perspectives from each window before your return to Earth begins.”Another unique and exciting aspect of the trip is that the rocket can be used again. Reusable rockets make the cost of the flight more affordable. However, trips are still estimated to cost Blue Origin $10 million.
Related: Can Humans Survive Long Term in Space?Bezos and other Blue Origin representatives have claimed not to have their ticket pricing worked out yet. However, Reuters reported last month that according to two sources within the company tickets will cost about $200,000 to $300,000 each. This means Blue Origin may take a loss on each flight initially.The pricing is in line with ticket prices being charged by Virgin Galactic for spaceflights they also hope to initiate next year.The difference is that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spacecraft is more akin to a rocket plane. It is carried up to 50,000 feet before being dropped so it can ignite its rocket and carry passengers into space. Both offer a few minutes in a weightless environment before coming back to Earth.However, a significant difference between the two programs is that Blue Origin’s New Shepherd has already performed several successful tests reaching their goal altitude. Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft reaches greater heights each test, but is still far short from their goal.
Blue Origin plans to conduct their first human-crewed test flight by the end of the year.
While Blue Origin does not receive the publicity of Virgin Galactic or SpaceX, they are forging ahead on important projects that may shape humanity’s future in space. Besides possibly being the first to offer commercial space flights to the general public, their goals are aligned with NASA’s new directive from the president to focus on getting back to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars.Blue Origin Senior Vice President Rob Meyerson recently said, “We believe that setting up colonies on the moon is the next logical step towards exploring Mars and beyond.” “Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and we accept there are many ways to get there,” he said. “The task of defining the path forward is what we’re doing now.”
World View Enterprises
If you do not have the $200,000 to $300,000 it will take to book a ticket on a flight to space with Virgin Galactic or Blue Origins, both of whom plan to begin flights next year, there is a near-space experience that will be available soon which costs much less. World View Enterprises seeks to offer a balloon ride that will take people high enough for a space-like experience that is not only less expensive than its competitors, it is also much longer and more comfortable.World View, as they are commonly known, operates out of Tucson, Arizona, and currently flies payloads into the stratosphere for scientific and commercial purposes. According to their website, they offer “previously unthinkable applications at a fraction of the cost of existing technology,” namely cube satellites. The company is run and founded by a group of aerospace professionals, including astronaut Mark Kelly.They have flown several successful multi-day flights. World View co-founder and CEO Jane Poynter told CNBC they flew nine commercial flights last year and currently have more customers than they can handle. Poynter says they would like to have 100 successful trips under their belt before they begin their human-crewed flights.Thus far they had only experienced one major malfunction when one of their balloons exploded. The explosion rocked the city of Tucson, but Poynter says there were no significant injuries and it did not delay their operations “by even one iota.” The only injuries reported were by a couple of employees who suffered ringing in their ears.Their human-crewed flights will be on a “spacecraft” named the Voyager. Unlike Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights, Voyager trips will not require training. “Your journey of a lifetime begins the minute you step aboard the comfortable, stylishly-appointed spacecraft,” according to the website. “With no special training, you’ll experience a thrill like no other – one that for more than half a century has been reserved solely for astronauts.”Once aboard, passengers will enjoy large viewing windows and drinks. The craft moves relatively slowly, and the trip will last five hours. But don’t worry. There is a restroom onboard.
The ship will reach an altitude of 100,000 feet. This is less than Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, who plan to breach the border of space at around 300,000 feet. However, the views should still be spectacular.While much more expensive, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights are also shorter, lasting a matter of minutes as opposed to hours. They are also much more strenuous. Blue Origin say their passengers will experience forces up to 5 times that of Earth’s gravity. Some people may pass out as this is right at the border of what a typical person can handle.According to a World View representative, they have been taking deposits of $7,500 to reserve seats on Voyager flights. The entire ticket cost is $75,000. “We’ve had families sign up and buy the whole capsule,” a World View representative says. “You can take your parents and children. It’s going to be the ultimate Facebook status update: the entire family in space.”
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