Dennis Tito, an American businessman became the first private individual to pay for his own trip into space in 2001. He paid $20 million to Russia to fly aboard a Soyuz spacecraft and spend a week aboard the International Space Station (ISS). In other words – he was the pioneer of space tourism as we know it today.
In October 2022, Tito had again inked a deal to travel on a one-week journey aboard SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, this time with his wife Akiko, and 10 other paying passengers. They will be flying a path that will take them around the far side of the moon. Traveling to space for vacations may not be affordable, but it sure is possible – thanks to space tourism.
What is Space Tourism?
Humans started to realize their ambitions to conquer space back in 1961, when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth on an adventure that lasted 108 minutes. This feat was followed by multiple milestones from others, including Valentina Tereshkova (1963) who became the first woman to fly to outer space aboard the Vostok 6; and US astronauts like Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrich and Neil Armstrong (1969), who succeeded in stepping on the surface of the Moon.
This was followed by multiple other attempts – some unsuccessful and others successful, to send astronauts to space for research, exploration and various other experimental studies. This includes setting up the MIR space station in 1986 and then the ISS (International Space Station) in 1998.
Although space has been explored time and again by astronauts and scientists, it was a novel idea to send tourists to space until Dennis Tito, an aeronautical engineer, paid Roscosmos for a trip to outer space for his flight on the Russian spacecraft, Soyuz TM-32.
Space tourism is the act of traveling to space for recreation, either on established government-owned vehicles like the Russian Soyuz and the International Space Station (ISS) or on vehicles by private companies. The space tourism industry is a niche segment of the aviation industry that seeks to give tourists the ability to experience space tours for recreational, leisure, or business purposes. Obviously space tourism is an extremely expensive experience. So only a very small segment of consumers are able and willing to pay for space tours and for traveling to space.
Who is sending Tourists to Space?
In the late 2010s and early 2020s, three companies emerged as the frontrunners in the space tourism industry with advancements made to fly tourists to space: SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
Elon Musk founded SpaceX with the goal of reducing space transportation costs and expanding the reach of humankind within the solar system. He hopes to build “1,000 starships over a span of 10 years”, helping the company to explore Mars.
Blue Origin, LLC, founded by Jeff Bezoz, is an American aerospace, defense, space exploration company and launch service provider. Blue Origin also participated in the running to partner with NASA. Although SpaceX won that bid, Blue Origin continues its work towards space tourism. Blue Origin and Sierra Space hope to launch their own space station, called Orbital Reef, by the late 2020s. Orbital Reef will be a commercially developed, owned and operated space station situated in low Earth orbit, with the main goal of creating a human habitat in space.
Virgin Galactic, was the first to openly offer space tours to civilians. Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic beat Blue Origin and SpaceX, becoming the first of the three to launch his aircraft/rocket Unity 22 toward the stars. His was also the lowest flight – just 86 km. Branson was accompanied by a crew of five. However, all further commercial space tours and the company’s plans to send tourists to space have been postponed multiple times due to various factors, including manufacturing defects.
Other companies who are openly investing in space tourism and sending tourists in space are Orion Span (with the plans to launch the commercial space station: Aurora Space Station), Boeing, Space Adventures, and Zero 2 Infinity.
2021 was a big year for Space Tourism
2021 turned out to be a great year for enthusiasts interested in traveling to space:
- After several attempts that didn’t make it safely to landing, SpaceX’s Starship SN-15 prototype launched its own test flight in May, 2021 and made it all the way from takeoff to touchdown.
- In July 2021, Virgin Galactic launched its first operational tourist flight sending tourists to space, including founder Richard Branson. In what Branson described as “the experience of a lifetime,” there were 4 crew members and two pilots of the Unity 22 test flight. This mission flew just above the boundary of space, where everyone experienced about four minutes of weightlessness. Similarly, Blue Origin had launched Jeff Bezos to space.
In the context of space tourism innovation, there was significant growth as well:
- SpaceX’s Starship prototype (SN-20) perched on its massive Super Heavy booster for the first time in August. This briefly set a new record for the world’s tallest rocket during preparations for an orbital mission.
- There were multiple instances of sending other tourists in space by the different pioneers of this field, which set a good precedent for the future of private space travel.
In short, 2021 was definitely a pivotal year for mankinds’ quest for space travel.
Space Tourism – How are we launching tourists in space?
For the past decade, private space tourism companies like the ones mentioned above, have been developing the necessary technology and spacecraft to launch tourists in space. They invest in suborbital flights which bring space tourists to the edge of space and back down to Earth in relatively short “hops” with the duration lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. For instance, the first nine Space Adventure clients flew orbital missions that encircled the planet for days.
The method of space flight varies by company:
- While Blue Origin launches vertically like most rockets, Virgin Galactic on the other hand, flies a rocket-powered space plane that is launched from the belly of a carrier aircraft. These two companies are the only suborbital companies cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for launches.
- Both of these companies have already carried interested tourists to space—other companies are preparing for liftoff. That includes space-balloon companies Space Perspective and WorldView, which offer a far more leisurely journey than rocket-powered ascents, gently lifting passengers to high altitudes in a high-tech version of a hot air balloon.
- The average price of traveling to space is $50,000 to $450,000 per seat across all suborbital space tourism companies.
Orbital space tourism is also growing in popularity. It is far more expensive – tens of millions of dollars per seat. SpaceX, which is contracted by NASA to launch astronauts to the ISS, is also available for private charters.
The First Civilian Space Missions of the World
In 2021, entrepreneur Jared Isaacman organized the Inspiration4 mission – the world’s first all-civilian mission. In this mission, he and three crewmates orbited the Earth in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule as a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The capsule was launched from the Kennedy Space Center and carried 4 non-professional astronauts as space tourists.
SpaceX hit another milestone in 2022, when the space tourism facilitator provided the launch vehicle for the Axiom mission 1 (Ax-1). The mission which sent 4 tourists to space was designed to conduct extensive research and STEM outreach during which four crew members spent eight days onboard the orbiting research facility. Axiom Space is now gearing for its second mission – currently scheduled to launch in the spring of 2023.
Space Adventures also gained momentum when it organized a flight to the ISS for Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, who is known for traveling to space in December 2021. Maezawa intends to charter SpaceX’s under-development Starship spacecraft for a moon mission called the dearMoon project, taking with him eight civilians on the journey.
The Technology & Feasibility of Sending Tourists to Space
The growth of the space tourism industry has also led to innovation in the product space. Due to the current popularity of the space tourism sector, several companies are investing in the creation of various new technologies that space tourists will be able to utilize.
When we launch tourists in space, several instruments can be used to meet their basic needs – including, but not limited to: air, heat, light and food. Product designers are thus working on developing products that can satiate the need of future space tourists and can improve the future of private space travel.
For instance, one such instrument that may be used to provide an extra kick of oxygen is the “aerating loop”. Some other product ideas for tourists in space include a personal heater, spatial food steamer and floating light.
Space Exploration via Virtual Reality for Tourists
Another exciting product space that is growing due to the increasing enthusiasm and popularity of space tourism is Virtual Reality (VR). Owing to the large costs of a space tour, not everyone can afford traveling to space.
The VR Planetarium is a virtual reality model of a planetarium that creates a virtual reality space designed to allow users to explore the skies and learn about astronomy even without access to adequate stargazing conditions and traditional museums. The goal of the project is to create a publicly accessible educational tool that will promote user learning in a fun and interactive way as they navigate through the virtual environment. It is designed in Unreal Engine with 3D assets created with Blender modeling software.
Space tourism is also enabling research in other domains. The rise of space tourism can provide further development of terrestrial observation systems and the preparation of technologies for interplanetary space tours, among other things. This new era of research could help foster the future of private space travel.
Space Tourism in 2030: What is the Future of Private Space Travel?
The next decade is going to be extremely important for the growth of space tourism and the future of private space travel. Rocket launches are getting cheaper by the year and experts from the aerospace sector predict breakthrough discoveries and a burgeoning space economy by 2035, as governments and companies look to do more in outer space.
Joe Landon, VP of Advanced Programs Development at Lockheed Martin Space, predicts that “we’re gonna see ‘space for space,’ in the future of space tourism. So, at the moon, there will be services where the value is created and the transactions happen in space, for space. For example, you could have a spacecraft that gets refueled in space.”
Peter Platzer, co-founder and CEO of Spire Global (a global data and analytics company that uses satellite technology), also claims that we could soon see structures in space that are not just government owned but are commercially owned + commercially operated. These structures will “not just serve research, but will also cater to space tourism”.
It is not too difficult to believe the same with the rapid growth of technology and facilities to launch tourists in space. Space tours could be more frequent with more and more people traveling to space.
What is the future of space tourism? Could we have humans who have landed on the moon? Could we also identify extraterrestrial life in our space tours?
All of this could be possible, given that it is predicted that traveling to space could get more affordable over the next few years.
Four projects have received funding from NASA’s Commercial LEO Development Program. This includes:
- Axiom Space: the company that launched the Ax-1 mission. The Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) is currently scheduled to launch in the spring of 2023. The four-person Axiom Space crew will fly to space in SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft atop its Falcon 9 rocket to participate in a 12-day mission, including 10 days working and living on the orbiting laboratory to implement a full mission manifest of science, outreach, and commercial activities.
- Another funded project, Starlab by Voyager Space and its subsidiary Nanoracks, has partnered with Hilton to develop astronaut accommodations to conduct investigations, advance scientific discovery, and foster industrial activity in microgravity.
The future of private space travel and space tourism is bright and certainly within the realm of reality—all we have to do is wait.
Geographically, where is the bulk of the research of space tourism concentrated?
- North America is the leader in the space tourism market. It has a well-established infrastructure and an extensive research and development base.
- Europe also shows potential in the space tourism industry, with the U.K. government pledging £2 million to fund horizontal space launches from the country.
Although there are pressing questions that need to be addressed, like how will space tourism affect the environment? Are there constraints about future space travel that we are completely unaware of?
However, these questions can only be answered when there is more study done on space tourism and more organizations invest in developing infrastructure for sending tourists in space.