Have you ever dreamed of going to space? Maybe you’ve thought about seeing the curvature of Earth, living on the Moon or chancing your luck on Mars. But, you lament, those are stories for another century. But maybe not. Space tourism might sound like something plucked out of the distant future, but it’s very quickly become a modern possibility. A handful of companies around the world are right now finalising plans to take paying customers into space and, if successful, it could make those dreams more probable than you thought.
Space tourism, in the broad sense of the term, is not new. From 2001 to 2009, seven individuals paid sums of around $20m-30m to visit the International Space Station (ISS), buying seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft through a company called Space Adventures. While those flights have now ceased, those that spent a week or two on the orbiting space station, they were the beginnings of sending paying customers to space.
Now two private US companies, SpaceX and Boeing, are both eyeing such ventures again. In 2020, the two companies are expected to begin ferrying astronauts to the ISS on spacecraft they have been building – the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner respectively – under contract with Nasa. While they will carry Nasa and in-house astronauts on their early flights, each seven-seater spacecraft could one day take paying customers to space, too.
The ISS is the current sole destination for these spacecraft. But private companies such as Bigelow Aerospace from Texas have drawn up plans to build orbiting space hotels, which these spacecraft could visit. Here, for significant sums of money, tourists could spend lengthier trips in orbit and enjoy all the quirks of weightlessness, alongside magnificent views of Earth and the universe.
Such flights will, of course, cost in the millions of dollars – far out of reach to the average person – but upcoming space tourism ventures are not limited to the wildly expensive. Two companies of note, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, are developing vehicles that can take people on shorter ‘hops’ into space for less time, but for a considerably lower cost than SpaceX and Boeing.
Virgin Galactic is powered by a space plane called SpaceShipTwo. Carried into the air by a large carrier aircraft, the plane is then dropped and activates its rocket engine, climbing to the technical boundary of space – 100 kilometres above the ground – where its engine cuts out, affording its occupants several minutes of weightlessness and that glorious view of Earth to boot. The plane then returns to a landing on a runway in the Mojave Desert, California, ready for another flight.
Blue Origin has similar ambitions. Its vehicle, called New Shepard, is a small vertical-launching rocket. Equipped with a crew-carrying capsule on top, the rocket lofts its passengers up to a similar height to Virgin Galactic, where the capsule detaches and, again, provides those much sought-after moments of weightlessness for several minutes, before returning to Earth via parachute.
While different in approach, both vehicles share a similarity in their ticket prices of roughly $250,000, with flights set to begin in 2020. Although still unaffordable to many, they provide a lower-cost method to reach the stars, albeit one that still requires considerable capital. But the hope is that these early ventures will lead to a near-future where space tourism is not only the remit of the rich, but for the enjoyment of everyone.
And there are broader dreams afoot; SpaceX is designing an even more ambitious spacecraft, called Starship, that it hopes can transport up to 100 people at a time into space. The vehicle is still in its early phases of development. But, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hopes, it could one day carry people around the Solar System to destinations such as the Moon and Mars, making us a true interplanetary species.
So while Star Trek-like dreams of travelling to other galaxies might be beyond our reach for now, the prospect of trips to our near-space environment is very much on the cards. And 2020 could be the year those dreams start to become a reality, at least for those that can afford it… for now.