Any space fans that grew up in the era of Apollo will likely tell you they thought that by the 2020s, we’d have humans living on the Moon and traveling to Mars. Weekend jaunts up to space hotels orbiting Earth would be commonplace, and maybe we’d be getting to spaceports in our flying cars.
But we don’t have any of this. As of right now, only 7 “tourists” have been into space. All were launched aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket coordinated by a U.S.-based company called Space Adventures (who prefers the term “private astronauts” rather than “space tourists”). These flights included a 10-ish-day stay on the International Space Station and came with estimated price tags of $20 million USD or more—definitely not within financial reach of most of us here on Earth.
In 2004, Sir Richard Branson announced Virgin Galactic, aiming to offer suborbital flights to tourists. While technically this would get you into “space”—above the Kármán Line—spending a few minutes in microgravity probably doesn’t have the same lure to some people as getting the chance to spend 10 days living on the International Space Station. Virgin Galactic’s price point was a bit more digestible though: $250,000. Still not at the level where just anyone could decide they wanted a ride, but low enough that around 650 people have signed up so far.
However, Virgin Galactic has been plagued with schedule delays, and was most notably set back by an accident with their VSS Enterprise ship in 2014, in which one of their pilots was killed. Since that loss, they have been understandably cautious as they’ve moved forward with testing of their SpaceShipTwo to make sure no more lives are lost. They’ve had a string of successful test flights recently. Branson said in 2019 that he thought he’d be flying into space within “months,” but that time has come and gone.
Virgin Galactic’s slow going gave the chance for competitors to enter the game. Blue Origin, a rocket company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has had multiple successful tests of their New Shepard rocket with a reusable booster. They may be aiming for their first crewed launch sometime in 2021. And with the pace of their tests and launches, this goal doesn’t seem far-fetched. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been much less focused on space tourism. In 2018, Musk announced that two unidentified private individuals have signed up for a trip around the Moon with SpaceX for an undisclosed price. SpaceX has also teamed up with external partners such as St. Jude for the Inspiration4 mission, whose goal is to be the first all-civilian spaceflight with four crew members, and Yusuke Maezawa’s for the Dear Moon project, aiming to send eight “civilian astronauts” around the Moon in 2023.
Talk of space tourism has not overwhelmingly resonated with the general public. A Pew Research Center study released in June 2018 found that only 42% of Americans were interested in traveling to space. Of the 58% of adults that said they didn’t want to travel into space, 28% believed their age or health would prevent them from being able to make the journey. (Other factors deterring people from the idea of space travel included fear and the prohibitively high cost.)
The public image of astronauts painted since the beginning of the space program is both impressive and daunting: An elite group of ridiculously brave brainiacs in peak physical shape who can remain cool under pressure. In 2017, over 18,000 people applied for NASA’s astronaut program. Only 12 were selected. Successful candidates must be able to withstand the rigors and isolation of space travel, and be able to complete science and engineering tasks under various constraints (time, resources, etc.) as part of their job.
However, merely being in “zero-G”—or “microgravity” if you want to get technical—isn’t inherently difficult. Companies like Zero Gravity Corporation offer paying customers the chance to experience weightlessness in 20–30 second bursts over the course of 15 parabolic maneuvers. While they require flyers to be at least 8 years old, there is no upper age limit, and their website states they’ve flown multiple passengers over age 90. Their medical release form asks questions about a range of medical conditions, but as long as your physician signs off saying they believe you are healthy enough for the flight, you can fly. Physicist Stephen Hawking, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (also known as ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), flew with Zero Gravity Corporation in 2007.
I interviewed a few of my friends and colleagues that have flown aboard such parabolic flights. Erin Bonilla, Graduate Student and Spaceflight Training Consultant, describes the experience on her blog: “Weightlessness was not at all what I thought it was going to be. For as many times as I heard people describe the experience, I always assumed it was similar to that of a roller coaster. I was wrong. The feeling was totally natural.” She described the feeling as “pure bliss.” John Conafay, General Manager of Launch at ABL Space Systems, echoed Bonilla’s sentiments from his own flight experience, saying, “I knew as soon as I lifted off the plane floor for the first time: I have to get back here.” Marc Leatham, a space systems engineer, flew to conduct some experiments for one of his employers. While he described weightlessness as “the most beautifully serene feeling of calm” he’s ever had, trying to accomplish complex tasks was tricky even despite his training.
Bonilla notes that it’s not microgravity that’s hard to adjust to—it’s the high g forces you experience getting to microgravity when you’re traveling aboard a rocket. That’s probably the biggest hurdle to overcome in the physical sense for space tourists. World View, a stratospheric balloon company based in Arizona, was looking to remove this barrier by allowing passengers to gently float their way up to the edge of space in a capsule attached to one of their balloons. They’ve done a few test flights so far, but none with a full-size capsule or passengers (although they do hold the record for the highest altitude skydive—and no, it’s not the Red Bull one you might be thinking of). Their business model more recently seems to have shifted to focus on uncrewed flights carrying Earth-observing payloads, so they may have given up on the idea of (near-)space tourism for the time being.
Once actual civilians begin flying into space aboard some of these private missions, I predict we’ll start to see a shift in public sentiment toward space travel. Initially these flights will be biased toward wealthy individuals based on the price tag, but we’ll at least start to see folks that don’t fit the mold of the traditional “astronaut” in many people’s minds. That might get more people thinking that it’s something they’re physically and/or mentally cut out for, something they’d like to try in their lives if the price was right. Maybe instead of saving up for a bungee jumping trip to New Zealand, they’ll opt for a jaunt into microgravity to see New Zealand from space.
Which company do you think will be the first to send civilians into space aboard fully commercial rockets? Let me know in the comments!