It may take a decade or longer before we can get humans to Mars, and many more before we can send colonists to space to live and work. One possibility of the space age economy, however, is tantalizingly within our reach: space tourism.
The race to send day-trippers into sub-orbit heated up last week with a successful test flight by Jeff Bezos’s private space company Blue Origin. The launch of a reusable rocket and a capsule, the 14th by the billionaire Amazon founder’s firm, is expected to be one of the final tests before it puts on a live crew on the craft in early April.
If all goes to plan, Blue Origin may overtake another big space tourism player, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Branson’s company, which has already pre-sold more than 600 tickets costing $250,000 each, is aiming to begin taking paying customers on rides as soon as April. In December, a setback with a rocket component failure on the VSS United space plane could extend the timeline.
As soon as this year, wealthy thrill-seekers could have not only an opportunity to break free from Earth’s gravity but a choice in how to do it. According to a virtual tour the company released, Virgin Galactic customers would get to ride on a special plane that features six tailored seats and 17 circular windows. During the two-hour flight, the craft would ascend 60 miles above Earth, where passengers could unbuckle their seatbelts and experience a few minutes of weightlessness.
Blue Origin offers a different type of experience. Rather than a plane, the company plans to send humans into space using a rocket and reusable capsule. Although the flight is only 11-minutes, it promises a powerful adrenaline rush. Strapped into comfortable seats next to big picture windows, passengers will get the feeling of “lift-off,” accelerating vertically into sub-orbit. The booster will detach from the capsule, and after floating above the Earth for several minutes, the capsule will return safely to the surface using parachutes.
“The possibilities for exciting new experiences with recreational space travel are limitless,” AMG QUOTE. “We can truly go to infinity and beyond.”
One other famous billionaire is looking to cash in on the growing demand for pleasure cruises into space. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has said his company will bring three private citizens along on a trip to the International Space Station in late 2021. The 10-day sojourn, during which tourists will get to ride aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft, will be priced far out of reach for most travelers, at a cool $55 million per head.
Moving further into the market, SpaceX is also working with space tourism company Space Adventures to develop new versions of its crafts that would take adventurers into orbit around the Earth by late this year or early 2022. While not as ambitious as the ISS journey, going into full orbit will still offer travelers a more intensive space experience than the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights, which are suborbital and destined to be pulled back to the Earth’s surface.
According to a U.S. government report, space tourism has so far been on a bumpy road up until the past year. The concept began in 1997 when two travel industry veterans founded Space Adventures, which until recently was the only private company sending ordinary citizens into space. The company has brokered a handful of rides for paying customers aboard Russia’s Soyuz rockets. However, that business stopped when NASA halted its shuttle program in 2011, and American astronauts began using available space on Soyuz craft to get to the ISS.
Once it takes off in earnest, space tourism is expected to accelerate rapidly. By 2027, the global market is anticipated to generate $1.7 billion in annual revenue. These estimates have come down slightly to take into account the impact of the coronavirus. But with vaccines now available, and an end to the pandemic in sight, cash-rich consumers are likely feeling much pent-up demand for travel and new experiences. The space tourism market is expected to benefit from some of that wanderlust.
The U.S. government has taken a relatively hands-off approach, from a regulation standpoint, to allow the space tourism market the ability to develop. Under the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, Congress specified that the industry should be allowed to go through a “learning period” until at least 2023 before it comes under more close regulatory supervision.
By that time, the industry may have become relatively mature if it continues moving at its current pace. Companies have already sprung up to provide training to citizens wishing to become temporary astronauts. The insurance market has also been developing products for space pleasure trips.
SpaceX has its sights set not only on putting tourists into orbit, but potentially bringing them around the moon. In 2018, the company signed a deal with a Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to bring himself, a group of artists, and potentially a girlfriend on the journey. The goal was to launch the mission by 2023.