Earlier this week, shortly after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced he would fly to outer space on July 20 on a craft designed by his aerospace company Blue Origin, rumors began circulating that Virgin Records’ Sir Richard Branson would try to beat him there on a ship designed by his own space flight company, Virgin Galactic.
This billionaire space race highlights a flurry of activity taking place in the realm of space tourism, as companies seek to bring space travel to the people, or at least the people who can afford it.
Aerospace companies have provided private travel to space for years, but until now the missions have been almost entirely for purposes of science and development. Only seven individuals have flown to space as tourists. Between 2001 and 2010, the space tourism company Space Adventures facilitated tourism stays on the International Space Station (ISS), reserving travelers a spot aboard a Russian spacecraft for between $20 million (€16 million) and $40 million a seat. The pleasure trips ceased in 2010 due to increasing demand from research crews.
But the space tourism industry has developed rapidly in the last few years, with many players on the scene now in advanced stages of development.
The space travel and tourism market is expected to generate nearly $8 billion in revenue between 2020 and 2030, according to a study by space and satellite industry consultancy Northern Sky Research (NSR).
The market can be broken down into three primary types of flights on offer: orbital, suborbital, and parabolic. Orbital flights reach speeds high enough to remain in orbit around the Earth. Suborbital flights fly slower than this, reaching outer space, but without the velocity to enter orbit. Parabolic flights, the most accessible of the three, take place in modified commercial jets that perform special maneuvers, coming temporarily into freefall. This replicates the feeling of weightlessness experienced in outer space without going there.
Over 100 parabolic flights took place in 2019, with tickets for a flight running around $5,000 per person. Parabolic flights are the most accessible in terms of price and technology, but they don’t actually involve entering outer space.
Today people want the real deal, so the more expensive and technically demanding orbital and suborbital flights are expected to make up a combined 98% of the market until 2030. Pre-booking for these flights has shown healthy demand, while the parabolic segment has seen sluggish growth, according to NSR.
Suborbital flights take passengers outside of the Earth’s atmosphere for a few minutes, where they have a view of their home planet and the sensation of weightlessness, then return to Earth a few minutes later. Trips to the ISS, which orbits the Earth, are considered orbital space flights.
A room with a view
Amazon’s Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are considered the frontrunners of an industry made up of over 20 key players.
Following Bezos’ landmark trip, Blue Origin plans to offer suborbital trips on the New Shephard, a traditional rocket that takes off and lands vertically. The crew capsule, located on top of the spacecraft, contains comfortable seats and massive windows designed with tourists in mind. Spots on board are to be made available for purchase to the public once Bezos has completed his flight. Prices are currently unknown, though an ongoing auction for one seat on Bezos’ flight recently hit $4 million, according to a ticker on Blue Origin’s website.
Virgin Galactic also aims to offer commercial suborbital flights aboard its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane. The company already has a long waiting list of people reserving spots on board. The total cost is still unknown, but a reservation requires a $250,000 deposit. Commercial flights are pegged to begin in 2022. Virgin Galactic plans eventually to scale up to offering 1,200 flights per year, with six seats per flight.
“The resulting economies of scale and competing technologies will lead to further downward pressure on the cost of launch — enabling an ever-increasing number of users with diverse, world-changing applications,” the company wrote on its website.
The $10 flight
SpaceX has been more focused on testing and development than on marketing its tourism offerings. Unlike Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft can already reach low-Earth orbit. While the trips are costly, this positions SpaceX to offer the most premium experiences available right now.
Before the end of 2021, the company will launch Inspiration4, the first “all-civilian” mission into the Earth’s orbit. Purchased by billionaire Jared Issacman, who will serve as commander, one seat on the four-person voyage is to be raffled off in a charity auction to anyone who donates more than $10. At least three other SpaceX private missions are planned for the next few years.
What to do once you get there
Brokerage firm Axiom Space is also working with SpaceX, managing the logistics of the first fully private mission to the ISS, currently planned for January 2022. A veteran astronaut will accompany three tourists on a 10-day mission that includes an 8-day stay on the space station. Axiom plans to offer a few such flights a year alongside its greater plan to build habitable modules connected to the ISS, what Axiom calls the world’s first commercial space station.
Unlike Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, SpaceX has plans to offer orbital space flights within the next year
“Everybody’s building rockets, but nobody was building any destinations to go to,” Axiom co-founder Kam Ghaffarian told CNBC in February. “Lots of companies are building rides to space, but where are they going to go, especially when the International Space Station retires?”
The original space tourism specialists, Space Adventures, are also partnering with SpaceX to put tourists on the first fully autonomous mission to space. The trip, due to take place by early 2022, will send four individuals into high Earth orbit for five days. No trained astronaut will be on board. A NASA report estimated that seats will cost around $55 million each.
US aviation giant Boeing also has skin in the game, having signed a deal with NASA that engages Boeing’s help in developing a crew capsule called the Boeing CST-100 Starliner. In exchange, Boeing has the right to sell seats on the capsule to tourists.