Main image: Is space tourism ever going to happen? Credit: Axiom Space
Why go to space? Is it to see the panoramic curvature of Earth, watch a sunrise from space, or get some 'black sky time' and stargazing in daylight? The experience of orbiting the planet 16 times in each 24-hour period while traveling at five miles per second? Or to experience a few minutes of zero gravity after a 30-minute supersonic ride up to Kármán, the invisible line 62 miles up that separates the Earth and space?
Whatever the appeal, space tourism is not new – the first space tourist paid US$20 million dollars to visit the International Space Station (ISS) in 2001 on a Soyuz spacecraft – but it's still a rarity; there are almost never more than six people in space at any time, all of them professional astronauts on the International Space Station.
So how can you join in?
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How to get to space
How a private citizen gets to space is, currently, pretty simple: you acquire many millions of dollars, call Space Adventures and go to Star City near Moscow to embark on a 12-week training regime. Then you get into a Soyuz-TMA spacecraft and blast off for a week-long stay on the ISS.
However, there may soon be more choice. SpaceX's Crew Dragon 2 and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner are on the cusp of tests to take astronauts into space for NASA and others, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity is getting closer to space, and thre are some ultra high-altitude balloons in the works, too.
There may also one day be more choices of places to visit, with a brief trip to space or a 10-day stay on the ISS not the only possible option. SpaceX recently postponed its plans to fly tourists around the Moon on a Falcon Heavy rocket until at least 2019, but some private 'space hotels' are planned for those who want a taste of orbital spaceflight.
Whether you want to be a space tourist, a private astronaut or a citizen space explorer and see the planet from above, here are some of the ways you can get into orbit.
It's been expected to launch since 2009, but perfecting Virgin Galactic's rocket-powered supersonic trips to suborbital space has not proved easy. Its SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise experimental spaceflight crashed in October 2014, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury, and since then there have been a series of tests.
In May its SpaceShipTwo VSS UnityVSS Unity spacecraft performed its second successful supersonic, rocket-powered test flight after detaching from the WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve 'mothership'. After a 30-second burn of the engine it reached a speed of Mach 1.9 and an altitude of 114,500 feet before gliding home to a smooth runway landing.
However, there's a long way to go yet – 114,500 feet is about 21 miles, which is far short of the 62 miles Virgin Galactic intends to eventually reach. There are over 700 ticket-holders waiting to take one of VSS Enterprise's six passenger seats; their $250,000 tickets may get them five minutes in space during a two-hour flight.
Although it’s neck-and-neck with Virgin Galactic to be the first space tourism company to go live, Blue Origin's plans for suborbital trips are a completely different ball-game.
Jeff Bezos's space tourism offering will see punters paying $200,000-$300,000 to blast-off on top of a reusable rocket. Six passengers will climb into a capsule on top of a New Shepard rocket, and be launched towards the edge of space.
As the rocket returns to the launchpad, each passenger in the capsule will get a few minutes of weightlessness, and chance to gawp at Earth from above through their own window, before the capsule parachutes back to Earth. The company has already performed tests, with its Mannequin Skywalker standing in as a space tourist.
Blue Origin hasn't set a timetable for its first flights, but it did recently test its safety procedures.
Although it couldn't be more different from Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin’s adrenalin-inducing supersonic experiences, the idea behind this two-hour cruise through near-space in a high-altitude balloon is exactly the same: you get to see the curvature of the planet, and return home inspired to change it.
Instead of going up 62 miles, Bloon reaches 'only' 22 miles, but that's more than high enough to see both the curvature of the planet and a completely black sky.
Taking off from a Spanish Air Force base near Virgen del Camino in northern Spain, a helium-filled Bloon balloon will carry a pressurized capsule underneath that will take four passengers and two pilots to the stratosphere.
The trip is planned to go something like this: take off well before dawn and rise to 22 miles in around one hour, where passengers will watch the sunrise out of huge windows during a two-hour cruising period. Bloon them vents helium and gradually descends, separates from the balloon, and para-foils back to Earth over 30 minutes.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin may grab most of the headlines when it comes to space tourism, but there's only one company that's actually done it: US travel agency Space Adventures.
So far it's sent seven people to the International Space Station (ISS) for a total of 80 days. They've included Dennis Tito in 2001 – the first space tourist – and Guy Laliberté, the Cirque du Soleil founder, while Microsoft co-founder Charles Simonyi has been up twice. All the trips were aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, after extensive training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City in Russia.
Space Adventures describes itself as 'the world's premier private spaceflight company', although it's currently on something of a hiatus. The last person it sent to space was Laliberté in 2009. It planned to send either singer Sarah Brightman or Japanese advertising exec Satoshi Takamatsu into orbit in 2015 – at a cost of around $52 million each – but both pulled out after beginning training.
However, it's certainly ambitious, and is already offering a Circumlunar Mission for two private citizens (and one professional cosmonaut) who want to commit to a flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket first to the ISS, and then to the far side of the Moon in a Lunar Module, in the early 2020s.
Space tourists will one day be able to enjoy more than just a ride on a rocket – they'll be able to stay in orbiting space hotels and 'space condominiums', a few of which are in the works.
The first comes from US space company Orion Span, whose Aurora Station space hotel for six guests and two crew will sit in a low-Earth orbit 200 miles above the Earth's surface, circling the globe once every 90 minutes. Naturally, it will have high-speed wireless internet access available so that occupants can livestream their experience back to Earth (get ready, Instagram) when it opens in 2022.
If you fancy a visit, Orion Span is already taking bookings upon payment of a US$80,000 deposit, and Aurora Station is fully booked for its first four months. The full cost for a 12-day trip is US$9.5 million per person – although the rocket ride will cost (a lot) extra.
Orion Span CEO Frank Bunger plans to sell 'condominiums', enabling people to live in the Aurora Station, take frequent trips, and likely sub-let their room. State-owned space agency astronauts are likely to be frequent visitors.
Axiom Space has plans for its own orbital hotel – Axiom Station – which it's hoping to piggy-back onto the existing ISS structure. Presuming that the ISS will be decommissioned in 2025, Axiom wants to attach its own module(s) that, for now, will expand the ISS for more astronauts. Once it's grown in size, or the ISS is scrubbed, Axiom Space's modules will be able to detach and orbit alone as the Axiom Station.
The company reckons its project will cost US$2.2 billion to build, and recently announced that it's now selling trips to the ISS (with an astronaut in tow) starting as soon as 2020, at $55 million per seat for a 10-day sojourn. The ride to the ISS is likely to be via SpaceX, after a 15-week astronaut training program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Bigelow Aerospace has a similar idea, though its Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), now attached to the ISS, isn't intended for space tourism.
From space condos to recycled rockets: Independence-1 is an ambitious concept from cubesat-deployer NanoRacks, which wants to re-use a spent rocket upper stage to create a 'near-space habitat' for exploration and space tourism. A crazy idea, surely? Actually, that's exactly what NASA did back in 1973 to create SkyLab, its first orbiting space station, which used a Saturn V fuel tank.
The concept is known as a 'wet lab', and NanoRacks thinks Independence-1 could be a prototype for similar space habitats in deep space. Ultimately it wants to use a spent upper stage from NASA and Boeing’s Space Launch System rocket, which could be used to send astronauts on their way to Mars. The first steps may involve attaching Independence-1 to the ISS, with NASA's help.
It's still early days
For now the choice for wannabe space tourists is between a long, slow trip to near-space to get 'the overview effect' in slow-motion, an adrenalin-fueled short-but-sharp trip to the edge of space in a supersonic plane or on top of a small rocket, or a trip on top of a big rocket – probably Russian, possibly SpaceX – to orbit Earth for a few weeks.
Either way, all of these experiences have two things in common: they're hugely expensive and forever delayed. One of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will probably be the next to take tourists into space after Space Adventures, but not before many more tests that meet stringent safety standards have been carried out. Space tourism continues to require as much patience as it does cash.
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