Space Tourism: A New Hobby for the Rich

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Movies like Star Wars and Star Trek have humans fighting Aliens and traveling around the galaxy. The latter may soon become reality.

In 2001, Dennis Tito, a businessman and entrepreneur from Los Angeles, paid over US$20 million to go to space. He arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and became the world’s first space tourist.

Today, over two decades later, space tourism has surged in popularity. While only seven others have followed suit, space travel could soon become a reality for many. Currently, several companies, led by millionaires, are working on building rockets and even balloons to carry people to space.

English business magnate and Virgin Airways Founder Richard Branson, for instance, has started a space tourism company called Virgin Galactic. Similarly, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has ventured into space tourism business with his company Blue Origin.

Bezos is also gearing up to travel to space with his brother next month. In June, he sold a spare seat on the flight for over $28 million in a 10-minute auction.

The growth of space tourism

Rockets can not be reused and use up a lot of fuel, making space travel expensive. For instance, Houston-based Axiom Space charges up to $55 million for a week-long trip to the ISS.

Suborbital flights are a cheaper option. Here, a rocket goes high enough to reach a certain height, and then come back down immediately, without completing an orbit. Passengers would be able to feel weightlessness for a short period of time, and see incredible views of Earth. Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic offer such suborbital flights.

Owing to the expenses involved, space flights have traditionally been carried out only by nation-states. At one point in time, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) even forbade opening spaceflight to ordinary citizens. It was only in 2019 that it reversed its stance to open the International Space Station to tourists.

Branson first developed Virgin Galactic by buying SpaceShipOne, an experimental air-launched rocket-powered aircraft, in 2004. As of now, Virgin Galactic rockets can only carry up to six passengers in a suborbital flight. Branson says he intends to be the first passenger aboard the spacecraft, following which the company will start sending more tourists into space.

However, Virgin Galactic’s plans have been delayed multiple times. Branson had suggesting opening the business to tourists by 2009. Over a decade later, it’s still not open to tourists. A major hurdle in Branson’s plans was the 2014 SpaceShipTwo plane crash, which claimed the life of a pilot. The crash revealed many problems with the plane’s operation system, which included the ship’s air-braking descent device deploying too early.

Meanwhile, Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000. He has reportedly been spending 1 billion per year from his earnings on the company. The company’s flagship rocket, the New Shepard, successfully flew to the edge of space in 2015. While Bezos is yet to send tourists to space, he is planning to go to space with his brother on July 20 this year.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is another major player in the space tourism industry. Founded in 2002, SpaceX’s goal is to develop reusable and renewable launch technologies, and decrease the cost of space travel. SpaceX’s rockets will land on earth so that they won’t contribute to the problem of space debris.

In 2020, SpaceX became the first and only private company to send astronauts to space, taking them a step ahead of their competitors in the space tourism industry.

Another player in the space tourism industry is Space Perspective. Space Perspective aims to take tourists to space inside a balloon. They recently had a test of the stratospheric balloon, which successfully flew over 20 miles above Earth. The stratospheric balloon requires much less fuel than a private rocket, and runs on liquid propane from pressurized gas tanks, with oxygen to ignite.

Company Co-founder Jane Poynter believes that this way of travel can be more affordable compared to others. One ticket to space with Space Perspective would be $125,000 per passenger, far below what Blue Origin or SpaceX are charging.

Risks in Space Tourism

Due to the complexity of space travel, it is quite difficult for governments to ensure spacecrafts are safe. One way that the government could regulate space travel is by giving a stamp of approval, appraising the safety standards of such flights.

Presently, space flight companies are required to give consent forms to customers, outlining the potential dangers of space travel, and the risks involved. Furthermore, since the U.S. government has yet to certify a space launch, travelers must sign waivers that there is a chance of injury or death. Moreover, if space travel companies indulge in reckless or negligent behavior, the American Supreme court may allow travelers to sue them.

It is likely that the industry will grow tremendously in the next few years. With billionaires like Bezos and Musk putting their resources into the field, reaching the stars would soon become more than a dream for many. However, due to the expenses involved, space tourism is likely to be accessible only to the uber-wealthy for a long time to come.

Images courtesy of SpaceX on Unsplash

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George Lim

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