For most people, getting to the stars is nothing more than a dream. On April 28, 2001, Dennis Tito achieved that lifelong goal – but he wasn’t a typical astronaut. Tito, a wealthy businessman, paid US$20 million for a seat on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to be the first tourist to visit the International Space Station. Only seven people have followed suit in the 20 years since, but that number is poised to double in the next 12 months alone.
NASA has long been hesitant to play host to space tourists, so Russia – looking for sources of money post-Cold War in the 1990s and 2000s – has been the only option available for those looking for this kind of extreme adventure. However, it seems the rise of private space companies is going to make it easier for regular people to experience space.
From my perspective as a space policy analyst, I see the beginning of an era in which more people can experience space. With companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin hoping to build a future for humanity in space, space tourism is a way to demonstrate both the safety and reliability of space travel to the general public.
The development of space tourism
Flights to space like Dennis Tito’s are expensive for a reason. A rocket must burn a lot of costly fuel to travel high and fast enough to enter Earth’s orbit.
Another cheaper possibility is a suborbital launch, with the rocket going high enough to reach the edge of space and coming right back down. While passengers on a suborbital trip experience weightlessness and incredible views, these launches are more accessible.
The difficulty and expense of either option has meant that, traditionally, only nation-states have been able to explore space. This began to change in the 1990s as a series of entrepreneurs entered the space arena. Three companies led by billionaire CEOs have emerged as the major players: Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX. Though none have taken paying, private customers to space, all anticipate doing so in the very near future.
British billionaire Richard Branson has built his brand on not just business but also his love of adventure. In pursuing space tourism, Branson has brought both of those to bear. He established Virgin Galactic after buying SpaceShipOne - a company that won the Ansari X-Prize by building the first reusable spaceship. Since then, Virgin Galactic has sought to design, build and fly a larger SpaceShipTwo that can carry up to six passengers in a suborbital flight.