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Event Horizon

Beyond rich guys in rockets: Here’s what will democratize space tourism

Can we make off-Earth travel affordable and (sort of) environmentally-friendly?

By Glenn McDonald

The Fantasy

Back in the 1950s, during the Golden Age of science fiction, writers imagined space tourism as a major perk of our bright and shiny future. The sci-fi pulp magazines depicted happy families at the municipal spaceport, booking orbital shuttles and lunar vacations.  

In the 1980s, the vision turned darker. Sci-fi’s cyberpunk genre anticipated rampant corporatocracy and a permanent overclass of One Percenters. William Gibson’s famously prescient 1984 novel Neuromancer featured the orbital luxury destination Freeside, a Monaco-in-the-sky reserved for American celebrities, Russian kleptocrats, and moneyed gangsters.

Now the age of real-life space tourism is finally dawning, with competing technology companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic developing recreational space travel programs. Which vision of the future will win out?

The Reality

For now, it looks like Neuromancer’s rich-guys-in-space model will prevail.

Finance executive Dennis Tito, considered the world’s first space tourist, spent seven days on the International Space Station in 2001. He’s the first of eight solo civilian passengers that the U.S. company Space Adventures sent to the ISS from 2001 to 2009, aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. They basically tagged along on scheduled flights with international astronaut crews, at around $20 million per seat.

After 2009, space tourism paused, mostly because actual scientists needed the seats. Then, in 2019, NASA announced a plan to reopen the ISS to tourism, this time using dedicated commercial space flights.

In April 2022, the ISS welcomed the first privately crewed flight dedicated to space tourists. The first-time space travelers — a businessman, an investor, and a real-estate magnate, with an astronaut escort — rocketed up on a partially reusable spacecraft built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and chartered by the privately funded company Axiom Space. Each passenger underwent hundreds of hours of training and paid about $55 million for the roundtrip ticket.

Soon, Earth will have a full-service space tourism industry. Major players in the high-end space-travel sector include SpaceX itself, which is planning a second Axiom mission in 2023, and Boeing’s nascent Starliner program. Other initiatives, like the upcoming Polaris program, are planning orbital trips that won’t dock with ISS. They’ll just spin around the planet for a while and offer passenger activities like spacewalks.

If you’re not hung up on orbiting, some down-market space tourism options are in development. Parabolic suborbital flights — quick up-and-down trips to the edge of space — provide great views and a few minutes of the coveted zero-gravity effect. But even that market segment is a rich person’s playground. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are in various stages of developing suborbital programs that fly near or just above the 62-mile Kármán line, the generally accepted boundary point between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

“Prices will go down. I expect a flight into low-Earth orbit to reduce from the millions to the tens-of-thousands in the next ten years.”

Madhu Thangavelu, a specialist in astronautics and orbital vehicle design

Bezos took some friends and family up in July 2021 and sent Star Trek actor William Shatner up that October. Blue Origin flights have also included tourists who’ve paid millions at auction for a seat. Meanwhile, delays have plagued the Virgin program. No paying client has yet made a trip, but Virgin once listed tickets to the public for $200,000 each.

Critics of the nascent space tourism industry quite reasonably argue that the real costs of space tourism are much higher. After all, it takes a tremendous amount of energy and resources to send a handful of rich people into space in rockets.

In response, the eco-conscious U.S. startup Space Perspective recently announced plans to create a “cocktail party in the sky” — a net-carbon-neutral operation that would approximate space travel by sending small groups 20 miles up in luxury passenger pods tied to massive hydrogen balloons. Technically, it’s not spaceflight: The maximum altitude is about 40 miles short of the Kármán line. And the price tag remains daunting: $125,000 for a six-hour flight.

Veteran science author and journalist Jeffrey Kluger — whose recent sci-fi novel Holdout is set aboard the International Space Station — thinks the 1950s vision of affordable space vacations for the Clark Griswold set is just not in the stars.

“I just don’t see anything terribly promising on the horizon for anyone but the very elite few,” says Kluger. “I see it as very much a boutique industry.”

The Future

Space architect Madhu Thangavelu is more optimistic. A specialist in astronautics and orbital vehicle design, Thangavelu suggests that the rich-guys-in-rockets paradigm isn’t our ultimate future, just our immediate future.

“Technologies associated with human travel almost always start with rich people doing things,” Thangavelu says. “Think of the first dirigible airships or the barnstorming days of aviation.”

Thangavelu notes that putting people into orbit used to require the economic might of entire nation-states. Already, that has changed. And now that private industry is involved, Thangavelu expects a much faster evolution, thanks to market competition and technological advances.

“Prices will go down,” he says. “I expect a flight into low-Earth orbit to reduce from the millions to the hundreds-of-thousands to the tens-of-thousands in the next ten years.”

Technological breakthroughs could be just over the horizon but not in public view yet, since private companies tend to safeguard their secrets. Axiom already has a plan for building the next iteration of the ISS, and other companies around the world are elbowing for their own plots of orbital real estate.

Blue Origin has its own proposed space station project called Orbital Reef, says Thangavelu, who recently saw space-flight prototype ideas at a conference in Las Vegas. “Northrop Grumman brought up a private orbital station that looked very sleek,” he says. “There are numerous outfits in Europe, too.”

What we really need, Thangavelu says, is a successor technology to rocket science, which is galactically expensive and ecologically problematic. A recent University College London study suggests that space tourism rockets’ super-high-altitude carbon emissions are 500 times worse than aircraft emissions, in terms of their effects on global warming. The study also found that frequent space-tourism launches could damage the ozone layer, reversing much of the progress the world has made in protecting it since the late 1980s.

What if we could drop the rocket part altogether? “My dream is that some kid, either in kindergarten now or maybe in middle school, will unravel the secrets of gravity,” Thangavelu says, referencing sci-fi concepts like antigravity engines. “Once we understand the mechanisms of altering gravity, that will be a game-changer — not just for space tourism, but for a lot of things on planet Earth.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has written for National Geographic, NPR, Discovery News, The History Channel, Thrillist, Goodreads, and McClatchy newspapers.

 

Top photo: Blue Origin space passengers, from left, Laura Shepard Churchley, Michael Strahan, Dylan Taylor, Cameron Bess, Lane Bess, and Evan Dick. Photo by LM Otero/Associated Press

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