The space race for tourists
After years of delays, the long-awaited dream of commercial flights to space may soon become reality
Who first proposed space tourism?
Pan Am optimistically started offering commercial passenger flights to the moon in 1968 — the morning after Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon. Juan Trippe, the airline's founder, established a "First Moon Flights Club," whose members could reserve seats onboard a commercial moon shuttle that he predicted would launch in the year 2000 at a cost of $14,000 a head. Among the 93,000 people to sign up was then California Gov. Ronald Reagan. Trippe's timing, at least, wasn't too far off the mark. In April 2001, American businessman Dennis Tito became the first space tourist when he paid $20 million to fly to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Now, it finally looks as if larger-scale passenger flights into space will soon become a reality. The private company SpaceX last month sent the first commercial shuttle into orbit to rendezvous with the ISS — the most significant step yet in the private sector's race to the stars.
Which company will be first?
Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is probably the closest to rocketing day-trippers into space, although it keeps pushing back the date. Branson has already signed up over 500 passengers at $200,000 a head for flights on SpaceShipTwo, a rocket-powered spaceship that will take six paying customers 62 miles above the earth. At the apex of their flight, they will be able to view the earth's curvature against the stars, and even unbuckle their seat belts and experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Branson said in November that the first flights would take off sometime in 2012, but that now seems unlikely; since Virgin launched the tourist project in 2004, the date for the maiden flight has been repeatedly delayed. One of Branson's astronauts, venture capitalist Alan Walton, 76, has already asked for his money back, fearing that he will be too old to fly by the time Virgin is ready. "This was a decision I wish I didn't have to make," he said.
Why all the delays?
Branson's famously optimistic nature has run up against lots of engineering and logistical problems. A fuel tank exploded during tests for SpaceShipTwo in 2007, killing three engineers, and the construction in New Mexico of Spaceport America — where tourists will take off and land — was plagued with contractor disputes. Competitor Blue Origin, an aerospace company started by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, also suffered a setback, when an experimental rocket ship crashed in August 2011 during a high-altitude test. John Gedmark, former executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said delays and technical problems were to be expected. "Everything in aerospace always takes longer than you originally think," he said.
So is liftoff really imminent?
The Federal Aviation Administration thinks so. It said in March that it expected private space vehicles to begin transporting passengers as soon as 2013, and predicted that the industry would be worth $1 billion within 10 years. The FAA plans to roll out detailed safety regulations for space tourists in October 2015. In the meantime, the travel industry is beginning to wake up to opportunities afforded by space tourism. Insurance giant Allianz recently became the first company to offer travel insurance to Virgin Galactic customers in the event that their trip to space is canceled altogether. Delays are not covered.
Who else is competing?
There are now more companies hoping to make money from spaceflight — at least eight — than there are major U.S. airlines. Bezos's Blue Origin is still testing a suborbital spacecraft similar to Virgin's proposed plane. Armadillo Aerospace, founded by video-game designer John Carmack, has promised to fly tourists into space for as little as $102,000, and tickets on XCOR Aerospace's Lynx two-seater will be even cheaper, at $95,000. And although SpaceX is focused mostly on contracting for NASA, founder Elon Musk hasn't given up on space tourism completely; earlier this year he said he anticipated offering flights to Mars in the next 10 to 15 years. That ticket could cost millions, but price has proved no object for many space tourists. "It's worth every penny," said Guy Laliberté, the Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil, who paid $35 million for a 12-day trip to the ISS in 2009. "There's so much to learn, so much to discover, so much to look at."
How big will space tourism get?
Branson predicts that by 2022, tens of thousands of people will fly into space every year, but many are far less sanguine. Economist Alex Tabarrok has argued that it could take generations for spaceflight to be safe enough for large-scale tourism. He points out that the risk of rocket failure is about 1 in 20, whereas a passenger on a commercial airline has just a 1 in 5 million chance of dying. "At best and for the foreseeable future, space travel will remain akin to climbing Everest, dangerous and uncommon," he said. "We might see 100 flights a year, but that's not space tourism. Tourism is fat guys with cameras."
A space hotel with stellar views
While Americans focus on getting tourists into space and back down again, the Russians have designed a space hotel where the mega-rich could stay a while. The Commercial Space Station will host seven guests at a time in something less than five-star luxury: Dehydrated food will be served, and the bathroom is little more than a suction tube. But the hotel will have unbeatable views of Earth from 250 miles up as it orbits at an average speed of 18,600 mph. After three months of training, guests will fly to the hotel on a Russian spacecraft and will be able to stay for as little as three days, or as long as six months. Russian authorities say the hotel could welcome its first guests as early as 2016. They haven't yet put an exact price tag on the experience, but if cost matters, you probably can't afford it.