One Ticket To Space, Please

Fancy escaping Earth’s gravity and enjoying the view of the “blue sphere” from orbit? It’s already a possibility, albeit one with a hefty price tag.

The ISS orbits the Earth at an altitude of 400 kilometers and offers those with fat wallets a unique view. Photo: NASA

Not too many years ago, when state-run space agencies such as NASA and the traditional aerospace companies of Boeing and Lockheed Martin defined the path of Western space travel, the idea of space tourism was ridiculed, if considered at all. It was the collapsing Soviet Union that first opened itself to the concept of paid flights into space. American Dennis Tito wanted to be the first space tourist in 1991, and selected the Russian space station “Mir” as his holiday destination. Negotiations with the Russian space agency dragged on, and eventually the Soviet Union collapsed. Yet Tito never gave up on his dream.

2001: The First Tourist Visits the Universe

Thanks to his stubbornness, his overflowing bank account and a two-year training program, his dream was realized in April 2001. The 60-year-old flew to the International Space Station as a member of the Russian crew. The ISS is the successor of “Mir,” which continued to be operated and used by international space agencies until the year 2001.

NASA tried to prevent the precedent being set of tourists being taken to the space station until weeks before Tito’s expedition, but ultimately stopped resisting. Tito did, however have to sign a contract stipulating that he would pay for any components of the ISS that he damaged, and do so from his own pocket. As a Russian crew member, he was also prohibited from accessing the US sections of the ISS without an accompanying US astronaut. Tito remained on the ISS for eight days in total, and in this time experienced 128 sunrises and sunsets. That is little wonder, as the ISS orbits our planet at a speed of approximately 28,000 kilometers per hour, and a full circumnavigation of the globe only takes around 90 minutes.

Roskosmos Takes 50 Million US Dollars for a Flight to the ISS

For the realization of the dream that he so steadfastly pursued, Tito paid approximately 20 million US dollars. He also proved to be a trailblazer for ­others. Via Russian space agency Roskosmos, six other space tourists have followed him. The state-run firm attaches a price tag to the ISS visit of approximately 50 million US dollars.

However, it is not the state-run space agencies that will advance the space tourism sector in future, rather private commercial providers. Entrepreneur Elon Musk and his high-tech firm SpaceX are among the visionaries that eventually wish to carry paying passengers not just into space, but to the moon as well.

SpaceX relies on reusable booster rockets, which should drastically reduce the costs for space flights. Despite several setbacks, SpaceX has proven several times that the company has mastered the technology. The focus is now on proving their systems’ reliability. SpaceX’s gargantuan Falcon Heavy rocket, which blasted out of the atmosphere for the first time in January 2018, represents the strongest booster rocket available today.

Space Tourism is not Risk-Free

In addition to the rocket itself, SpaceX also requires a habitat to hold the space tourists. To solve this issue, Musk’s firm is repurposing a Dragon cargo pod as a capsule capable of supporting human life. The visionary entrepreneur intends to save on the personnel costs of professional astronauts on board the capsule, therefore the two passengers will fly alone in their pod. In 2017, Musk announced that there are already two individuals that have shown serious interest in such a space flight. In the one-week mission, they would circle the moon once. Space tourism is, however, not without its risks, and Musk himself acknowledges this. While they are trying to reduce risks to an absolute minimum, nobody is claiming that such an adventure would be “zero-risk.”

“I hope that by the end of this century, hundreds of thousands of people will have become astronauts,”  Richard Branson says.


Two of the three directors of Virgin Galactic: Sir Richard Branson (left) and George Whitesides (right). Photo: Virgin Galactic

In comparison to other space tourism offerings, the flights that self-made British billionaire Richard Branson is planning through Virgin Galactic are a relative bargain. A spaceflight is reportedly already available for a low six-figure sum, for which many would be able to buy a small home.

“I hope that by the end of this century, hundreds of thousands of people will have become astronauts. If you look back 100 years into the past, nobody could have ever imagined the extent to which we now take flying for granted. I don’t see why this could not also be possible for space travel in future,” Branson describes his vision. Since 2004, Virgin Galactic has worked together with legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan on the system, which intends to provide space tourists with once-in-a-lifetime views and experiences.

Weightlessness in SpaceShipTwo

The system comprises a twin-fuselage, quad-jet carrier vehicle with the type designation White Knight Two, and a rocket-propelled spacecraft that is secured between the two hulls. Virgin Galactic intends to build five of these carrier vehicles. The first unit has been flying since 2010 and was dubbed the VSS Enterprise. The carrier vehicle takes off in the conventional manner from the “Spaceport America” in the desert of New Mexico and brings the spacecraft – named SpaceShipTwo – to an altitude of 16 kilometers. The spacecraft separates from the carrier vehicle here and climbs – propelled by the rocket engine – to an altitude of 100 kilometers.

 

“Spaceport America” in the New Mexico desert is the starting point for a trip to space. Photo: Virgin Galactic

This is the apex of the passengers’ journey – the edge of space. They are able to enjoy the sensation of weightlessness for around six minutes before the SpaceShipTwo erects its tailplane and rapidly glides back down to its starting point. The entire trip from take-off to landing lasts only three and a half hours.

A lack of tourism industry experience is not something that 72-year-old US billionaire Robert Bigelow can be accused of. He made his fortune in hotels. In 1999, he founded Bigelow Aerospace with the objective of developing inflatable modules for spacecraft. In 2003, he purchased a NASA patent for this technology, and built the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a construction element that docked with the International Space Station in April 2016. A SpaceX rocket brought the BEAM to the ISS.

Space Hotel is Supposed to Circle the Earth in the Future

Now, Bigelow wishes to launch a space hotel into the cosmos. His vision is currently being realized at Bigelow Aerospace. Two BEAM modules will be joined together and given their own energy infrastructure in order to sustain paying space travelers. Each of the cylinder-shaped modules is 17 meters in length, with a diameter of seven meters. By spacecraft standards, this is positively roomy. The company reckons with a capacity of twelve beds in total.

Bigelow wishes to have the space hotel orbit the Earth at an altitude of 400 kilometers, which happens to be the same as the ISS’ orbit. As yet, Bigelow Aerospace does not have a timing schedule for the opening of the first space hotel, but considering the speed at which the company has previously delivered its projects, it would not be inconceivable for the first space hotel to begin accepting guests within the next decade.

This is how a space hotel could look like in the future. Photo: Bigelow Aerospace

In order to achieve constant occupancy of the space hotel’s beds – it isn’t just in terrestrial hotels that vacant rooms bother hoteliers – Bigelow will offer up his establishment to governments and institutes for their research activities. For the flight and a one-week stay at the space hotel, prospective guests must be ready to part with a seven-or-eight-figure sum. This travel dream will therefore only be fulfilled for a select few people in the immediate future.

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