Learn the latest news about space tourism and space tourist trips into outer space. Space.com looks at the growing business of space tourism.
Related Topics: SpaceX , Virgin Galactic , Incredible Space Tech , International Space Station , Interstellar Travel
Virgin Galactic to ground its VSS Unity space plane next year: report
By Mike Wall published 9 November 23
Virgin Galactic plans to pause flights with its VSS Unity suborbital space plane next year to ramp up work on its next-generation 'Delta class' vehicles.
Virgin Galactic launches researchers to suborbital space on 5th commercial flight (video)
By Nola Taylor Tillman published 2 November 23
Virgin Galactic's reusable space plane VSS Unity aced its fifth commercial mission today (Nov. 2), continuing the one-flight-per-month tempo the company began this spring.
Virgin Galactic set to launch Galactic 05 mission with research duo today (Nov. 2)
By Josh Dinner last updated 2 November 23
The flight will mark half a year of consistent monthly launches for the spaceflight company.
Virgin Galactic astronaut Kellie Gerardi is ready for broader access to space
By Josh Dinner published 1 November 23
Just days before her first spaceflight, Kellie Gerardi talks about the importance of microgravity research and making the final frontier more accessible for all.
New Horizons' Alan Stern will fulfill a lifelong dream on Virgin Galactic spaceflight this week
By Nola Taylor Tillman published 31 October 23
When Alan Stern launches to space this week on Virgin Galactic's fifth commercial flight, he'll accomplish the goal of a lifetime. But it won't just be a joyride for Stern — he'll be working.
Meet the crew of Virgin Galactic's 5th commercial spaceflight launching on Nov. 2
By Josh Dinner published 30 October 23
Virgin Galactic's 5th commercial mission is a research-focused flight to space that features some familiar faces.
'Too early' to say which astronaut will command UK Space Agency mission with Axiom Space
By Elizabeth Howell published 30 October 23
The UK Space Agency says it cannot speculate yet on who will command its debut mission with Axiom Space. British astronaut Tim Peake was rumored as commander.
UK Space Agency signs deal with Axiom Space for human spaceflight mission
By Andrew Jones published 27 October 23
The U.K. Space Agency and Axiom Space have inked a deal that could see U.K. astronauts embark on a two-week mission to the International Space Station in the near future.
Virgin Galactic sets date, announces crew for 5th commercial spaceflight
By Brett Tingley published 19 October 23
Virgin Galactic's next trip to the edge of space will include some familiar names, such as planetary scientist Alan Stern and science communicator Kellie Gerardi.
Benjamin Moore partners with Blue Origin to reveal space-themed color of 2024
By Robert Z. Pearlman published 17 October 23
What do you get when you mix a private spaceflight company with a manufacturer of premium and commercial paints? A shade of blue with a focus on STEM education and careers in space.
Axiom Space's 3rd private astronaut crew ready for ISS mission in 2024
By Elizabeth Howell published 16 October 23
The Ax-3 mission is on track with its training, and the four commercial astronauts are excited for launch in early 2024, they told reporters during a briefing Oct. 16.
Virgin Galactic launches 1st Pakistani to space on 4th commercial spaceflight (video)
By Mike Wall published 6 October 23
Namira Salim became the first person from Pakistan to reach space today (Oct. 6), a milestone she achieved on Virgin Galactic's 'Galactic 04' mission.
Virgin Galactic to launch Galactic 04 space tourist flight today. Here's what to expect
By Josh Dinner published 5 October 23
Virgin Galactic's reusable spaceplane, VSS Unity, will launch its fourth commercial spaceflight mission today (Oct. 6). Here's how to follow the action.
Meet the crew of Virgin Galactic's 4th commercial spaceflight launching on Oct. 6
By Josh Dinner published 3 October 23
The crewmembers of Virgin Galactic's fourth commercial spaceflight are excited to tell the world they're going to the final frontier.
World Space Week 2023 kicks off Oct. 4 to highlight the growing private space economy
World Space Week 2023 will run from Wednesday, Oct. 4, through Tuesday, Oct. 10, with a theme of "Space and Entrepreneurship."
Virgin Galactic delays next flight by 1 day, to Oct. 6
By Mike Wall published 2 October 23
Virgin Galactic has delayed its 'Galactic 04' mission by a day to Oct. 6, allowing more time for vehicle preparations and checkouts.
The Economist to launch Space Economy Summit on Oct. 11-12
By Brett Tingley published 2 October 23
The Economist will hold its first-ever Space Economy Summit on Oct. 11 and 12 in order to help leaders in the space sector share ideas that can move the burgeoning new off-world economy forward.
Private astronaut sets HALO skydiving record (video, photos)
By Mike Wall last updated 29 September 23
Ax-1's Larry Connor and the rest of the 'Alpha 5' team set a new HALO formation skydiving world record on Thursday morning (Sept. 28).
FAA closes investigation of Blue Origin launch failure
By Mike Wall published 27 September 23
The Federal Aviation Administration has finished investigating the failure suffered by Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle on Sept. 12, 2022.
Virgin Galactic's next flight will take a Pakistani to space for the 1st time
By Mike Wall published 20 September 23
Namira Slim will become the first person from Pakistan to reach space on Virgin Galactic's 'Galactic 04' mission, which is slated to fly on Oct. 5.
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The Future of Space Tourism Is Now. Well, Not Quite.
From zero-pressure balloon trips to astronaut boot camps, reservations for getting off the planet — or pretending to — are skyrocketing. The prices, however, are still out of this world.
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By Debra Kamin
Ilida Alvarez has dreamed of traveling to space since she was a child. But Ms. Alvarez, a legal-mediation firm owner, is afraid of flying, and she isn’t a billionaire — two facts that she was sure, until just a few weeks ago, would keep her fantasy as out of reach as the stars. She was wrong.
Ms. Alvarez, 46, and her husband, Rafael Landestoy, recently booked a flight on a 10-person pressurized capsule that — attached to a massive helium-filled balloon — will gently float to 100,000 feet while passengers sip champagne and recline in ergonomic chairs. The reservation required a $500 deposit; the flight itself will cost $50,000 and last six to 12 hours.
“I feel like it was tailor-made for the chickens like me who don’t want to get on a rocket,” said Ms. Alvarez, whose flight, organized by a company called World View , is scheduled to depart from the Grand Canyon in 2024.
Less than a year after Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson kicked off a commercial space race by blasting into the upper atmosphere within weeks of each other last summer, the global space tourism market is skyrocketing, with dozens of companies now offering reservations for everything from zero-pressure balloon trips to astronaut boot camps and simulated zero-gravity flights. But don’t don your spacesuit just yet. While the financial services company UBS estimates the space travel market will be worth $3 billion by 2030, the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to approve most out-of-this-world trips, and construction has not started on the first space hotel. And while access and options — not to mention launchpads — are burgeoning, space tourism remains astronomically expensive for most.
First, what counts as space travel?
Sixty miles (about 100 kilometers) above our heads lies the Kármán line, the widely accepted aeronautical boundary of the earth’s atmosphere. It’s the boundary used by the Féderátion Aéronautique Internationale, which certifies and controls global astronautical records. But many organizations in the United States, including the F.A.A. and NASA, define everything above 50 miles to be space.
Much of the attention has been focused on a trio of billionaire-led rocket companies: Mr. Bezos’ Blue Origin , whose passengers have included William Shatner; Mr. Branson’s Virgin Galactic , where tickets for a suborbital spaceflight start at $450,000; and Elon Musk’s SpaceX , which in September launched an all-civilian spaceflight, with no trained astronauts on board. Mr. Branson’s inaugural Virgin Galactic flight in 2021 reached about 53 miles, while Blue Origin flies above the 62-mile mark. Both are eclipsed by SpaceX, whose rockets charge far deeper in to the cosmos, reaching more than 120 miles above Earth.
Balloons, like those operated by World View, don’t go nearly as high. But even at their maximum altitude of 18 or 19 miles, operators say they float high enough to show travelers the curvature of the planet, and give them a chance to experience the overview effect — an intense perspective shift that many astronauts say kicks in when you view Earth from above.
Now, how to get there …
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, which are both licensed for passenger space travel by the F.A.A., are open for ticket sales. (Blue Origin remains mum on pricing.) Both companies currently have hundreds or even thousands of earthlings on their wait lists for a whirl to the edge of space. SpaceX charges tens of millions of dollars for its further-reaching flights and is building a new facility in Texas that is currently under F.A.A. review.
Craig Curran is a major space enthusiast — he’s held a reserved seat on a Virgin Galactic flight since 2011 — and the owner of Deprez Travel in Rochester, N.Y. The travel agency has a special space travel arm, Galactic Experiences by Deprez , through which Mr. Curran sells everything from rocket launch tickets to astronaut training.
Sales in the space tourism space, Mr. Curran acknowledges, “are reasonably difficult to make,” and mostly come from peer-to-peer networking. “You can imagine that people who spend $450,000 to go to space probably operate in circles that are not the same as yours and mine,” he said.
Some of Mr. Curran’s most popular offerings include flights where you can experience the same stomach-dropping feeling of zero gravity that astronauts feel in space, which he arranges for clients via chartered, specialized Boeing 727s that are flown in parabolic arcs to mimic being in space. Operators including Zero G also offer the service; the cost is around $8,200.
You can almost count the number of completed space tourist launches on one hand — Blue Origin has had four; SpaceX, two. Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, on Thursday announced the launch of its commercial passenger service, previously scheduled for late 2022, was delayed until early 2023. Many of those on waiting lists are biding their time before blastoff by signing up for training. Axiom Space, which contracts with SpaceX, currently offers NASA-partnered training at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Virgin Galactic, which already offers a “customized Future Astronaut Readiness program” at its Spaceport America facility in New Mexico, is also partnering with NASA to build a training program for private astronauts.
Would-be space tourists should not expect the rigor that NASA astronauts face. Training for Virgin Galactic’s three-hour trips is included in the cost of a ticket and lasts a handful of days; it includes pilot briefings and being “fitted for your bespoke Under Armour spacesuit and boots,” according to its website.
Not ready for a rocket? Balloon rides offer a less hair-raising celestial experience.
“We go to space at 12 miles an hour, which means that it’s very smooth and very gentle. You’re not rocketing away from earth,” said Jane Poynter, a co-founder and co-chief executive of Space Perspective , which is readying its own touristic balloon spaceship, Spaceship Neptune. If all goes according to plan, voyages are scheduled to begin departing from Florida in 2024, at a cost of $125,000 per person. That’s a fraction of the price tag for Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, but still more than double the average annual salary of an American worker.
Neither Space Perspective nor World View has the required approval yet from the F.A.A. to operate flights.
Whether a capsule or a rocket is your transport, the travel insurance company battleface launched a civilian space insurance plan in late 2021, a direct response, said chief executive Sasha Gainullin, to an increase in space tourism interest and infrastructure. Benefits include accidental death and permanent disablement in space and are valid for spaceflights on operators like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, as well as on stratospheric balloon rides. They’ve had many inquiries, Mr. Gainullin said, but no purchases just yet.
“Right now it’s such high-net-worth individuals who are traveling to space, so they probably don’t need insurance,” he said. “But for quote-unquote regular travelers, I think we’ll see some takeups soon.”
And as the industry grows, so perhaps will space travel’s impact on the environment. Not only do rocket launches have immense carbon footprints, even some stratospheric balloon flights have potentially significant implications: World View’s balloons are powered by thousands of cubic meters of helium, which is a limited resource . But Ted Parson, a professor of environmental law at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that space travel’s environmental impact is still dwarfed by civil aviation. And because space travel is ultra-niche, he believes it’s likely to stay that way.
“Despite extensive projections, space tourism is likely to remain a tiny fraction of commercial space exploration,” he said. “It reminds me of tourism on Mt. Everest. It’s the indulgence of very rich people seeking a transcendent, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the local environmental burden is intense.”
Stay a while?
In the future, space enthusiasts insist, travelers won’t be traveling to space just for the ride. They’ll want to stay a while. Orbital Assembly Corporation, a manufacturing company whose goal is to colonize space, is currently building the world’s first space hotels — two ring-shaped properties that will orbit Earth, called Pioneer Station and Voyager Station. The company, quite optimistically, projects an opening date of 2025 for Pioneer Station, with a capacity of 28 guests. The design for the larger Voyager Station , which they say will open in 2027, promises villas and suites, as well as a gym, restaurant and bar. Both provide the ultimate luxury: simulated gravity. Axiom Space , a space infrastructure company, is currently building the world’s first private space station; plans include Philippe Starck-designed accommodations for travelers to spend the night.
Joshua Bush, chief executive of travel agency Avenue Two Travel , has sold a handful of seats on upcoming Virgin Galactic flights to customers. The market for space travel (and the sky-high prices that come with it), he believes, will evolve much like civilian air travel did.
“In the beginning of the 20th century, only very affluent people could afford to fly,” he said. “Just as we have Spirit and Southwest Airlines today, there will be some sort of equivalent of that in space travel, too. Hopefully within my lifetime.”
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Everything you need to know about space travel (almost)
We're a long way from home...
When did we first start exploring space?
The first human-made object to go into space was a German V2 missile , launched on a test flight in 1942. Although uncrewed, it reached an altitude of 189km (117 miles).
Former Nazi rocket scientists were later recruited by both America and Russia (often at gunpoint in the latter case), where they were instrumental in developing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) – rockets capable of carrying nuclear weapons from one side of the planet to the other.
It was these super-missiles that formed the basis for the space programmes of both post-war superpowers. As it happened, Russia was the first to reach Earth orbit, when it launched the uncrewed Sputnik 1 in October 1957, followed a month later by Sputnik 2, carrying the dog Laika – the first live animal in space.
The USA sent its first uncrewed satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit soon after, in January 1958. A slew of robotic spaceflights followed, from both sides of the Atlantic, before Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin piloted Vostok 1 into orbit on 12 April 1961, to become the first human being in space . And from there the space race proper began, culminating in Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first people to walk on the Moon as part of NASA's Apollo programme .
Why is space travel important?
Space exploration is the future. It satisfies the human urge to explore and to travel, and in the years and decades to come it could even provide our species with new places to call home – especially relevant now, as Earth becomes increasingly crowded .
Extending our reach into space is also necessary for the advancement of science. Space telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope and probes to the distant worlds of the Solar System are continually updating, and occasionally revolutionising, our understanding of astronomy and physics.
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But there are also some very practical reasons, such as mining asteroids for materials that are extremely rare here on Earth.
One example is the huge reserve of the chemical isotope helium-3 thought to be locked away in the soil on the surface of the Moon . This isotope is a potential fuel for future nuclear fusion reactors – power stations that tap into the same source of energy as the Sun. Unlike other fusion fuels, helium-3 gives off no hard-to-contain and deadly neutron radiation.
However, for this to happen the first challenge to overcome is how to build a base on the Moon. In 2019, China's Chang’e 4 mission marked the beginning of a new space race to conquer the Moon, signalling their intent to build a permanent lunar base , while the NASA Artemis mission plans to build a space station, called Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway , providing a platform to ferry astronauts to the Moon's surface.
Could humans travel into interstellar space and how would we get there?
It’s entirely feasible that human explorers will visit the furthest reaches of our Solar System. The stars, however, are another matter. Interstellar space is so vast that it takes light – the fastest thing we know of in the Universe – years, centuries and millennia to traverse it. Faster-than-light travel may be possible one day, but is unlikely to become a reality in our lifetimes.
It’s not impossible that humans might one day cross this cosmic gulf, though it won’t be easy. The combustion-powered rocket engines of today certainly aren’t up to the job – they just don’t use fuel efficiently enough. Instead, interstellar spacecraft may create a rocket-like propulsion jet using electric and magnetic fields. This so-called ‘ ion drive ’ technology has already been tested aboard uncrewed Solar System probes.
Another possibility is to push spacecraft off towards the stars using the light from a high-powered laser . A consortium of scientists calling themselves Breakthrough Starshot is already planning to send a flotilla of tiny robotic probes to our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, using just this method.
Though whether human astronauts could survive such punishing acceleration, or the decades-long journey through deep space, remains to be seen.
How do we benefit from space exploration?
Pushing forward the frontiers of science is the stated goal of many space missions . But even the development of space travel technology itself can lead to unintended yet beneficial ‘spin-off’ technologies with some very down-to-earth applications.
Notable spin-offs from the US space programme, NASA, include memory foam mattresses, artificial hearts, and the lubricant spray WD-40. Doubtless, there are many more to come.
Read more about space exploration:
- The next giant leaps: The UK missions getting us to the Moon
- Move over, Mars: why we should look further afield for future human colonies
- Everything you need to know about the Voyager mission
- 6 out-of-this-world experiments recreating space on Earth
Space exploration also instils a sense of wonder, it reminds us that there are issues beyond our humdrum planet and its petty squabbles, and without doubt it helps to inspire each new generation of young scientists. It’s also an insurance policy. We’re now all too aware that global calamities can and do happen – for instance, climate change and the giant asteroid that smashed into the Earth 65 million years ago, leading to the total extinction of the dinosaurs .
The lesson for the human species is that we keep all our eggs in one basket at our peril. On the other hand, a healthy space programme, and the means to travel to other worlds, gives us an out.
Is space travel dangerous?
In short, yes – very. Reaching orbit means accelerating up to around 28,000kph (17,000mph, or 22 times the speed of sound ). If anything goes wrong at that speed, it’s seldom good news.
Then there’s the growing cloud of space junk to contend with in Earth's orbit – defunct satellites, discarded rocket stages and other detritus – all moving just as fast. A five-gram bolt hitting at orbital speed packs as much energy as a 200kg weight dropped from the top of an 18-storey building.
And getting to space is just the start of the danger. The principal hazard once there is cancer-producing radiation – the typical dose from one day in space is equivalent to what you’d receive over an entire year back on Earth, thanks to the planet’s atmosphere and protective magnetic field.
Add to that the icy cold airless vacuum , the need to bring all your own food and water, plus the effects of long-duration weightlessness on bone density, the brain and muscular condition – including that of the heart – and it soon becomes clear that venturing into space really isn’t for the faint-hearted.
When will space travel be available to everyone?
It’s already happening – that is, assuming your pockets are deep enough. The first self-funded ‘space tourist’ was US businessman Dennis Tito, who in 2001 spent a week aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for the cool sum of $20m (£15m).
Virgin Galactic has long been promising to take customers on short sub-orbital hops into space – where passengers get to experience rocket propulsion and several minutes of weightlessness, before gliding back to a runway landing on Earth, all for $250k (£190k). In late July 2020, the company unveiled the finished cabin in its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, suggesting that commercial spaceflights may begin shortly.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX , which in May 2020 became the first private company to launch a human crew to Earth orbit aboard the Crew Dragon , plans to offer stays on the ISS for $35k (£27k) per night. SpaceX is now prototyping its huge Starship vehicle , which is designed to take 100 passengers from Earth to as far afield as Mars for around $20k (£15k) per head. Musk stated in January that he hoped to be operating 1,000 Starships by 2050.
10 Short Lessons in Space Travel by Paul Parsons is out now (£9.99, Michael O'Mara)
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Space tourism: are we one step closer?
Do you think that people will go on holiday in space in the future? Watch this video to find out how soon that could be!
Do the preparation task first. Then watch the video and do the exercises. Remember you can read the transcript at any time.
Could these two high-profile journeys to the edge of space by wealthy businessmen Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson mean space travel is one step closer for the rest of us?
Well, to go anytime soon, you would need a lot of money. One seat on board billionaire Jeff Bezos's rocket ship was auctioned for 28 million dollars.
Whilst there was nowhere for passengers of these two flights to stop off, the first-ever space hotel is expected to open in 2027. The Voyager Station hotel will float in low orbit, and guests will be able to see the Earth as they move round the planet.
But large rockets need lots of fuel to propel them, so space travel can have a hefty carbon footprint. Historically, rockets have been powered by kerosene, but some are now launched by using cleaner methods, such as green hydrogen.
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What do you think about space tourism? Would you like to try it?
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Leisure travel might be a little more exciting for the world’s wealthiest adventure seekers as space, long the exclusive domain of professional astronauts, is now accessible to tourists. In July 2021, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin each successfully launched suborbital tourism programs from their spaceports in New Mexico and Texas, respectively (with Blue Origin completing its second launch in October 2021). In September 2021, SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission kicked off the company’s orbital tourism program from the Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A. Each of these companies hope to make space a popular destination by offering regular launch services to private citizens. Aspiring space tourists can expect to pay upwards of $250,000 for a seat on suborbital spacecrafts and an estimated $50 million for a ticket to orbit. Space enthusiasts on a budget can tour Spaceport America, where Virgin Galactic launches to space, for $50 or less.
These historic spaceflights represent the most recent chapter in a longer history of space tourism. More than 20 years ago, Dennis Tito, the first “space tourist” (also known as “spaceflight participant”), flew to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft for a six-day stay. Tito donated the Sokol pressure suit he wore in space to the Museum in 2003. Since his flight, only six other individuals scored self-funded travel to space (one of these intrepid travelers flew twice). Space Adventures, a US-based travel agency to the stars, facilitated these multi-million dollar, out-of-this-world experiences in partnership with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
Dennis Tito wore this suit when he launched to the International Space Station on April 28, 2001. (Smithsonian Institution)
Although space itself remained inaccessible to private citizens until the 21st century, other places where Earth and space meet—such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) centers—have long been popular destinations for a different kind of space tourist.
The Space Age dawned in the golden age of the family road trip. Thanks to the proliferation of private automobile ownership, an expanding interstate highway system, and the advent of more generous vacation policies in the workplace, Americans ventured from home in greater numbers in the 1960s than at any earlier time in the nation’s history. Millions of these travelers included on their itineraries NASA centers, particularly those with ties to the human spaceflight program: the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama; the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County, Florida; and the Manned Spacecraft Center (known since 1973 as the Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas.
NASA centers were not prepared for the tourists who appeared en masse outside their gates. In the early 1960s, the centers operated much like—and were often physically adjacent to—secure military installations. For reasons of national security, the centers restricted access to official visitors only. In response to curious onlookers, the centers developed ad hoc visitor programs. At the same time, proactive civic leaders and enterprising business-people responded to the presence of space center tourists by developing their own space-themed attractions, including museums, halls of fame, and amusement parks, and amenities, such as motels, hotels, and restaurants.
At the Kennedy Space Center, for example, public affairs officers facilitated increasing access to NASA’s launch complex between 1964 and 1967. Their efforts began while the spaceport was under construction with a modest roadside trailer featuring wall-mounted exhibitions. They soon expanded visitor programming to include self-guided driving tours on weekends and holidays during breaks in construction activity. In 1966, the space center partnered with Trans World Airlines (TWA) to operate an escorted bus tour program.
Trans World Airlines (TWA) operated the bus tour program at the Kennedy Space Center in the 1960s. (NASA/KSC Spaceport News)
The following year, the Visitor Information Center opened to the public. It featured indoor exhibition and presentation facilities, an outdoor “rocket garden” that became a popular backdrop for family photos, and a depot for the bus tour program. The architect included all the amenities a traveler might need, such as restrooms, food concessions, a gift shop, and a pay phone, which is now on display at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Shaped like a Mercury capsule, the pay phone was painted in a playful tropical teal color, which was en vogue at other Florida attractions at the time. Since 1967, the Visitor Information Center has continued to evolve and expand, reflecting developments in spaceflight and the evolving expectations of 21st century vacationers. Some 1.5 million people visit annually.
This phonebooth was installed at the Visitor Information Center at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during the 1960s. (Smithsonian Institution)
Whether venturing to space, visiting a spaceport, or engaging in space-related recreation, individuals and families are likely to continue the tradition of incorporating space activities as part of their leisure time. As we enter the next chapter in the history of space tourism, questions about the significance of these experiences endure: What do “space tourists” hope to gain from their encounter with space or space sites? What does their choice of vacation destination say about their individual identities and the cultural significance of space? Who has access to these experiences and who is left out? And how will space tourism reshape communities on Earth as the industry evolves?
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Space tourism is on the rise. Can NASA keep up with it?
An official space tourism department could help prevent private rocket riders from clashing with working astronauts.
By Tatyana Woodall | Published Aug 12, 2022 4:59 PM EDT
When Axiom Space sent the first private crew to the International Space Station earlier this year , an overly aggressive itinerary caused some ripples in the professional astronauts’ work performance. Though it’s unclear if the trip interfered with the ISS crew’s science goals, the atmosphere aboard the station was strained—a classic example of too many cooks in the kitchen. Operations were impacted enough that the ISS and Axiom astronauts’ collective experiences motivated NASA to release new rules that commercial space companies will have to adhere to if they continue to join in on spaceflight activities going forward. What those changes could look like, however, will depend on how supportive and accepting NASA is to the still-emerging industry.
Notably, the agency could require a former NASA astronaut to act as mission commander for private spaceflights, a move that would essentially make the agency a permanent liaison between public and US-based private space commerce. (The Axiom flight did already have a former NASA astronaut on board, Michael Lopez-Alegría , along with three first-time passengers—a businessman, an investor, and a real-estate magnate).
“We got up there and, boy, we were overwhelmed,” López-Alegría said during a post-mission press conference. “Getting used to zero gravity is not an overnight thing.”
To avoid packed itineraries in flight, space tourism companies might also be required to provide documentation of the private astronauts’ work schedules. Additionally, because research activities weren’t originally envisioned as something space tourists would take part in, private companies will now submit research requests to the International Space Station National Laboratory no later than a year before expected launch. This is a huge hurdle for companies with similar objectives to Axiom, whose business model offers space tourists the opportunity to engage in activities like STEM outreach, experiments, photography and filmmaking once aboard the ISS. Members of the Axiom-1 crew helped conduct tests on self-assembling technology for future space habitats, cancer stem cells, and even air purification research. But by now NASA understands that successfully privatizing space will be harder than originally thought.
The main reason why the ISS has had a difficult time integrating private space travel into its repertoire is because tourism has never been part of NASA’s charter, says Madhu Thangavelu , a lecturer at the University of Southern California and an expert on space tourism and architecture. “NASA is more interested in exploration, human factors, and in human physiology studies on the station, which is what they excel at,” he says.
[Related: Here are all the ways to visit space this decade (if you’re extremely rich) ]
Axiom isn’t the agency’s first brush with the tourism industry—and previous attempts have been met with much more resistance. In 2001, Dennis Tito , an engineer and US millionaire, became the world’s first space tourist when he planned to visit Russia’s space station Mir . But his flight was diverted to the ISS when the Russian station was later deorbited . Tito stayed on the station for a little less than eight days, compared to the Axiom crew’s 10-day mission, but NASA later reported that his trip caused too many disruptions.
“They were not at all welcoming to people roaming around the station when the agency is busy doing other things,” Thangavelu, who is also on the board of directors for the National Space Society, says.
Such instances raise important moral and legal questions as private space tourism expands: Who makes the rules for astronaut behavior, misconduct, or accidents, and who should enforce them? Currently, these space travelers are free from international agency’s scrutiny that professional astronauts are subject to, which means that any misfortune aboard the station would open up a brand new can of worms for companies to deal with.
Bigger and broader changes need to happen across the industry if space is to become easily and financially accessible to the general public. For example, instead of relying on private commercial companies to pave the way to public access, Thangavelu says that if NASA is serious about enabling commercial space activities, the agency should focus on creating a dedicated office for space tourism.
“It’s my belief that if we give the station access to the private sector, we will get very creative in how to better manage the facility,” he says. Taking space adventurers on tours of the ISS or involving them in lab research, he says, could also drastically lower the costs of typical missions and lend structure to the preparation and resources needed to ensure both a private and professional astronaut’s continued safety.
[Related: Selling tickets to the space station is actually decades overdue ]
Other experts share Thangavelu’s views. Rachel Fu , director of the University of Florida’s Eric Friedheim Tourism Institute, says that compared to typical Earth-bound leisure activities, space tourism is a much more complicated endeavor that impacts our society on a global level. The industry needs to be constantly supervised, and having at least one government entity in the new global space race take that helm would benefit all involved parties, Fu says. Beyond tourism, private companies could further open up independent research and experiments in space. Fu also notes that the more people who are able to contribute to the next generation of knowledge, the better.
There are currently no public plans by either NASA or the ISS to create a department solely for facilitating private spaceflights. At the moment, “NASA sees private astronaut missions as an important part of stimulating demand for commercial customers and astronauts to live and work in low-Earth orbit,“ Angela Hart, program manager of NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development, told Popular Science in a statement over email. She also said that it offers astronauts an opportunity to interact with crews of different training levels and goals.
Even now, as space tourism continues its meteoric rise, being able to navigate the subtler social nuances of space travel is important as humans start to expand outwards towards the stars. And when deciding who gets to soar above Earth next, industry experts are likely to prioritize them.
Tatyana Woodall is a regular contributor to Popular Science. Based in Ohio, she’s extremely interested in how science and technology intertwine in daily life.
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November 8, 2023
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Boom in space tourism threatens to boost the amounts of space junk and climate emissions
by Mike Lockwood, The Conversation
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Is the UK space industry about to take off?
The failure of Virgin Orbit's maiden commercial satellite launch from British soil, and the company's subsequent filing for bankruptcy protection, may have seemed like a fatal blow for the U.K.'s nascent space sector.
But a range of companies hope to play a key role in the business of building, launching and operating satellites, a $281 billion industry which has been growing rapidly over the past decade.
Billionaire-backed companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit have been revolutionizing the space industry over the last decade, which has seen advances in re-usable rockets, the deployment of thousands of small communication satellites and new launch sites opened.
To find out how smaller U.K.-based firms are looking to compete, CNBC visited a spaceport being built in the far north of the Shetland Islands, an established satellite-builder and a startup aiming to see one of its re-usable satellites finally make it into space.