Have you ever looked up at the night sky to admire the stars to find a constellation, look at the moon, observe one of the planets in our solar system through a telescope—and wondered what it would be like to go to space yourself? If you have tens of millions of dollars to spare, you can potentially make that dream a reality.
Though a vacation to outer space might seem like something out of a science fiction novel, space tourism has been around since the first private astronaut traveled to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 28, 2001. Dennis Tito, an American businessman and former engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, reportedly paid $20 million dollars for his flight aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft; he also trained for eight months outside of Moscow at the Yuri Gagarin Training Center. The mission was brokered by the Virginia-based company Space Adventures, which, since then, has facilitated the flights for the six other private astronauts who have been to space.
Nearly a year after Tito’s trip, Mark Shuttleworth became the first South African to fly to space. He carried out a number of scientific experiments, including biomedical research on HIV and AIDS. In 2005, Dr. Gregory Olsen—a wealthy businessman and doctor of materials science—traveled to the ISS, participating in a European Space Agency research program studying the human body’s response to microgravity and contacting high school students in New Jersey and New York to talk about his experience. Iranian-American billionaire Anousheh Ansari became the first female private astronaut when she travelled to the ISS in 2006, writing blog posts and conducting four experiments for the European Space Agency during her stay. Like these individuals, most of the other space tourists were interested in conducting scientific research and sharing their experiences with the public, especially youth, to encourage interest in commercial spaceflight.
However, this opportunity remains a fantasy for the overwhelming majority of individuals, as the price tag for these trips has remained at or above what Tito first paid. Indeed, Guy Laliberté, the last private astronaut to go to space, supposedly paid $35 million in 2009. Russia eventually stopped transporting tourists once the U.S. retired the Space Shuttle program, due to a lack of seating space onboard their spacecraft, leaving no options for prospective space tourists.
We may soon experience a revival of private spaceflight, as several private companies—most prominently SpaceX—have begun to develop different options within the past decade, though none have come to fruition yet. The prospects are no doubt exciting, but companies have been promising similar opportunities for years and continually fail to deliver. If these plans succeed, we could see the beginning of a new chapter in space exploration, but more unfulfilled promises will likely breed cynicism, even among those most interested in private space travel. SpaceX has advertised several potential missions in the past, including a circumlunar flight in 2018, which would have been the first of its kind, but ended up being scrapped in favor of larger projects. In 2018, SpaceX founder Elon Musk suggested that the company might launch to Mars as early as 2022, a step towards his desire to colonize the Red Planet; nonetheless, current timelines for NASA and SpaceX’s technology render this timeline a pipe dream.
SpaceX has also announced the development of a ship capable of flying up to one hundred passengers to the Moon, and hopefully Mars later on. The plans for this project—dubbed the BFR for “Big Falcon Rocket”—were first unveiled in 2016, and they continue to be updated. On September 17, 2018, Musk announced that Yusaku Maezawa, the founder of Japan’s largest online fashion retailer, had paid a deposit for a ride around the moon in the BFR. Maezawa also planned to purchase seats for six to eight additional passengers, all artists and cultural influencers who would then create works that reflected their experience.
Musk’s optimistic target date for the mission was 2023 but the feasibility of this timeline remains to be seen, as there have been few updates on the status of this mission. One of the main factors in determining the speed of development is money; the BFR system could take upwards of $10 billion dollars to develop. While Maezawa’s financial commitment will help support construction, Musk still admitted, “We need to seek every possible means of funding.”
SpaceX isn’t the first company to offer these high-priced trips. However, lunar mission plans from other companies such as Space Adventures and Virgin Galactic have yet to materialize, or in the case of smaller companies like Golden Spike, have folded due to lack of funding.
A “lower cost” option for curious individuals is the potential Aurora Space Station. The Station is still in conceptual and development stages, but Orion Span, the company developing it, is offering reservations for a fully-refundable $80,000 initial deposit. It is essentially a space hotel, with room for four tourists and two crew members, starting at $9.5 million for a 12-day “vacation.” Participants would undergo a three-month training regimen, including online courses and in-person training in Houston, Texas. Orion Span envisions that as demand grows, and universities, research organizations, and other commercial companies seek to use their facilities, they will add on to the modular design of the Station. This design allows the Aurora Station to be expanded upon and for special-purpose stations to be launched into low Earth orbit as needed.
While this cutting-edge innovation could result in beneficial scientific advances and lowered costs for private citizens, there are also some harmful ramifications. Right now, the number of rocket launches is so few that it only makes up a small fraction of the carbon dioxide output per year, but if the frequency of launches increases, that would change fast. It has been calculated that just one SpaceX launch produces the same amount of CO2 emissions as 395 transatlantic airplane flights. Along with carbon emissions, research done by environmentalists has shown that the soot emitted by rockets in Earth’s upper atmosphere could seriously disrupt Earth’s climate, resulting in a net increase in temperatures, and effectively speeding up climate change. Though it doesn’t look like there will be a huge influx of private astronauts traveling to space in the near future, it is a very real possibility in the coming decades and beyond. Consequently, it is imperative that organizations consider innovations to make these flights more environmentally friendly.
Curbing pollution is especially relevant for NASA and SpaceX, where concrete plans for space tourism seem to finally be coming together. On June 7, 2019, NASA announced officially that they will allow SpaceX to fly private passengers to the ISS and beyond using their Crew Dragon spacecraft—the same one that carried NASA astronauts to the ISS on Saturday, May 30, 2020. The agency explained that private astronauts would be allowed to travel to the ISS for up to 30 days, a trip priced at $35,000 per night. During the launch for May’s Demo-2 mission, NASA and SpaceX employees elaborated on this plan.
SpaceX engineer Jessica Anderson said, “Shortly after we begin to regularly fly NASA astronauts to and from the space station, SpaceX will also begin flying private passengers to the station and beyond.” NASA will allow two private missions per year. NASA Public Affairs Officer Dan Huot described this as “one of the many ways NASA is working to just open up access to outer space” and “enable more people to be able to explore the stars firsthand.”
These are exciting opportunities that will increase scientific research capabilities by allowing private citizens to conduct research in space—from chemistry and physics to mental and physical health. Additionally, with successful innovation and more frequent flights, spaceflight will hopefully become accessible to more people. However, with costs still so high, it remains to be seen how two private missions a year will truly expand access to outer space in any great capacity, like Huot described. Outer space will most likely remain a tourist destination reserved for the super-rich and privileged, at least during our lifetimes. And, with our planet already in great danger, scientific agencies must find ways to make these flights sustainable, accordingly rendering them more ethical.