The first space flight with only civilians on board will take off this year. Has the era of private trips out of the atmosphere really arrived? “It’s like in aviation: first the pioneers, then the wealthy, then the tourists. Give it another generation. ”
Few things are as conditional as a date in space travel. But in principle, nothing should stand in the way of a historic manned mission this year. In October, and if all goes well in September, Inspiration4, a flight with four Americans on board, none of whom are astronauts, will depart. That never happened before.
The crew consists of 38-year-old billionaire Jared Isaacman, who pays an undisclosed amount for the trip, and three others. Isaacman invited a 29-year-old woman who survived cancer and now works at the children’s hospital in Memphis, a patient. Like a modern Willy Wonka, he gave a 41-year-old engineer a ticket via a raffle, the proceeds of which – more than 100 million dollars – went to the same hospital. After a competition, he chose his third travel companion, a 51-year-old black woman, for entrepreneurs who use his payment platform Shift4Payments.
Isaacman chartered the trip with SpaceX, the company of Elon Musk that tries like no other to bring the future dream of routine space flights closer. The four will each get a seat in the Crew Dragon capsule, which will be equipped with a panoramic windshield for the occasion, and will be launched on a Falcon 9, the rocket that can land camera-like vertically and then return to service. The intention is that they rotate around the earth at 16 777 miles per hour at an altitude of 335 miles for at least two days and carry out experiments during the orbital trip. Tourist or not: space has to be worked.
Ordinary citizens travelling to space in private company gear: Believers see Inspiration4, which launched a commercial at the Super Bowl, as the birth of an era. “That kind of trip inspires, just because of the crew composition, and gives the industry a boost,” said Nancy Vermeulen, space entrepreneur, former astronaut aspiring astronaut and author of the book “Everyone Spaceman” that appeared this week.
There is more. In early 2022, the Houston-based space company Axiom Space will also use a SpaceX rocket to drop one ex-astronaut and three paying passengers at the International Space Station (ISS), which hovers 254 miles above the planet. The three men, wealthy entrepreneurs, each pay 66 million dollars for the exclusive trip and would stay on board for eight days. It has long been speculated that actor Tom Cruise would fly along for the filming of the latest “Mission Impossible” film, but that will not happen for the time being.
And in two years at the earliest, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa wants to fly a heavier SpaceX Starship rocket all the way around the moon and back, equaling the record distance a human has travelled in space so far. The mission was christened #dearMoon, and Maezawa is looking for another eight or so fellow passengers. There is also a reality show in the making, “Space Hero”, the winner of which will be allowed to go into space and to which NASA has fully cooperated.
At the same time, two aerospace firms founded by renowned businessmen are fully conducting test flights: Virgin Galactic by Richard Branson and Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos. They each aim in their own way for shorter, less distant and slightly cheaper forays to the edge of the atmosphere, around 60 miles altitude and with no orbit around the Earth (suborbital). Both have yet to transport their first tourist and have postponed the baptism of fire many times, but it would still be before this year.
Embarking for a journey towards the final frontier, accessible to mere mortals – or at least the very wealthy: long-promised, it finally seems to be getting closer. Robert Goehlich, a German space tourism expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, refers to 1964 when the airline Pan Am gave people the opportunity to book a space on a shuttle to the moon. “In the end, that was more of a marketing campaign than a serious program. But its popularity, with 90,000 reservations, made the public aware of the idea of space tourism.”
Almost exactly twenty years ago, the American entrepreneur Dennis Tito was the first real tourist to go into space. He reportedly paid $ 20 million for a seat on a Russian Soyuz to the ISS, where he stayed for over seven days. NASA did not want to know that “an ego” would get in the way and refused to cooperate with the training for the American part of the ISS, but Tito flew on April 28, 2001, anyway. He was followed by seven more customers who made the trip with the help of the Russian space agency Rocosmos and the American company Space Adventures, including the Canadian Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque Du Soleil.
“Space tourism is moving forward in shocks,” said Laura Forczyk, analytical space consultant, based in Atlanta, United States. Tito and co., According to Forczyk, that was the first wave. The second wave is now on its way with Inspiration4 and its diverse crew. “In the coming years, we hope to see another wave as Virgin and Blue Origin’s suborbital flights really take off. Those kinds of flights promise to be cheaper and more frequent so that more people than ever before can fly to space. There is a market for it, the only question is how big it is.”
Swiss investment bank UBS recently calculated an answer: $ 3 billion by 2030. According to UBS analysts, space tourism is in its infancy but will become mainstream if the technology proves itself and costs fall. 3 billion is peanuts compared to the total space business of 400 billion dollars, but tourism can play a role that goes beyond the realization of a childhood dream of rich men who have read a lot of science fiction in the past. Froehlich: “In the long run, orbital tourist flights will help lower launch costs, including for scientific exploration missions, as it increases the demand for reusable missiles.”
“It has to be done in steps and you can’t skip any,” says Vermeulen. “That’s how it was in aviation: first the pioneers, then the wealthy, then the tourists. Low Earth Orbit, the low orbits around the Earth up to 1200 miles, is now familiar territory and so for that distance, the next phase follows the super-rich. Give it time, maybe a generation, but it will come. ”
The 46-year-old Vermeulen is obsessed with the idea of space travel, a fascination that, as with many, started in childhood but, unlike with others, did not fade. At the age of 17, at the advice of Dirk Frimout, she followed a double path: studying astrophysics and becoming a pilot, in the hope of developing the perfect profile to become an astronaut. At the age of 33, her chance came when the ESA started another selection procedure after 16 years. Ten thousand candidates were eligible, she made it to the last 800, but just did not make it to the top 200. Ultimately, six astronauts were recruited.
After that, Vermeulen channeled her love of space differently. Anticipating a breakthrough in space tourism, she founded Space Training Academy, the first training centre in Europe to offer a multi-day crash course to people eager to go to space. The trajectory includes a parabolic flight to experience weightlessness for a few seconds and a ride in the hyper-advanced Desdemona simulator in the Netherlands that mimics the physical sensation of a space flight and all its G-forces.
Then Virgin Galactic takes a different approach, technologically and in marketing. Sir Richard Branson’s aerospace company is launching its spacecraft, the third generation of which was unveiled at the end of March, from the air. The craft is lifted to 10 miles on the wings of mothership WhiteKnightTwo, after which it detaches and turns on its rocket engine to cover the rest and then lands like an aeroplane. Virgin Galactic is also pioneering the stock market. Long before the hype, it travelled via a SPAC to Wall Street in 2019, where the course has been erratic ever since. Recently, 70-year-old Branson sold shares for $ 150 million to stop corona losses at his other companies.
Virgin Galactic, which was damaged in 2014 after a crash in which a pilot died, already has customers in line. Since its inception, it has sold some 700 tickets for $ 200,000 each, a price that has now risen to 250,000. They have to wait for Branson himself to complete the last test flight, possibly this summer.
Virgin Galactic does not just keep its future passengers waiting, but prepares them with regular training in a simulator. The participants are also from all walks of life. Not just the rich. “You can be very cynical about space travel and interplanetary life, I was partly that in the beginning. But the more I discover the technology, the more I talk to knowledgeable people, the more I know about it, the more convinced I am that it can be done. And the more I am convinced of the usefulness for humanity. ”
Until it all comes to that, there will be a lot of juggling with dates and deadlines. Laura Forczyk from Astralytics has a rule of thumb. “I don’t believe any announced date for tourist flights. Missions scheduled within the next year are likely to leave with very little delay. It is much more difficult to predict when non-operational spacecraft are ready to carry passengers. We can assume that in the next ten years there will be commercial space stations for largely scientific purposes. But real space hotels for tourists? That will take several more decades. “