The Future We Were Promised

What Ever Happened to Space Tourism?

News of an upcoming space hotel obviously got our attention, but it also got us thinking: will space tourism ever live up to expectations?

Plans for the universe’s first space hotel, set to open in 2022, made headlines this year. We’re hopeful, but not holding our breath. After all, if you told the 1960s version of yourself that come 2019 we still wouldn’t have any colonies on the moon, you might struggle to hide your disappointment. Between the space race and A Space Odyssey, the future we were promised back then looked like it’d be pretty intergalactic by now — and not just for paid professionals.

Have you wondered lately what’s happening in the world of space tourism? 10–15 years ago it was a much hotter topic, with goals seemingly much more aggressive than just a few minutes of weightlessness. But then the economy crashed, and NASA’s shuttle program shuttered, and we all watched how challenging it is to safely deploy a rover to Mars, let alone a tourist. Expectations are now slightly more in check, and so are our dreams.

But as President Kennedy famously said in 1962, we choose to do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Turns out, they’re really hard. But there are a few ambitious billionaires — and one pioneering hotelier — still working tirelessly to bring our space fantasies to reality.
 

JFK moon
Kennedy’s famous speech announcing an intention to visit the moon and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface seven years later.

Catching Up with Virgin Galactic

When you see a famous blonde mullet silhouetted against a bird’s eye view of the earth, you’ll know the age of space tourism is finally here. That’s because your best hope, for even the most rudimentary notion of space tourism, might be Richard Branson.

In December 2018, the Virgin founder, with his company Virgin Galactic, took one giant leap for mankind’s pursuit of just-for-kicks space travel. His commercial spaceship, carrying its highly trained but nonetheless private, nongovernment pilots, passed a huge milestone, flying the 50 miles up to the beginning of space. In doing so, he took his company that much closer to boldly ferrying tourists where (almost) no tourists have gone before.

Still, it’d be hard to fault you if you don’t have the same space fever as you might have had in, say, 2004, when Branson announced his intentions for Virgin Galactic — to create “thousands of astronauts” out of regular folks.

 

Virgin
Virgin Galactic relies on a larger plane to launch the spacecraft, which then climbs upwards into space.

After all, even Branson’s groundbreaking December flight wasn’t entirely unprecedented. 14 years earlier, Mojave Aerospace Ventures did something extremely similar.

In 2004, it was their SpaceshipOne that actually earned the momentous, if not so sexy, title of “first nongovernmental crewed spacecraft” to reach space. The difference between Branson’s craft and SpaceshipOne? Apparently, the mannequin in the backseat. Meaning: SpaceshipOne was not actually gearing up to carry tourists, and Branson’s was.

In that sense, Virgin Galactic’s accomplishment was largely a semantic one. As Forbes pointed out, even the typically ebullient Branson had to couch his boasts.

“Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship built to carry private passengers reached space.”

Not exactly Kennedy’s moon landing proclamation. But space travel is always incremental. As Armstrong put it, the small steps come before the giant leaps.

And Branson’s convinced the biggest step yet is almost here.

ISS
Seven tourists have visited the International Space Station, with two more slated for 2021.

The Gilded Age of Space Tourism

Between 2001 and 2009, and for no less than $20 million, seven people hitched a ride with Russia to the International Space Station (ISS), living for up to 13 days like bona fide astronauts.

You might call these the space vacationers. The paying customers who came closest to making their Space Odyssey fantasies come true, with all the highs and lows that entails. The ones who had to seriously train for months for the experience, deal with the uncomfortable realities of sleeping without gravity, and — in perhaps the biggest deterrent to taking your vacation in orbit — figure out how to use the bathroom.

One interview with Richard Garriott, the sixth paying customer to visit the ISS, summed up the experience with outer space bathrooms as “[straddling] a hole the size of a Coke can,” pointing out with excruciating bluntness that “with the lack of gravity things can get messy.”

But for every negative, there’s the glamorous corollary that you’re actually living your own miraculous space oddity. Garriott spoke too of experiencing the “overview effect,” a phrase coined by writer Frank White in 1987 after hearing it described by dozens of astronauts. He wrote that the phenomenon, a feeling of oneness with the world as you see it from above, is just “one of the changes in consciousness that can be brought about by spaceflight.”

Needless to say, it’s a difficult feeling to explain.

But to many, it’s worth the millions.

Blue Marble
Titled “Blue Marble,” a photo of the earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972.

What’s A Tourist Anyway?

After Dennis Tito spent a week on the ISS in 2001, six more wealthy participants went into orbit. These were the rich beyond their wildest dreams, and their wildest dreams included paying to be an astronaut.

But don’t call them tourists. More than one have specifically bristled at the terminology, with Garriott telling the New York Times he hates the phrase because, considering the extensive training, “this is much more than a mere lark.” They were, after all, given experiments to conduct and inspirational P.R. to perform.

Still, what about the rest of us?

When will space be accessible for those of us, the humble space enthusiasts, who have no higher aspirations but to experience weightlessness and stare down at the earth, with our cameras around our necks and our “I Heart Space” t-shirts?

SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, which carried Beth Moses into suborbital space in February 2019.

The Day Trips: Up Up & Away

Suborbital space flight looks a lot different from a week at the ISS straddling a Coke can and having mystical revelations about the universe.

In February, Virgin Galactic passed another milestone, flying a “test passenger” (former NASA engineer Beth Moses) into suborbital space. As the company’s chief astronaut instructor, she’s the best person to ask about the experience. After three days of training to prepare you for the sights and sounds of space, you’re treated to a 90-minute flight, several minutes of microgravity, and a sky that’s “so deeply black, it’s blacker than any black I’ve seen.” And of course, the planetary overview:

“That’s the thing that stands out to me in terms of the view: It was so sharp from space, I can’t even describe it.”

More than 600 people have already bought a ticket, purely on spec, for a reported $250,000 each. Branson — ever the billionaire founder of a private spaceship company — plans to go first.

If all goes according to plan, that’ll happen on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon launch.

July 16, 2019.

Perhaps their closest competition is Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. While they’ve yet to set price points or a date of departure, the Wall Street Journal speculates they’ll try to undercut the cost on Virgin Galactic, maybe to the tune of $150,000.

They describe Bezos’s offerings as shooting for an even more casual experience, “like a skydiving outfit: Clients will show up, suit up, receive some brief training, and blast off; an hour later they will be on the ground again, getting their astronaut certificates and eating lunch.”

Hopefully that includes a free “I Heart Space” shirt.

SpaceX
SpaceX rockets have launched a car, cargo and satellites into orbit, but have yet to launch a human.

Moon Shots
As far as the relatively affordable, Branson seems closest to launch. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already signed up Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for a 2023 trip around the moon, Russia wants to take two tourists back to the ISS in 2021, Boeing is in that same conversation, and in perhaps the most interesting development for Tablet, plans for the world’s first luxury space hotel made headlines just this year.

Something of an ISS hotel, it would cost space tourists somewhere around $10 million and provide 16 sunrises a day to go with its earthside views. Called Aurora, they hope to welcome guests in 2022. But if you follow the usual trajectory of these space projects, well, we’ll just wait until they officially open to award them Tablet Plus status.

Orion

A rendering of the Aurora Station, what might be the world’s first space hotel. Courtesy Orion Span.

When you read about today’s space tourism industry, perpetually nascent and prohibitively expensive, you run into many comparisons to regular air travel. As one investor told Forbes, “If you look at commercial airlines, in the beginning the prices were super-high. Only celebrities and politicians were able to fly. It took 25-30 years before a coach class was even an option to be affordable.”

Until then, the industry’s largely for dreamers. And those with the money to make their dreams come true.
 

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