In the early years of this century, executives at Virgin Galactic, founded by the irreverent Richard Branson, predicted that commercial flights to space for paying passengers were only a couple of years away. That turned out to be far too ambitious. Disaster struck the company twice in the next decade: In 2007 an explosion during pre-launch tests of SpaceShipTwo’s rocket systems killed three people. Then in 2014, a pilot was killed during a test flight when the space plane crashed in the Mojave desert.
Now, in 2021, everything looks different. On July 11, Branson and three crew members traveled to Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic’s human spaceflight headquarters in southern New Mexico, and clambered aboard VSS Unity, a much upgraded version of SpaceShipTwo. They blasted toward the edge of space, at an altitude of 54 miles above the Earth, allowing the passengers a panoramic view of the world as they excitedly floated in zero gravity for about four minutes of their hour-long journey.
Nine days later, Blue Origin’s founder, Jeff Bezos, and three others made a similar voyage aboard their New Shepard space vehicle, this time reaching an altitude of 63 miles, also staying aloft and weightless for a few minutes. And then in September, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched the all-civilian Inspiration4 mission aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft. They reached an orbit just above the International Space Station’s, flying for about three days before their capsule safely splashed down off the coast of Florida.
After decades of research, development, trial, error, and hype, the dream of commercial spaceflight had finally gotten off the ground. While private passengers have previously hitched rides on NASA shuttles and Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the three billionaire titans of the industry have made it possible to book a trip to space and back on a private spacecraft. With plenty more flights from these companies (and others) on the horizon, space tourism has surely arrived. In fact, the industry is now launching so many people into space that in January the FAA will end its Commercial Space Astronaut Wings program, which was originally designed to promote the industry. (The agency will continue to recognize space travelers on its website.)
“I honestly think that we are at the dawn of an incredible inflection point in history for human spaceflight. I truly believe that seeing Earth from space is transformative and will ultimately help humanity and the Earth in unknown ways,” says Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, who previously worked for NASA and who flew with Branson in July.
“Until this year, it’s predominantly been government-focused—NASA propelling astronauts to the space station. That's an achievement, but also a turning point where we’re noticing the effects of the democratization of space. You don’t need to be an astronaut to go to space,” says Danielle Bernstein, co-lead of the Aerospace Corporation’s Space Safety Institute.
But this access currently depends on the whims and largesse of a handful of billionaires. Despite some lofty rhetoric, the leaders of the industry still struggle to make the case that their rockets have more to offer than expensive trips for the rich and famous. “There’s a surface attempt to make them appear as commercial science vessels, but they’re much more like yachts or cruises,” says University of Chicago space historian Jordan Bimm.
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Others question the purpose of space tourism too. “These are technological achievements, there’s no doubt about that,” says Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist and space ethics researcher at York University in Toronto. But, she suggests, “their most significant achievement is the domination of the airwaves and television coverage.”
So far, tickets to the edge of space go for six figures—$200,000 or more—while booking an orbital expedition costs up to eight figures. A $200,000 price tag for a brief spaceflight tops the annual income of about 90 percent of Americans. It’s hard not to take note of that, especially at a time of climate crisis, a pandemic, and growing awareness of inequality. Each seat aboard a suborbital flight is like launching a home while there are more than half a million unhoused Americans, or like launching a family’s lifetime health care costs while tens of millions lack health care, or like launching college tuition when a majority of Americans don’t have access to higher education.
“Every time somebody flies for $250,000, while in that same country children aren’t eating and people are lined up along the borders, I have a hard time getting my head around it, to be honest,” Denning says.
But if the 20th-century aviation industry is any guide, while these flights will begin as luxuries, prices will drop, and access to space will broaden beyond ultra-rich people as the market opens up and technologies and infrastructure improve. “If you rewind to 100 years ago, it wasn’t your everyday person taking advantage of airlines that were just beginning to figure out how to fly routes around the world. But nowadays, for a very reasonable sum, anybody can hop on a plane, and they don’t think twice about it. It’s very safe. That’s probably the vision for space,” Bernstein says.
This also isn’t the first time that a handful of wealthy individuals have played an outsize role in US space activities. “It was actually billionaires like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller who funded the largest astronomical telescopes in the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the Guggenheim family that was the primary source of funding for Robert Goddard, who was the first rocketry pioneer in the US,” says Alex MacDonald, chief economist at NASA.
And on the other hand, MacDonald points out, NASA has supported and invested in the burgeoning private space industry for decades, signing a variety of contracts for equipment and services, including with the once-fledgling SpaceX, which turns 20 next spring. NASA’s currently investing in Blue Origin and two other companies to develop designs for a commercial space station to follow the ISS. It’s part of a long-term plan to support the private sector in low Earth orbit, while reducing costs and freeing up more of the agency’s budget for long-distance exploration.
While the first six decades of spaceflight belonged to highly trained astronauts, now passengers can fly just for the spectacular view, or for fun, or for the challenge. And while the cost of a ticket is high, these early private flights did make room for a handful of people who would have never had the opportunity before. The commander of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 was Jared Isaacman, the billionaire CEO of the payment processing company Shift4Payments, and he funded the tickets that went to the three other travelers. Artist and scientist Sian Proctor won hers in a contest, Chris Sembroski got his ticket from a friend who won a lottery-like competition, and Hayley Arceneaux was offered her spot as an ambassador for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, an organization for which the mission raised $200 million—a charitable purpose that could become a model for some other private flights. Virgin Galactic announced on November 24 that Keisha Schahaff, a health and energy coach in Antigua, won two seats in a sweepstakes that raised $1.7 million for Space for Humanity, a Denver-based nonprofit that works to expand access to space with its Citizen Astronaut Program.
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Passengers on other flights seem to have been chosen for their qualities as “goodwill ambassadors” for space travel. That includes pilot Wally Funk, who was one of the all-female Mercury 13 astronaut trainees in the 1960s, but wasn’t selected for a mission because of the sexism of her era, and William Shatner, aka Star Trek’s Captain Kirk.
What people think of as an astronaut (or as a “spaceflight participant,” to use the FAA’s term) has always been evolving. Early space exploration involved the military, in the context of the space race and the Cold War, and the first astronauts were mostly test pilots with “the right stuff.” After the successful Apollo program and moon landing, a greater emphasis on science led to sending more scientists. “As we go through those stages, it’s not an erasure of the previous one, but a layering on over them,” Bimm says. “Look at the Inspiration4 crew: While they’re civilians, they tried hard to look both like militarized astronauts, appearing in jets and flight suits, and as scientists, with performative science as part of their mission.” The crew collected their own biomedical data during their flight, but Bimm says it’s not clear how much that data will aid research on effects of low gravity on astronaut health, for example.
One of the most-touted benefits of sending people to space has always been that it’s awe-inspiring to do, generating feelings of optimism, wonder, and international cooperation. The sight of our little planet seen from far away moves many space fliers, as well, in what’s often called the “overview effect.” It’s a rare opportunity to witness how unique the Earth is, to see it without borders and in all of its vulnerability. Virgin Galactic’s Beth Moses calls it an “indescribable and magical experience.” And Shatner, who flew on Blue Origin’s second passenger flight in October, afterward called it a “profound” one that he hopes he’ll never recover from.
But some people question whether spaceflight is necessary to learn this existential and cosmological lesson. “I’m sure it’s beautiful to behold,” Denning says. But, she asks, “do you actually have to go to space to have an experience like that? And the answer for many thousands of years has been no. You can have a spiritual oneness with the Earth and a rise in enviro-consciousness without that.”
Similarly, Bimm doubts that space tourism inevitably spurs people to make the world a better place. “I worry that the very wealthy are going to start going to space, claiming they had the overview effect, and come back to Earth and use that claim of a ‘transformative experience’ to do pretty much anything they want,” he says. Bezos’ dubious project to move heavy industry into space, which he touted after his jaunt in July, is a prime example, Bimm says.
He also isn’t sold on the value of taking along passengers with compelling stories, like Shatner, Funk, Proctor, and Arceneaux, who is a cancer survivor and has a prosthetic body part. It almost serves as a deflection technique, Bimm says, since it distracts attention from the wealthy, lower-profile paying customers, as well as from Bezos’ and Musk’s problems on Earth, like complaints about the treatment of workers at Amazon and Tesla.
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Fred Scharmen, author of the new book Space Forces, wonders how long these good feelings will last in an era of private flight. “That kind of feeling and vibe that the public agencies are able to tap into almost effortlessly—everybody loves NASA—it’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how long the private actors can invoke or connect to that kind of feeling of goodwill, hope, and overwhelmingly sublime awe that space travel inspires,” he says.
There are already signs that the private passenger space industry is beginning to expand beyond tourism, and it’s shaving down the price of getting there. The first mission of up-and-coming Houston-based company Axiom Space, dubbed Ax-1, will deliver four crew members to the ISS in February for an eight-day stay, where they’ll conduct research experiments involving the health impacts of space. “It is a pathfinder, pioneering mission for this new era of commercial human spaceflight to the ISS and in the future to commercial space stations. The long-term goal is to open up low Earth orbit to become its own marketplace,” says Michael López-Alegría, Ax-1’s commander, Axiom’s vice president of business development, and a former NASA astronaut. He anticipates a market that includes tourism and research as well as advertising and entertainment.
Axiom has also already signed NASA contracts to develop modules to attach to the ISS, which will later detach and become their own station. Other commercial space stations will become destinations as well, for astronauts, tourists, and a variety of businesses. There’s already a market for space wine, space beer, and movies filmed in space, Denning says.
A variety of other ventures will follow. That includes teardrop-shaped space balloons the size of football fields from the company Space Perspective, based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Rather than going to space at high g's on a rocket, you’re going to space very gently and comfortably at 12 miles an hour,” says Jane Poynter, the company’s co-CEO. The balloons carry a pressurized capsule and eight passengers aloft, nearly 20 miles above the Earth’s surface. They’re planning their first crewed flight in 2023 and their first commercial one the following year, with tickets going for around $125,000. It’s also a relatively safe way to fly to the edge of space, rather than strapping oneself to a rocket, Poynter points out. (Blue Origin and SpaceX use traditional vertical-launch rockets that are automated, with the crew sitting in a capsule on top, while Virgin makes use of a piloted space plane.)
As the industry matures, ideas for improving it can develop as well. Ariel Ekblaw, founder and director of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative and author of the book Into the Anthropocosmos, believes there should be more transparency in the way space fliers are chosen, because people around the world pay attention to these flights and to their crew. And Bimm argues that companies should be transparent about something else: whether the crew's flight plan is just to hang out and enjoy the spectacular view, rather than gathering scientific data.
Right now, private flights seem to encompass multiple things at once: They’re science missions, ecotourism expeditions, and yacht trips led by famous space barons. “We have yet to see what the hybrid role of these missions are,” says Ekblaw. “We’re at a cusp of a public grand opening of space.”
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