Have you ever dreamed of experiencing the wonder of space travel? Well, my friend, that dream is closer than ever to becoming reality! Space tourism is entering an incredibly exciting phase, with various private companies racing to be the first to offer suborbital and orbital trips to paying customers.
As a lifelong space enthusiast, I am thrilled to help guide you through the major players in this emerging industry. In this article, we will adventure through the cosmos together, exploring the different spacecraft, flight profiles, and overall visions each company is pursuing. Space tourism promises to be an exceptional experience – let‘s discover how it is becoming achievable!
Overview: An Industry Poised for Liftoff
While government agencies like NASA have advanced space exploration for decades, private space companies are now driving a new commercial era. The prospect of space tourism emerged in 2001 when American businessman Dennis Tito purchased an 8-day stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS) through Space Adventures, reportedly paying $20 million for the privilege. This demonstrated that a market exists for private spaceflights.
The industry timeline since shows steady progress:
- 2004 – Scaled Composites‘ suborbital SpaceShipOne wins the Ansari X Prize
- 2008 – Richard Branson founds Virgin Galactic to offer suborbital space tourism
- 2009 – Guy Laliberté becomes the first Canadian private astronaut aboard the ISS
- 2012 – Over 500 people had booked rides to space with various companies
- 2021 – First all-civilian orbital mission Inspiration4 is launched by SpaceX
Today, consulting firm UBS estimates space tourism could become a $4 billion annual market by 2030. Their researchers predict total demand could reach 4000+ suborbital and orbital flights per year. Moreover, ticket prices are dropping: suborbital flights once estimated at $200,000 per seat can now sell for $450,000. While still expensive, the evolution is promising.
As you will see in reviewing the major players below, private launch capabilities, proven spaceplanes, advanced high-altitude balloons, and reusable rockets are turning the dream of space travel into reality. Are you ready to explore the possibilities with me?
Blue Origin‘s Simple Space Hop
Founded by billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2000, Blue Origin takes a step-by-step approach toward more complex space missions. Their New Shepard rocket launches a sleek, fully autonomous 6-seat capsule designed specifically for suborbital space tourism.
Let‘s walk through a flight profile:
- The vertically launched rocket propels the capsule to cross the 100 km Kármán line – widely considered the boundary of space
- Passengers experience 3-4 minutes of weightlessness and can unbuckle to float about the cabin
- The spacecraft offers stunning views of Earth through what Blue Origin calls the largest windows ever built into a spacecraft
- After descending back below 100 km, the capsule parachutes gently to a landing not far from the launch pad
Anticipated ticket prices in the $200,000 – $300,000 range are high but offer easier access than previous options costing millions. Blue Origin appears to be taking crew safety and customer experience seriously. Toured facilities show whisky globes and swish leather seats for passengers. Additionally, Bezos himself rode on the first crewed test flight in July 2021.
While 11-minute hops to cross the Kármán line might seem rather simple space tours, they represent an important step as Blue Origin tests systems for more complex orbital missions to come. Suborbital launches also allow researchers to conduct experiments in microgravity.
As of February 2022, Blue Origin has conducted over 20 successful New Shepard test flights. Crewed tourism launches are expected to begin later in 2022 after a few more key tests.
Virgin Galactic‘s Runway to Space
Founded in 2004 by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic takes a dramatic spaceplane approach to suborbital space tourism. Their SpaceShipTwo rocket plane launches in mid-air from a carrier plane called WhiteKnightTwo. At about 45,000 feet, SpaceShipTwo drops and fires its rocket motor, accelerating past Mach 3 to reach apogee above 80 km (50 miles).
The flight sequence offers quite a ride:
- SpaceShipTwo‘s hybrid rocket motor propels the craft steeply upward in a near vertical ascent
- Passengers experience breathtaking views of Earth and several minutes of weightlessness at the peak
- The wings fold up to enable a stable re-entry before unfolding again in glider configuration
- SpaceShipTwo then gracefully glides to a runway landing like a conventional plane
Notably, a tragic test flight accident in 2014 seriously set back development and killed one pilot. However, Virgin Galactic has worked to learn from this and improve safety. Their ticket backlog remains high, with over 700 customers booked at around $450,000 per seat. Test flights continue from Spaceport America in New Mexico, sometimes with Branson joining the crew.
While Virgin Galactic‘s flight is shorter than Blue Origin‘s and won‘t cross the Kármán line, the company aims for a longer overall experience. The carrier plane takes off conventionally, offering a gentle transition to space. As Branson says, “We‘re going into space, but only for five minutes or so." Commercial service is planned to begin in 2023.
High Hopes with Space Perspective
Now here is an exceedingly unique approach: Florida startup Space Perspective plans to gently lift passengers to the stratosphere in a pressurized capsule suspended under a giant high-altitude balloon. Their system is called the Spaceship Neptune, consisting of a piloted capsule for 8 passengers and the Neptune One balloon made of advanced polyethylene fabric.
Let‘s uncover flight details:
- The balloon inflates with lifted hydrogen to about the size of a football stadium
- A 6-hour ascent lifts the capsule to about 30 km (100,000 feet) above 99% of the atmosphere
- Passengers relax in a comfortable, spacious cabin with reclining seats and panoramic windows
- Views rival those from spacecraft as the balloon floats in the stratosphere for 2 hours
- After releasing helium, the balloon deflates for a gradual 1-hour descent and ocean splashdown
This exceptionally peaceful journey allows plenty of time to watch Earth‘s curve and the darkness of space. It‘s environmentally gentler too, using only helium. Lead by husband-wife founders Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, Space Perspective aims to open space access at an estimated 20% of the price of rocket-based flights.
Test flights are set to begin in 2024 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida with crewed flights to follow. Space Perspective‘s vision stands out with the promise of a serene, reflective space experience. Float on!
SpaceX: Fueling Orbital Space Ambitions
Moving onto orbital ambitions, we have the private rocket company SpaceX, founded in 2002 by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. With long-term visions of colonizing Mars, SpaceX is pursuing ambitious technologies like reusable rockets to reduce launch costs. Their Falcon 9 rocket can loft the Crew Dragon capsule into low Earth orbit at an altitude up to 400 km.
Let‘s fly through the experience:
- Crew Dragon provides space for up to 7 passengers, docking autonomously with destinations like the ISS
- Interiors feature touchscreen displays and an environmentally controlled life support system
- Orbiting Earth every 90 minutes, passengers experience sustained zero-gravity in space
- Dragon has small maneuvering thrusters that can provide remarkable views of Earth & space
- For landing, the heatshielded capsule descends through the atmosphere and deploys parachutes before a splashdown at sea
In 2021, SpaceX completed the first all-civilian orbital flight Inspiration4 with four private citizens aboard. While SpaceX has not divulged tourism ticket pricing, early estimates exceed $50 million depending on trip length. Clearly targeting the wealthy, Musk ultimately aims to pioneer technologies enabling human life on other planets.
Around the Moon with Space Adventures
Virginia-based Space Adventures offers an extraordinary opportunity: circumlunar flights around the moon. This company already organized eight spaceflights between 2001 and 2009 that took 7 private citizens to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft for reported prices from $20 to $35 million.
Now using new technologies, they aim to provide commercial lunar missions:
- Planned to launch on SpaceX‘s Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule as early as late 2023
- The multi-day free return trajectory goes around but not into lunar orbit before heading back to Earth
- Space Adventures CEO Tom Shelley has indicated a price per seat of approximately $150 million
- Their crew is slated to include 3 tourists who have already paid deposits, escorted by a professional commander
A voyage around the far side of the moon would provide an experience completely unlike anything tourists have accessed before. Seeing the cosmic perspective from such a distance could profoundly impact passengers. While tickets will remain expensive, Space Adventures is pioneering access never thought possible just decades ago.
Ballooning to the Stratosphere with World View
Back in the stratosphere, we find startup World View Enterprises, aiming to gently lift tourists and research experiments to 30 km using enormous high-altitude balloons. Their proposed voyages would occur in the Voyager pressurized space capsule with comfortable seating for 8 passengers and 2 crew.
- From launch site facilities, passengers board Voyager before the enormous 40 million cubic foot helium balloon is inflated
- The balloon ascends slowly for around 2 hours to maximum altitude
- Voyager remains at peak height for 6+ hours, allowing ample time to view Earth‘s curvature
- Total flight time ranges from 6 to 12 hours depending on winds
- After releasing helium, Voyager gradually descends by parachute for landing
Test flights have occurred from both Arizona and Florida using balloons the size of a professional soccer stadium. Voyager provides amenities like a bar, bathroom, and wifi to create a unique environment. Ticket pricing has yet to be announced but the sustainable helium balloon approach aims to be competitive with rocket options.
To the Stratosphere and Beyond with Zero2Infinity
Originating from Barcelona, Spain, startup Zero2Infinity envisions using bloons, a signature type of high-performance balloon, to offer affordable trips to near-space. Their bloostar spacecraft is being designed to carry a pilot and 3 passengers above 100,000 feet altitude into the stratosphere.
Bloons offer a gentle flight profile:
- The giant helium-filled balloon is released to ascend into the upper stratosphere
- Passengers inside the circular pressurized bloostar capsule enjoy 360-degree views and a zerogravity experience
- Line-of-sight communication allows passengers to share the voyage live online
- After 2+ hours at peak altitude, the balloon is released and bloostar glides down by parachute
Founder Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales started Zero2Infinity in 2009 after an engineering career at ESA and NASA. With test flights occurring since 2015, commercial bloon flights are slated to begin from Florida in 2024, potentially starting at $125,000 per seat. Their vision aims to sustainably open space access to more people globally.
Boeing‘s Starliner Aimed at Orbit and ISS
Aerospace giant Boeing is busy developing their CST-100 Starliner capsule to transport professional astronauts and private citizens on missions to low Earth orbit and the ISS. The gumdrop-shaped Starliner can carry up to 5 passengers along with vital cargo.
Let‘s examine a potential flight path:
- Starliner launches atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida up to ISS orbit 400 km high
- After roughly 24 hours, the capsule docks itself autonomously to the station‘s forward port
- With sleeping berths and secure climate control, Starliner could potentially stay docked for 6+ months
- When ready to return, the capsule detaches and closes its hatch before firing thrusters to deorbit
- Propelled by parachutes, Starliner executes a safe airbag-cushioned landing in the western United States
Boeing has contracted with NASA to provide ISS crew transportation. NASA has suggested tourism trips to ISS could cost around $35,000 per night if arranged through Boeing. While mainly focused on their NASA contract, Boeing says they may sell any unused Starliner seats to space tourists.
What an incredible time for space travel! As we have seen, a diverse array of companies are driving progress, using different technological approaches to open the cosmos. Short suborbital hops, rides to the stratosphere by balloon, and multiday orbital missions are all nearing liftoff.
Expanding access promises to bring space within reach of more people worldwide. Experiencing weightlessness and viewing Earth from such heights can provide awe, inspire sustainability, and reconnect us to our shared planet. While these initial flights will be costly, prices should fall given time. Dreamers are becoming doers!
The coming decade will prove pivotal as companies move from successful tests into commercial service. I hope you have enjoyed adventuring through the possibilities with me here! Your space tour may be booking soon. Let your imagination soar!