The last fortnight has been a game changer for those who dream of being able to fly into space.
Over the last six decades, hundreds of people have left the confines of the Earth and its atmosphere. But with the exception of half a dozen civilians who have paid tens of millions for stays at Russian and American space stations, every astronaut has been a highly educated and trained pilot, engineer or scientist, sent to further our knowledge and experience with space. The opportunities for ordinary people to fulfil their “science fiction dream” have not been there.
Two weeks ago, though, space tourism for the masses took a giant leap towards reality.
On 11th July 2021 Virgin Galactic launched its SpaceShip Two spaceplane up to a height of 90km (above the American definition of where space starts). It’s four passengers, which Included Richard Branson, Virgins founder, got to see the dark sky of space, the curvature of the Earth, and spend five minutes in zero gravity.
Virgin Galactic currently has plans to build a fleet of four such space planes, and start commercial passenger flights next year. Given that all parts of the launch system are reusable, this could potentially service hundreds of passengers a year. They already have a waiting list of 600 people who have paid a deposit for the $250,000 ticket to space.
Less than a fortnight later, one of Virgin Galactic’s main competitors, Blue Origin, launched their own reusable sub-orbital space rocket called New Shepherd, climbing up up to 105km. It’s founder, Jeff Bezos, and three other passengers, enjoyed a similar experience provided by Virgin. Bezos, too, intends to provide this as an ongoing service to customers, though exactly when and how many is not yet clear. Whilst he hasn’t yet started selling tickets, or even taking deposits for flights, he had 7,600 people apply when he auctioned off the spare seat on the first flight (the winner bid $28 million!!)
Clearly there are a lot of people willing to pay a lot of money to travel to space.
But have these ground breaking achievements come too late?
Both companies have spent nearly two decades getting to this point. Branson initially envisaged starting his launch services as early as 2007, but a series of mishaps and set backs, including an explosion of a test tank which killed three engineers, and a crash of a prototype which killed the co-pilot, meant that this target was missed by nearly a decade and a half.
Blue Origin has found their development timeline a similarly challenging road.
If either company had been ready to fly in the first decade of this century, they would now have many flights under their belts, and an established business model. Flights to space would be a normal, if expensive and brief, holiday destination.
But a decade later there is big competition. SpaceX, lead by Elon Musk, as been busy developing reusable rockets that don’t just fly up to space and back for a five minute joy ride, they fly into orbit. This requires much more powerful rockets, and sophisticated and reliable re-entry systems.
In March 2019, Musk started flying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in his Crewed Dragon spacecraft, lofted into space on top of the now reliable, and reusable rocket, Falcon 9 rocket.
In August this year, SpaceX are due to start orbital test flights of a much bigger craft, Starship. This is designed to carry up to 100 passengers at a time, up into orbit, perhaps eventually to someone’s space hotel. In the future the rocket is expected to be able to take similar numbers of people to the moon, or even to Mars.
There is no clear timeline for when fare paying passengers might ride in Starship, or how much a ticket might cost to. Right now, Musk seems to be focusing on enabling America to return its astronauts to the moon, where they have not trodden since the start of the 1970’s, and to establish a permanent scientific base.
But it can’t been too long before he turns his attention to providing the space experience to the masses. Musk has a track record of attempting big things, and more often than not, succeeding at them.
So if you were given the choice of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a few minutes in space, or a trips that could last hours or days in orbit, which would you take?
Branson and Bezos may only have a few years in the sunshine before their spacecraft become old hat, and they find their customer base starts to disappear.