How to become a space tourist: 8 companies (almost) ready to launch
How much are you willing to pay to become an astronaut?
On April 28, 2001, 60-year-old American businessman Dennis Tito became the first tourist to leave Earth’s atmosphere behind, spending nearly 8 days in space, much of it aboard the International Space Station (ISS)—and reportedly paying $20 million dollars to do so. Despite objections from NASA, who thought that Tito’s training would not be sufficient by the time of his flight—Tito also thinks it’s likely they were concerned about his age—tourism company Space Adventures negotiated a deal with the Russian agency Roscosmos that got Tito a seat in a Soyuz.
Since then, there have been only six other space tourists, all traveling aboard a Soyuz to the ISS. The last one, Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté, flew in 2009. The end of this early space tourism era came about due to the doubling of the crew size aboard the ISS in 2009, which left no room for visitors on the station, as well as the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, which meant that NASA needed all extra Soyuz seats to launch its astronauts.
But the seven space tourists won’t be alone for long. Numerous private companies intend to launch their own space tourism programs. You’ve likely heard of the biggest players in the private spaceflight game: Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic just resumed testing of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle earlier this month after a fatal test in 2014, and Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ private spaceflight venture, is aiming to send crewed missions to space as early as this year.
And, in addition to these heavy hitters, there are quite a few other companies offering tourists a chance to reach space, too. Some are farther along in development than others, and there are always reasons to be skeptical when talking about space tourism. We’ve seen plenty of similar ventures come and go over the years without making it to space. But we choose to remain optimistic. Here are the most recent commercial space programs that would love to take you out of this world—for a price.
1. Orion Span
In early April, Orion Span announced its plans for the Aurora Station, billing it as the world’s first luxury space hotel. Scheduled to begin construction in space in 2021 using the company’s proprietary technology and construction methodology (though, what rocket system they’ll use to launch the materials isn’t yet clear), the station will have two private suites, with a total of four guests and two crew per stay. Guests will have to undergo a training program prior to their trip: “We have taken what was traditionally a 24-month training program to prepare travelers to visit a space station and streamlined it to three months,” says Orion Span CEO Frank Bunger. “Phase one of the certification program is done online, making space travel easier than ever. The next portion will be completed in-person at Orion Span’s state-of-the-art training facility in Houston, Texas. The final certification is completed during a traveler’s stay on Aurora Station.” In order to actually send guests to the Aurora Station, the company would like to partner with SpaceX for launches.
It will cost guests $9.5 million per person for a 12-day mission, making it one of the more “affordable” ways to temporarily live in space. “In context, historically, space tourists paid between $20 million and $50 million to stay aboard the ISS,” says Bunger. “Our long-term goal is to continue to drive that cost down further so that space is more accessible to more people.”
One other note—Aurora Station also plans on selling space condos if you want to make your stay a little more permanent.
VSS Unity First Powered Flight, April 5, 2018
Founded in 2004 by Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic aims to take tourists on suborbital flights aboard its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, which is launched from an aircraft rather than a rocket. Though the company hoped to complete its maiden voyage in 2009, a series of setbacks have continuously delayed that inaugural trip. The most severe of these was the 2014 loss of the VSS Enterprise during a test flight, which killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury.
The company just returned to testing on April 5 with a powered test of VSS Unity, which reached an altitude of 84,271 feet. The ship plans to eventually take people just to the edge of space, at about 330,000 feet. As SpaceShipTwo isn’t designed for long-duration missions—total flight time will be just minutes—a seat on the vehicle for a suborbital flight will cost $250,000, and passengers won’t need extensive training. As of 2017, about 650 people had purchased tickets.
3. Blue Origin
Blue Origin’s New Shepard program, named for America’s first man in space, Alan Shepard, seeks to launch passengers in a capsule atop a rocket, just like in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo days. The program is still in development and the company is targeting late 2018 or early 2019 for their first flight with humans onboard.
The short-duration missions (lasting approximately 11 minutes) are expected to require a day of training, which would take place right before the flight. Training will include mission and vehicle overviews, safety briefings, and mission simulations. Tickets have not yet been released but are rumored to be comparable to other short-duration missions—i.e., in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Responsible for organizing the launches of all seven space tourists, Space Adventures is the only truly successful space tourism company as of today. Though it hasn’t been able to send new guests to the ISS since 2009 due to capacity issues, it is still promoting new missions, including a spacewalk at the ISS (no private citizen has ever performed one) and a trip around the moon, which would also include a stay at the ISS. While Space Adventures has no spacecraft of its own, it has long partnered with Roscosmos to send its guests into space via the Soyuz, and plans to do so in the future.
While its trips into space have been curtailed since 2009 and there is no firm timeline for re-starting them, the company is currently offering space-adjacent adventures, like trips to see a Soyuz launch, and flights in zero-g.
Historically, Roscosmos worked with Space Adventures to launch space tourists to the ISS, but it recently began development of its own program. The Russian agency plans on building a luxury space hotel module for the ISS through its partnership with RKK Energia, a space station contractor. Guests at the hotel will be treated to private living quarters with four “bedrooms” (each will be about 70 cubic feet), hygiene and medical facilities, as well as a lounge. Though its training plans haven’t been released, it is expected to be an abbreviated version of the professional two-year program, similar to Dennis Tito’s 8-day experience. Prices will range from $40 million for a one- to two-week stay to $60 million for a month-long stay that would include a guided spacewalk by a cosmonaut. The agency would like to launch the space hotel by 2022, though it should be noted that the ISS is scheduled to retire in 2028, meaning the hotel might be a short-lived endeavor.
In 2016, Roscosmos awarded private company KosmoKurs approval to build a reusable rocket with the intention of sending tourists into space. As only the designs have been approved, the company will likely have years of testing ahead of them before crewed missions will be launched. Similar to Blue Origin’s flights, the short-duration missions (about 15 minutes long, with just a few minutes of weightlessness) will see guests launched in a capsule atop a rocket. The training program will last three days, and the entire package will cost approximately $200,000 to $250,000 per person.
7. Axiom Space
Though its primary services are on-orbit research and manufacturing, Axiom Space’s ultimate goal is to launch a commercial space station—a self-proclaimed successor to the ISS. Though the company hasn’t released many details on its space tourism program, according to its website, it plans to send modules to the ISS by 2021 and establish its own space station by 2024. Private clients will be able to book seven- to ten-day missions to the station, and they will complete a several-week training program before the trip.
While Elon Musk’s SpaceX is not a space tourism company—it currently operates cargo missions for NASA and other clients—it is developing technology for crewed missions aboard its Dragon spacecraft, which would typically carry NASA astronauts into space. But moving beyond its main operations, in 2017 the company announced its intentions to fly two private citizens on a circumlunar mission, following a similar plan to Apollo 8 (and the unintended flight path of Apollo 13). Details are scarce, but Musk recently announced that the prospective moon missions will not use Falcon Heavy rockets as planned, instead using a larger rocket in development called the BFR.