Will Space Tourism Ever Take Off? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
In this video, Unveiled investigates how close we really are to space tourism. Featuring projects from SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic... as well as a look at NASA's plans for the future of space travel... it's time to buckle up, because we're heading for the stars!

Will Space Tourism Ever Take Off?

For all of human history, we’ve dreamt of visiting space. But it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that humanity was finally able to make it possible. Still, as it stands, space travel is usually only an option for a small number of highly trained astronauts - while the rest of the world population watches on. But, will it always be like that?

This is Unveiled and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; Will space tourism ever take off?

The idea of space tourism is as old as space flight itself. Shortly after the iconic 1969 moon landing, plans of traveling into space for recreational purposes, instead of scientific advancement or work, were born. Unfortunately, though, not much happened at first… In those early years and decades, the technology was still new and being perfected, and NASA (or any other space agency) couldn’t afford to send anyone up without an important and specific purpose. Space was only for study.

It was the development in the US of the reusable space shuttle which arguably got the business of “space tourism” going, turning spaceships into longer lasting and more affordable prospects. But then, in 1986, the Challenger disaster proved a tragic reminder to everyone of the risks and dangers involved with space flight. Over time, it was shown that those dangers do vary according to the type of flight, however: suborbital, orbital or lunar… With suborbital ranking as potentially less dangerous because it doesn’t involve leaving Earth’s atmosphere. It’s why many of the earliest space tourism schemes - like Virgin Galactic, for example - propose suborbital flights.

That said, there are a handful of people who have already been able to go further out; to venture deeper into space than most current space tourism ventures can promise, and for purely recreational purposes. The first-ever “space tourist” of this type was the millionaire Dennis Tito, who flew as a passenger to the International Space Station in 2001, before staying onboard for almost eight days. Tito’s ticket set him back about twenty million dollars, though… proving that, at the time, his adventure really wasn’t for everyone. Only six other people have since had the chance to buy their way this far into space; all of them millionaires or billionaires, and all were sent up in Russian spacecraft. In general, though, space agencies (including NASA) have been reluctant to devote too much of their programs to tourism.

Enter, the private sector. In recent years a number of private companies have arrived into the space industry and provided another opportunity for space tourism to really take off. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has already sold hundreds of tickets for a future trip to take passengers into suborbital space. Virgin’s spaceplane will travel more than fifty miles from the Earth’s surface (just high enough for those on board to be thrust into microgravity), where passengers are promised astonishing views of Earth from afar… before a slow descent and a relatively routine runway landing. Tickets for the experience, which are currently sold out, reportedly ran up to $250,000 dollars each.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos also entered into space tourism quite early on, in the year 2000 with Blue Origin. Blue Origin’s plans are in many ways similar to Virgin’s, as passengers are to travel in a rocket to suborbital altitudes, where they’ll experience a few minutes of weightlessness and stunning views. Then, though, they’ll fall back to Earth via parachute, while the rocket lands without its tourists back on a pad, ready for another journey. In 2019, Bezos further added to his company’s vision for space by announcing plans for “Blue Moon”, a currently uncrewed lunar lander. While that’s being developed though, Blue Origin remains a front-runner for commercial space travel.

Perhaps it is Elon Musk’s brainchild SpaceX, however, which boasts the most ambitious take on space tourism. Because it is going orbital. Or, at least, it plans to. A lot of the SpaceX excitement centres on a mission known as #dearMoon. In it, the Japanese Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and a few of his friends will launch in Musk’s Big Falcon Rocket, to spend almost a week in space. In that time, they’ll leave Earth’s orbit and conduct a flyby around the entire moon before returning back to Earth. Maezawa and co. are hoping to launch this unprecedented lunar flight by the year 2023 and, although the SpaceX vision has attracted its fair share of scepticism, a successful flight would set an all new benchmark for the space industry. If #dearMoon goes ahead and works, then we’ll have essentially skipped “suborbital” travel, fast-tracked to “orbital”, and made a giant step toward “lunar” - that is, sending people to the surface of the moon. Orbital and lunar travel would still likely be out of price range for most people, but suborbital trips could become more affordable as a result. Space would no longer be just for the incredibly rich, but would instead be open to many more customers.

As for orbital travel, though (the types of long-distance journeys that people like Yusaku Maezawa want), the risk levels soar once again. Any mission which exits Earth’s atmosphere - that is, any mission which isn’t suborbital - is automatically far more dangerous because it requires “re-entry”. Getting back into the Earth’s atmosphere demands precise control and handling, approaching at just the right angle and speed, to avoid the ship you’re on catching fire, or even missing Earth altogether. It’s not surprising, then, that missions of this calibre come with a lot of legal responsibility for whichever company provides the service. There’s so much red tape that many of the rules and regulations haven’t even been written up yet, which is one reason why plans for space tourism seem to be taking so long to come to fruition. On the one hand, we’ve seen so many positive technological developments to make space tourism easier and potentially cheaper - including the invention of reusable rockets like the Falcon 9. But, on the other, any company hoping to send whole groups of gallant earthlings to the moon (or anywhere else) needs to first prove that the risk to human life is as low as possible. And that’s not easy to do!

With that in mind, people are searching for even cheaper, more futuristic and potentially much safer approaches. And among the most unique ideas being seriously tabled is the concept of building a space elevator. It sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but it’s thought that accomplishing such a feat isn’t impossible - with even NASA reportedly agreeing that it’s a viable idea. The Obayashi Corporation in Tokyo has genuine plans to build a 22,000-mile-long elevator shaft extending from the surface of Earth out into space - where it would be attached on the other end to a space station in orbit. This extremely innovative proposal would make use of centrifugal force for stability, allowing elevator pods to ride up and down carrying groups of passengers in clear containers, providing those on board with amazing views as they ascend higher and higher into the sky. The famed theoretical physicist Michio Kaku has even gone so far as to call the idea the “holy grail” of space exploration, while the futurologist Ian Pearson estimates that there is an eighty percent chance we will have space elevators before the end of this century. Both Japan and China are said to want one up and running by the year 2050. So, one day, becoming a space tourist really might be as easy as calling for an elevator.

And so, we’re at a turning point in space tourism yet again. First it was the space agencies leading the way; then came big private firms with even bigger ideas; and now, there are projects in motion which could mean that space travel no longer requires a traditional spaceship at all. Passenger safety will always be of paramount importance, and there is a way to go toward making any guarantees on that front… but with more and more technologies coming to the fore, we can expect costs to fall and opportunities to increase. So, if you have dreams of one day seeing Earth from a distance, then buckle up… because that’s why space tourism is set for take-off!