• The Fraught History (and Inevitable Future) of Space Tourism

    Peter Ward on the Cost of Human Luxury Among the Stars

    Dennis Tito’s weeklong trip into space in April 2001 was the first example of space tourism, and it opened the door for six more people to travel to the International Space Station (ISS). Space Adventures conducted most of their training in Russia and launched their clients into space using Russian Soyuz rockets. South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth became the second person to take a vacation in space in 2002, and the same year pop star and ‘N Sync singer Lance Bass was scheduled to become the third. Although Bass completed the training, the TV producers behind the trip, who wanted to produce a documentary series from it, failed to come up with the $20 million, and the singer was denied a stay at the ISS.

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    The last citizen to fly into space was Canadian Guy Laliberté, and the millionaires and billionaires of the world have had a frustrating few years with no access to space. But there’s a new wave of space tourism companies on the horizon, and a huge number of people already on their waiting lists. But will this new form of space tourism make it a realistic endeavor for anyone but the one percent?

    Each of the seven people to go into space with Space Adventures paid somewhere between $20 and $40 million for the privilege, a price that excluded all but the most wealthy from a holiday off-planet. But over the years, other companies have worked to put tourists into space for a much smaller cost. The company expected to put the first paying customers in space using a commercial spacecraft is Virgin Galactic. The company had been founded on the momentum of the Ansari XPrize in 2004, and had developed the second version of its spacecraft. But today, the company has only just reached space. The journey to this point has been fraught with setbacks and tragedy.


    In July 2007, a fatal explosion occurred at Scaled Composites, the company building the rocket engine that would fire the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo into space. The accident, which happened during a routine test and killed three people, delayed development as the company investigated the cause. Despite this setback, Scaled Composites delivered the new White Knight mother ship—which took the main craft high enough to launch—in 2009. The aircraft was twice the size of its predecessor and was unveiled to the world and the media with much fanfare. The prospect of flying civilians into space was taking longer than expected to come to fruition, but enthusiasm had not waned.

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    In 2009, Adam Cohen read about Virgin Galactic in the news. You only need to speak to Cohen for 10 minutes to realize he’s both extremely enthusiastic about space and prone to acts of severe spontaneity. This explains how, upon learning about Virgin Galactic, he immediately wrote a check for $200,000 to book passage on the company’s next available flight. “It was really unjustifiable for me at the time,” Cohen told me from Florida via phone. “I wasn’t too far into having started a business, so it was not a reasonable thing to do. But space flight is not being powered by people doing reasonable things. It’s being powered by people having a lot of passion and optimism who wind up putting what they can into it.”

    There’s a new wave of space tourism companies on the horizon, and a huge number of people already on their waiting lists. But will this make it a realistic endeavor for anyone but the one percent?

    When Cohen signed up for a seat in the spacecraft, he was running his own research service for hedge funds and mutual funds, an incongruously boring career choice for an eccentric man. He says the most logical next step in his career would have been to set up his own hedge fund, a reliably lucrative choice. However, fate and spontaneity took him down a different path.

    Cohen hasn’t complained that he’s still waiting to take a trip he paid for in 2009. In July 2008, Branson said the first flight would take place within 18 months. The next year, the company said the maiden flight would be within two years. In December 2009, Branson told a group of customers that flights would begin in 2011. The promises kept coming, and so did the delays. Christmas Day 2013 was mentioned as one possible date, but SpaceShipTwo, now called VSS Enterprise, was not ready.

    But none of these delays hurt the company like its next truly tragic setback in October 2014. It was the fourth powered flight of VSS Enterprise, and the vehicle broke apart as it returned to Earth, killing copilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold. The world was shocked at Alsbury’s death, and the inevitable questions were raised regarding the safety of the whole project. The accident was later attributed to a pilot error. Still, the likes of Cohen were not put off. “Let’s just suppose that they start taking off next year, one way or another, whether it’s launch number 200, 500, or 1,000, eventually whether it’s a SpaceX delivery of people to ISS or a Blue Origin, one of these is going to blow up just like airplanes do sometimes,” he said. “When my time comes I’m going to make a short video that says I’m so excited to go on this trip, and on the off chance that I’m the unlucky passenger, I say it’s worth it and nobody should be discouraged by it.”

    Perhaps it’s this attitude, or the willingness to wait no matter how long it takes for the rockets to finally fire, that has forged a community spirit among Virgin’s customers. Attenborough describes his 600-to-700-strong customer base as a “pretty interesting group of people” from all over the world. There’s also a great sense of duty in what they’re doing. “In a way, obviously, I’m very excited to get to go on that trip, but from an almost charitable, philanthropic sense, this is the most important thing I can do,” Cohen said. “I write my checks to charities, but anything I can do for space exploration is the most important thing I can do for my great-grandchildren.”

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    This community has come together online and in the real world with a shared sense of anticipation. “There’s a private Facebook page for the group,” explained Cohen:

    They post pictures on that, and when there’s a new task or certification we get warned about that. The Virgin people are really good about letting us know what’s going on. I think we’ve got a really good factual understanding of how things progress. Richard, as an optimistic entrepreneur, makes proclamations about when things are going to be done, but whether it’s a guy like Branson or Musk, guys who innovate, they always have a timetable that people can’t keep up with. I always feel like we know pretty much what’s going on, and when it’s time we’re off to the races.

    In turn, the customers have become staunch defenders of the concept. “This is like six, seven hundred people who have formed themselves into an amazing community, and are incredibly emotionally engaged with the project. They are our best ambassadors on good days and bad,” Attenborough stated.

    Cohen says the would-be passengers serve as “kind of diplomatic missionaries” for the Virgin Galactic experience and space travel in general. Virgin Galactic sponsors events within the community that seek to introduce more children to science and technology, and the company also plans to reward their customers’ loyalty with additional adventures. One of these was a trip to the National Aerospace Training and Research Center (NASTAR), a training facility outside Philadelphia, where the ticket holders were treated to three days of astronaut training exercises, such as the centrifuge, where a person is spun around rapidly to simulate high g-forces.

    Although the sense of community and weekend events are fun, the group is really waiting for one thing. And toward the end of 2018, they took a giant step closer to their goal. On December 13, at 8:03 a.m. on the East Coast of America, Virgin Galactic tweeted: “SpaceShipTwo, welcome to space.” The latest test of the Virgin space tourism program had succeeded. In 45 minutes, the spacecraft had gone from Earth to space and back to Earth again, prompting Branson to declare his aim to be on a test flight himself in 2019. The public—and Cohen—would get the chance soon after.

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    Virgin Galactic’s first flight into space with passengers will be a landmark moment for the commercial space industry, but customers will always want to go further into space for longer periods of time. Luckily for them, Virgin Galactic isn’t the only player in the game.


    There are three main categories of space tourism—one is suborbital, which is what Virgin plans to offer. The second is orbital, which, as the name suggests, involves entering the Earth’s orbit, similar to what customers of Space Adventures experienced. The third type goes beyond that, to the Moon and back.

    Virgin Galactic’s first flight into space with passengers will be a landmark moment for the commercial space industry, but customers will always want to go further into space for longer periods of time.

    In the suborbital category, Virgin has two main competitors. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is developing a reusable suborbital launch system specifically designed for space tourism. The company would take a maximum of six people on board its New Shepard rocket for a brief sojourn into space. Blue Origin is yet to start selling tickets for flights, despite having passed several test launches, but reports suggest it will charge between $200,000 and $300,000. The other major competitor comes from Russia. In 2016, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, granted permission to the private company KosmoKurs to build a reusable rocket to send tourists into space. The company is years behind the likes of Virgin and Blue Origin, but plans to offer a similar package as its American counterparts: a short suborbital flight for around $200,000 to $250,000 per person.

    Orbital space holidays have slowed to a halt. With no room for passengers available on the Soyuz rockets for many years, enthusiasm has flagged, or other factors have got in the way. British classical singer Sarah Brightman was scheduled to go to the ISS with Space Adventures in 2015 and began training. But she pulled out for family reasons. That meant the Japanese businessman Satoshi Takamatsu was given the option to take her place, but he declined, saying the art projects he wanted to showcase while in space were not ready. He is currently expected to take the trip in 2020. One of the drawbacks to this type of space tourism, besides the dizzying price, is the amount of time would-be space travelers need to devote to the flight. The training for these missions takes around six months and extensive medical tests are required. These factors limit the amount of potential travelers in this sector.

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    The third tier of space tourism grabs the most headlines, and indeed it is the most ambitious and profitable. These trips are for the dreamers with more money than they can spend and a reckless sense of adventure. They go beyond the ISS and into deep space. Two companies so far have offered trips around the Moon. One is Space Adventures, operating in conjunction with Roscosmos. The experience involves two passengers and one professional cosmonaut heading to the ISS for 10 days so the tourists can adapt to space. A second rocket is then launched from Earth with a Lunar Module, and the passengers will travel from the ISS on their original craft to rendezvous in Earth’s lower orbit with this module, which is comprised of a propulsion section and a living area. The two spacecraft together will then fire their engines and travel around the Moon, flying just 100 kilometers from the lunar surface. In 2011, Space Adventures announced one of the two seats on this journey had been sold for $150 million and by 2014 had found the second customer, meaning the trip could embark by 2017. However, extensive delays mean the company is now aiming to complete the trip by the end of the decade. Nothing is known of the passengers who have reportedly paid to embark on this lunar mission.

    The other company aiming to shoot tourists to the Moon is SpaceX—and Elon Musk announced his first customer with typical bravado. In September 2018, to a packed press conference, Musk announced that Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese e-commerce billionaire, would be the first to take a SpaceX trip around the Moon. Musk announced the departure date as 2023, and also revealed Maezawa had bought all the seats on the flight and will take six to eight artists with him to enjoy the experience.

    Maezawa is the founder of Zozotown, an online fashion mall and his net worth is $2.9 billion, according to Forbes. He is an extremely passionate art collector and spent $80 million on paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Pablo Picasso in 2016. He believes that taking artists to space can inspire them to do great things. “If Pablo Picasso had been able to see the moon up close, what kind of paintings would he have [made]?” the website for the Moon expedition asks. “If John Lennon could have seen the curvature of the Earth, what kind of songs would he have written?”

    Only 24 people have ever flown to the Moon and 12 of them have walked on its surface. All of those 24 have been white, American males. Just this one trip alone would change that dramatically.

    SpaceX plans to use its Starship rocket and ship (previously referred to as the Big Fucking Rocket by Musk and expected to eventually take people to Mars) to take Maezawa and his selected artists to space. The rocket is yet to be built, however, making the 2023 target an ambitious one. But the project, if successful, has the potential to diversify space. Only 24 people have ever flown to the Moon and 12 of them have walked on its surface. All of those 24 have been white, American males. Just this one trip alone, with artists chosen from all over the world and with vastly different backgrounds, would change that dramatically.

    This is one of the major reasons to pursue tourism in space—to democratize the experience, make it more readily available for all, and to expand the thinking of a whole generation of people.


    The Consequential Frontier by Peter Ward

    Excerpted from The Consequential Frontier: Challenging the Privatization of Space by Peter Ward. Copyright © Peter Ward 2019. Reprinted with permission from Melville House.

    Peter Ward
    Peter Ward
    Peter Ward is a professor of biology and of Earth and space sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, and has authored seventeen books, among them the prizewinning Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, with Donald Brownlee. He also teaches as the University of Adelaide in Australia. He has been a main speaker at TED and has received the Jim Shea Award for popular science writing. He lives in Washington.

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