Humanity is at the dawn of the space tourism age. From self-landing rockets to a ring-shaped space hotel that’ll offer views quite literally out-of-this-world, it’s no longer a question of if we will return to the final frontier of space, but “what does it cost and when can I buy a ticket?”.
The likes of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are all working round the clock to make the space tourism dream a reality for everyone – not just those with deep pockets. But they have some impressive competition on their hands too.
The “world’s first space lounge”
Florida-based startup Space Perspective, which aims to take guests on a ‘cruise’ around the stratosphere, has just unveiled the interior of its lounge-style capsule. And it’s pretty luxe, with comfy chairs, mood lighting, and even its own cocktail bar should anyone fancy a cheeky G&T.
Designed to be suspended from a giant high-altitude balloon, the nine-person capsule – Spaceship Neptune – is wrapped in 1.5-metre-high windows that’ll offer 360-degree views of the earth as it slowly makes its way to the edge of space.
Priced at US$125,000 per person, the six hour journeys are earmarked to take off in 2024 and will include a leisurely ascent to 100,000 feet, where it will glide for two hours, before making a slow descent and gently splashing down in the ocean.
Spaceship Neptune will initially take off from the Space Coast in Florida, where all NASA-launched crewed spaceflights (running from Project Mercury in 1961 to and from the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011) have departed, with other launch locations to eventually be rolled out.
Ground control to Sir Richard
Virgin Galactic is the frontrunner in the space race, with tickets already on sale to the general public ahead of flights onboard the VSS Unity from the end of 2022 – barely 65 years after the Soviets made that very first step into space with the launch of Sputnik in 1957.
For USD$450,000 (AUD$629,195) per passenger – with a deposit of USD$150,000 (AUD$209,730) – four passengers on every journey of the shuttlecock-shaped VSS Unity will experience a thrilling 90-minute spaceflight with “several minutes of weightlessness”.
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazie says the company aims to have its first 1,000 customers signed up by Christmas – and who wouldn’t like to find one of these tickets under the tree? Some 700 people have already purchased tickets on an invitation-only basis, with actor Tom Hanks one of the rumoured passengers.
But if you don’t mind waiting, Virgin Galactic expects fares will drop to around USD$40-50,000 over the coming decade.
First unveiled in 2009, Virgin’s futuristic SpaceShipTwo-class vehicles take off from the company’s Spaceport America base in New Mexico, with the Unity nestled under the jet-powered ‘mothership’ VMS Eve (named for the mother of Virgin supremo Richard Branson, who took this trip of a lifetime in July 2021).
After reaching an altitude of 15km, the Unity is set free to travel the remainder of the distance under its own power, hurtling at Mach 3 to cross into the boundary of space at 110km above the earth.
Once passengers’ jaws have dropped, and the inevitable zero-gravity larks and selfies are done, the Unity glides back to its base.
While Virgin Galactic is the clear frontrunner in tourism’s bold new frontier, it doesn’t hold a monopoly on the stars.
Blue Origin: a traditional rocket with a sustainable twist
Blue Origin, the space company formed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is also sitting on the commercial space tourism launchpad – and wants to make it more affordable, with tickets rumoured to be USD$200,000 to $300,000 per person.
Unlike Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin has opted for a traditional rocket launch – albeit with a more sustainable, modern twist.
Christened the New Shepard, after American astronaut Alan Shepard, the reusable rocket and capsule are designed to take six astronauts into suborbital space in style, with leather seats and large windows to offer an incredible view of the world.
Blue Origin’s pressurised capsule sits atop an innovative booster, which after separating from the passenger capsule performs an autonomously-controlled vertical landing at its base in West Texas; the capsule and its passengers later safely land under parachutes.
Bezos and his Blue Origin crew soared into space in July 2021, barely one week after Branson, and has since scored PR coups such as carrying William Shatner – Star Trek’s Captain Kirk – to where only around 600 men (and women) have gone before.
Enter the dragon
Space being so big, there’s always room for one more billionaire. Enter Elon Musk, whose SpaceX venture is continuing to drive the modern space race forward.
However, Musk’s focus is more on the commercial and government sectors, such as launching private satellites into space and ferrying astronauts to the ISS aboard the reusable Dragon 2 spacecraft.
The SpaceX SN Starship – a gleaming, stainless-steel rocket and thing of unquestionable beauty – has been designed to carry astronauts on deep-space missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.
Standing an impressive 50m tall, it’s assisted by the mighty BN4 Super Heavy booster rocket.
The SN15 successfully landed for the first time in May 2021, following four unsuccessful attempts. Building upon recent successes, the Starship is expected to take off some time in May.
There will be at least one commercial SpaceX passenger though: Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is scheduled to embark on a weeklong trip, featuring a fly-by of the moon, in 2023 – making him the world’s first private lunar traveller.
Known as the #DearMoon project, Maezawa’s journey will be made aboard the Big Falcon Rocket (dubbed the BFR, for short), with his ticket helping to fund the design and construction of the rocket.
Next stop: the International Space Station
Not to be eclipsed, aviation and aerospace leader Boeing has developed the innovative Boeing CST-100 Starliner in collaboration with NASA.
The Starliner features a reusable capsule capable of taking seven passengers to and from low-Earth orbit destinations, allowing additional work from the International Space Station and increasing its ability to perform vital experiments.
Although the Starliner has not flown a crewed mission – that's slated for mid-2022 – under the terms of its agreement with NASA, Boeing will be permitted to sell one seat to space tourists on every ISS-bound Starliner flight.
As the world’s best and brightest rise to the challenge of getting us into orbit, entrepreneurs are already thinking of experiences for us to enjoy once we’ve made it there.
The first hotel in space
Looking like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the proposed Voyager Station will double as a spaceport and hotel.
But it promises to be far less sterile than Stanley Kubrick’s version, and more like – well, like an opulent hotel which happens to sit in space, slowly rotating so as to provide guests with one-sixth of Earth gravity.
24 habitat modules on Voyager Station will contain not only spacious suites but 500 square metre “luxury villas” along with event spaces, a gym, restaurant and a three-story bar with a water feature that “will seemingly defy the laws of physics,” boast Voyager Station architects from privately-held parent company the Gateway Foundation.
“Eventually, going to space will just be another option people will pick for their vacation, just like going on a cruise, or going to Disney World.”
With construction to begin by 2026 and the first guests welcomed in 2027, it’s an ambitious build-to-launch target, so don’t be surprised if Voyager Station doesn’t end up rolling out the red carpet until sometime next decade, if at all.
So while there’s still a way to go until travellers can jet into the cosmos for a bit of RnR, one thing for certain is that space is no longer going to remain the final frontier. It’s going to become the next giant leap for humanity – and we’re only just getting started.