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Beyond the Karman line – Space Tourism’s Golden Age

Space tourism is both older than it is perceived to be, and closer to being a reality for many, sooner than they realise!

SpaceX

Space. Just the word itself is heady (to most folks). For us, it does not imply an emptiness but rather possibilities, especially when the neck is craned on a star-lit night. Whether driven by Captain Kirk, Isaac Asimov or the more recent actual beginnings of commercial space flights, venturing into space as a tourist seems closer to us than ever before. Correction, it is already happening. Space tourism is already a reality, as billionaire-led companies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are already taking ‘tourists’ to space.  

Here’s a reality check. Space tourism isn’t new. In 1984, Charles D. Walker became the first non-government astronaut to fly, with his employer McDonnell Douglas paying US$40,000 ($104,331 in 2021, according to Wikipedia) for his flight. Its possibilities have been explored. A 1985 presentation to the US National Space Society stated that, although flying tourists in the cabin would cost $1 million to $1.5 million per passenger without government subsidy, within 15 years, 30,000 people a year would pay US$25,000 ($62,987 in 2021) each to fly in space on new spacecraft. The Soviets too carried guest cosmonauts from friendly countries – India benefitted when it got its first person in space in 1984. Dennis Tito paid $20 million to be part of an eight-day trip aboard the Soyuz TM-32 in 2001. There are many more.

Space tourism is already a reality, as billionaire-led companies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are already taking ‘tourists’ to space.  

Orbital Assembly Voyage Station Space Hotel

Orbital Assembly's Voyager Station space hotel


Can you join this yet select group that successfully crossed the Kármán line, the nominal boundary of space? Just imagine waking up next to a window with a view of – the earth. Not a slice of it, but the entire planet, or at least the half you are facing. Or a view of the moon, or other celestial bodies. Yes, that’s the promise of the first space hotel, Voyager Station, operated by Orbital Assembly, scheduled to open in 2027. With the capability of accommodating 400 people, “it's not going to be like you're going to a factory or you're going to a research facility," Tim Alatorre, Orbital Assembly’s chief operating officer, told CNN  recently. Instead, it should feel like a sci-fi dream. There’s not wires everywhere, it’s a comfortable space where you feel at home,” he added. Indeed, the renderings suggest plush interiors not unlike an earthbound hotel.

Orbital Assembly Voyage Station Space Hotel

The rooms inside Voyager Station are plush, like any 'earthly' hotel


Also, here’s a surprise. Orbital Assembly is looking to launch not one but two space stations with tourist accommodation, the aforementioned Voyager Station, and Pioneer Station, with a capacity of 28 people, which could launch earlier in about three years. And, listen up corporations – Orbital Assembly aims to run a space ‘business park’, home to offices along with the hotel, with office spaces and research facilities up for rent on both!  

What will it cost? Well, as of January 2022, for a suborbital trip on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard, seats cost about $250,000 to $500,000. Flights beyond that to actual orbit—a much higher altitude—are far more expensive, fetching more than $50 million per seat. As per Telegraph (), many celebrities have reportedly reserved their slots for the suborbital trip aboard Virgin Galactic, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Russell Brand, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.

Inside Virgin Galactic

Inside Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic


…many celebrities have reportedly reserved their slots for the suborbital trip aboard Virgin Galactic, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Russell Brand, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.

Mr. Alatorre thinks this figure will substantially reduce as space tourism takes off. “We’re doing everything we can to make space accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy,” he told CNN. Also, before you get too excited, the number of completed space tourist launches have been very limited — four by Blue Origin, two by SpaceX. Virgin Galactic announced the launch of its commercial passenger service has been pushed to early 2023. A 2010 report from the US Federal Aviation Administration, titled The Economic Impact of Commercial Space Transportation on the U.S. Economy in 2009, cites studies done by Futron, an aerospace and technology-consulting firm, which predict that space tourism could become a billion-dollar market within 20 years.

Space industry consultancy Northern Sky Research expects suborbital space tourism will be a $2.8 billion market by 2028, with $10.4 billion in total revenue over the next decade, while orbital space tourism will be a $610 million market, with $3.6 billion in total revenue over the next decade, according to a 2020 report in CNBC. While suborbital missions reach an altitude of about 100 kilometres and gives passengers a few minutes in space, orbital missions reach an altitude of over 400 kilometers and passengers can potentially spend a week in space. 

“Globally, we think around 2 million people can experience this over the coming years at this price point. Over time, we’ll be able to reduce that price point and at that point the market just explodes. It’s 10 times as many at 40 million people,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic chief space officer was quoted in the same report.

Space tourism final frontier

Is space tourism the final frontier for human race?


Of course, there are multiple hurdles to cross before space tourism, luxury or mass, becomes a reality. From the assembling of the facilities to safety concerns – not just for the intermittent tourist but the staff of these ‘stations’, the impact of radiation, working out gravity to ensure that everyone is ‘grounded’, ensure food and water supplies, sewage and sanitary concerns, there’s a whole host of challenges to overcome. The deadlines seem uncomfortably – or is it enticingly – close. Human ingenuity will perhaps be put to test as it tries to clear this ‘final frontier’. However, on September 16, 2021, Crew Dragon Resilience Inspiration4 mission operated by Space X became the first orbital spaceflight with only private citizens aboard. So maybe it’s closer than you think.

Is it really going to be ‘luxury’ space tourism? Well, once the rosy allure of going to space is replaced with the actual realities of blasting off, there are multiple facets of the ‘space experience’ that may not quite fit into the more temporal understanding of the word! But if we know anything about the rich, it’s that they like to have their way. So even as the gargantuan ticket prices fall, the possibility of a diamond studded space helmet or an interlocking Cs branded landing parachute is not outside the realm of possibilities. Watch this space!

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