In 2020, NASA will open the International Space Station to tourists. Meanwhile, private space companies are racing to send travellers into orbit. Will you be going to space on holiday soon?
Is space tourism finally here?
Almost. NASA has announced that it will open the International Space Station (ISS) to tourists from 2020. Two private astronauts will make the journey per year, staying on the ISS for up to 30 days.
Whilst this is a first for NASA, it is not the first time a tourist has gone to the ISS. All the way back in 2001, US businessman Dennis Tito paid Russia (that co-owns the space station) $20m (£16m) for a round trip.
How will they get there?
This is where SpaceX (Elon Musk’s private space exploration company) comes in. NASA has paid SpaceX billions to build the Crew Dragon, a capsule that can carry astronauts to space and back.
In March 2019, the spacecraft had its first successful test flight. The Crew Dragon was blasted into space atop the reuseable Falcon 9 rocket, which flipped over and safely returned to Earth after launching.
Meanwhile, the Crew Dragon capsule went soaring into orbit, circling Earth 18 times before reaching the ISS. After five days, it was time to come home. The Crew Dragon detached from the ISS, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and survived temperatures of 1,600C as it sped back down to Earth, before landing safely in the Atlantic Ocean.
NASA is also planning to ferry tourists in a new capsule called a Starliner, which is being built by aviation company Boeing.
Great! When can I go?
Don’t get too excited just yet. Space flight comes with a hefty price tag. NASA says a stay on the ISS will cost tourists $35,000 (£27,500) per night.
That’s not including the “taxi fare” charged by SpaceX and Boeing for a seat on the capsule, which will be around $60m (£48m) per flight. For the time being, it looks like space travel will only be accessible to celebrities and the super rich.
Who else is working on space tourism?
Virgin Galactic (owned by Richard Branson) is closing in on its last few test flights after a series of successes. The rocket-powered space plane will carry six passengers and two pilots into near-space, around 80km above the Earth’s surface.
Over 700 people have signed up for a £175,000 seat, including Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Lady Gaga and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has similar plans for his company, Blue Origin, which intends to launch its first person into space before the end of the year. Tourists will experience several minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth.
Even more ambitiously, SpaceX is sending Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on a week-long flight around the Moon in 2023. Maezawa wants to take six to eight artists with him, free of charge.
Is it worth the cost?
During the golden age of space exploration that put man on the Moon, NASA was funded by the US government. At the time, some scientists complained it was diverting money from more important projects. But, now, private billionaires like Musk and Branson have breathed new life into humanity’s conquest of the stars.
In 2018, President Donald Trump called for the ISS to be defunded by the US government by 2025. NASA may need space tourism to fund the future of space exploration.
Why travel to space?
For Stephen Attenborough of Virgin Galactic, the feeling of leaving Earth is priceless.
“That’s the point when the switch flicks,” he said. “You get an understanding of the fragility of life and the beauty of the planet.”
This experience will become more accessible over time. Virgin Galactic hopes the price tag for its flights will fall to £30,000 within ten years, and keep falling beyond that.
Hotels on the Moon may still be a long way off but, with current progress, who knows where we’ll be in 50 years?
- Would you like to be a space tourist?
- You are one of the first tourists in space. You are sitting at a window on the ISS, looking back at planet Earth. Write a one-page diary entry describing the view, and how the experience makes you feel.
- International Space Station
- Initially launched into space in 1998, with the first long-term residents arriving in 2000. It has been inhabited continuously by astronauts ever since. The ISS’s main purpose is as a research laboratory with a space environment.
- The ISS was built by the USA and Russia. Today, it is owned by the USA, Russia, Canada, Japan and a European body.
- SpaceX made history by flying the first reuseable rocket in March 2017. The technology saves a huge amount of money on building new rockets.
- However, the project suffered a huge setback in 2014 when one pilot was killed and another injured in a failed flight.
- Maezawa is an art devotee, who styles the flight itself as an art project called #dearMoon. He hopes that by bringing Earth’s greatest artistic talents to the Moon, they will be inspired in ways never seen before.
- More important projects
- In 1979, an NBC poll found that only 41% of Americans thought the Apollo missions were worth it. This number increased to 55% by 1990. Today’s sceptics argue that nostalgia is driving the push for more space missions and that, at the time, many believed that the $209 billion (£167m) NASA spent in space would be better spent on Earth.