SpaceX capsule first splashdown in 45 years

Crew Dragon: Nasa astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken returned safely from space last night. © Nasa

Will Moon tourism be normal in 20 years’ time? For some, yesterday’s historic success of a manned commercial space mission is the start of a new era. But predictions are nearly always wrong.

For a nail-biting few minutes, radio contact with Crew Dragon was lost as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 20 times the speed of sound. Temperatures soared to 1,900C before it released four parachutes and splashed down safely off the coast of Florida.

The mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and back has made history. Not only was this the first ocean landing since 1975, the Nasa astronauts were the first passengers of a spacecraft supplied and operated by a commercial company, SpaceX.

The decision by the US space agency to hand over the responsibility for building rockets, shuttles, and capsules to private companies will change space travel forever. As Nasa focuses on the bigger challenge of deep space, commercial companies are rushing to find creative and affordable ways of taking more people into orbit.

Long before it was remotely possible, humans dreamed of visiting the Moon. Victorian science-fiction writers, like Jules Verne and HG Wells, wrote about adventures there, decades before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on its surface in 1968. By 2000, the first long-term space inhabitants arrived at the ISS.

In a fraction of the time it took humanity to invent the steam-engine or the aeroplane, we have made huge strides into space. But science fiction also predicted that, by 2020, we would own flying cars and be travelling to Jupiter. Many sceptics believe that the idea of a summer holiday in space is still years away from becoming a reality.

Not according to companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Space Adventures.

They are about to hit warp speed and turn space into big business. Until now, only the world’s richest countries could afford the eye-watering costs of space missions. So far, only seven multi-millionaire tourists have paid for their own trips to space. But, as companies design reusable shuttles, the price of space travel is set to fall.

Last week, Virgin Galactic unveiled a six-seater “space plane” to give passengers a 90-minute taste of zero-gravity, with breathtaking views 100km above the Earth. The first flight takes off in months – but, at $250,000 (£199,000) a seat, it is still only for the super-rich.

Meanwhile, Space Adventures plans to take two tourists to the ISS late next year, whilst SpaceX says commercial flights to the Moon could begin as early as 2023. Asked about the ticket price, founder Elon Musk admits it won’t be a “trivial amount”. But he believes it will become rapidly much cheaper.

And other companies are already designing what we will eat and where we will stay in space – as well as the luggage we will use. To many experts, it does look as though the era of mass space tourism is about to begin.

So, will Moon tourism be normal in 20 years’ time?

Fly me to the Moon

Of course, say some. The history of flight gives an idea of where we are heading. The first commercial plane took off in 1914 and, by last year, there were over 100,000 flights a day. As companies compete to get us into zero-gravity, holidays in space within the next two decades will be as common as trips to Disneyland.

Others say, not so fast. The comparison with air travel is misleading. We travel by air to get to our holiday destination faster, not because we love flying. Until there are colonies in space, intergalactic tourism will be just an extreme sport for the super-wealthy.

You Decide

  1. Do you think you will visit the Moon one day?
  2. Could you make a case that space tourism is morally wrong?

Activities

  1. Design an advertising poster promoting weekend holidays to the Moon.
  2. Write a short letter to a friend about your first summer holiday in space. (Use the Expert Links for inspiration.)

Some People Say...

“We shall one day travel to the Moon, the planets, and the stars with the same facility, rapidity, and certainty as we now make the ocean voyage from Liverpool to New York.”

Jules Verne (1828-1905), French novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that commercial companies are going to transform space travel. Government space agencies depend on public money for scientific exploration and their projects take decades to complete – Nasa has been planning Moon bases and Mars missions since the 1980s. Private companies aim to provide an enjoyable experience for which people will pay. As they compete to offer better and more affordable flights, we will see a variety of new and exciting spacecraft taking us to the stars.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how quickly this change will take place. Space entrepreneurs, like Richard Branson and Elon Musk, claim space tours will begin very soon. However, there are many obstacles that may push affordable space travel well into the future. Lawyers warn the laws that govern space are just not ready for a traffic jam of private spacecraft. And back here on Earth, everything from global pandemics to climate change makes predicting the future of space tourism a very risky business.

Word Watch

International Space Station
Visible with the naked eye, the space station is a multinational project that has been continuously occupied for almost 20 years.
SpaceX
Founded in 2002 by South African entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX’s mission is to reduce the cost of space transportation to make possible the colonisation of Mars.
Nasa
In 2011, the US government’s space agency ended its Space Shuttle Programme, the main taxi service for visitors to the International Space Station.
Deep space
In 2010, President Obama announced that Nasa no longer planned to build a Moon base, but would instead focus on exploring Mars and outer space.
Visiting the Moon
In a 1638 book by the English writer Francis Godwin, a man flies to the Moon in a contraption pulled by a flock of geese. In 1887, the French writer Paschal Grousset imagined an enormous electromagnetic catapult built on an African mountain.
Science-fiction
In the science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (made in 1968), an astronaut discovers the secrets of humanity’s origins in a mission to Jupiter. In the 1989 film Back to the Future Part II, time-travellers arrive in 2015 to discover flying cars and hover-boards.
Warp speed
Only a theory in reality, warp speed exists in the fictional sci-fi universe of Star Trek and much of Isaac Asimov’s work, where spaceships with warp drives can zoom past the limit of light speed, or travel at about 186,282 miles per second in a vacuum.
We will eat
Scientists at the ISS are currently experimenting with growing plants in space to make eating in deep space a more pleasant experience.
We will stay
Voyager Station is a company designing space hotels with artificial gravity and rooms for 400 guests.
Luggage
18-year-old Alyssa Carson is the youngest astronaut-in-training, and is on track to be the first person on Mars. She has collaborated with a German company to design a sleek, carbon-fibre suitcase for space tourists.

Subjects

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