After months of being stuck at home, most of us would just be happy to get a sunny beach in Spain for a week or even to a European city for a weekend. How would you feel about planning your next holiday to space? Several companies are trying to make this possible, including Blue Origin. They will launch their founder, Jeff Bezos, his brother and another passenger to space on 20th July on their spacecraft, New Shepard.
Spaceflight is hard and over the years we have seen set back after setback for many of the companies involved. Most of the vehicles designed for space tourism are designed to be suborbital. This means that it flies high enough to cross the Karmen line, above which is space, before returning back to land without orbiting the Earth. The line is located about 100km up. At this height it is possible to see the curvature of the Earth and experience weightlessness.
Blue Origin were founded by Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon) in 2000. They are designing a number of vehicles including vehicles capable of Earth orbit and travelling to the Moon. The spacecraft at the most advanced stage of development is called the New Shepard. Named after the first American astronaut to fly to space, John Glen, it is a suborbital spacecraft for the purpose of space tourism.
New Shepard launches from a launchpad like a traditional rocket. 3 minutes after launch, the capsule at the top separates from the rocket, the sensation of gravity begins. The astronauts unbuckle and begin to float. At 4 mins into the flight the capsule reaches the top of the flight and starts to descend. At 6 mins into the flight the astronauts buckle in again and prepare for landing. The capsule lands back in the west Texas desert on parachutes 11 mins after launch while the rocket lands back at the launchpad for reuse.
A number of uncrewed test flights have already taken place already and the first flight with passengers is scheduled for the 20th July this year with Jeff Bezos, his brother and a, for now, unknown paying customer who paid $28 million dollars for that 11 min ride to space!
Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic with the aim of a maiden flight in 2009 but there have been many setbacks over the years including a fatal crash in 2014. Despite the setbacks, the team at Virgin persevered and in December 2018 their spacecraft, called VSS unity made it to space with two pilots on board. This was followed in 2019 by another flight where the the two pilots were joined by a team member who floated in the cabin. Virgin are continuing to progress towards a test flight with Richard Branson on board, followed by paying customers.
Virgins spacecraft consists of a twin fuselage plane, called Whiteknightwo, that lifts the spacecraft, called Spaceshiptwo to 50,000 feet. At this point Spaceshiptwo is dropped and a rocket fires to send it the rest of the way to space. While in space, the astronauts will get to unbuckle their seatbelts and float in the cabin while absorbing the view of the Earth through the window. The total trip time is around 2 hours but only a few minutes of that will actually be spent in space. Virgin have already sold hundreds of tickets priced between $200,000 and $250,000.
NASA, Space X and Boeing
If a suborbital flight is not good enough, you could always head to the International Space Station for your next holiday. In 2019, NASA announced that it would allow private passengers travel to the ISS on Space X’s Dragon spacecraft and Boeings Starliner. The cost of this trip will be, a not so reasonable $35,000 per night, plus the roughly $50 million it will cost for a return ticket on Dragon. Another barrier is the large amount of training required for a trip like this. Virgin and Blue Origins spacecraft still require training but not the same amount of time is required.
There is no doubt that there has been huge progress made in making space travel an everyday and affordable activity. Only a few years ago, one could have expected to pay in excess of €20 million to get to space and we probably aren’t that far away from a time when a trip to space could cost only €250,000. This is still a huge amount of money however, and still beyond the means of most people. It is reasonable to assume that the cost will continue to fall in the coming years but will it become affordable for most people? That remains to be seen.