The Meteoric Rise of Space Tourism

Space exploration represents, in many ways, the pinnacle of human capability, showcasing our unique ingenuity, imagination and perseverance. A select few individuals in our collective history hold the honour of being true spacefarers, with most of them being highly accomplished scientists and pilots. However, the burgeoning industry of space tourism seeks to make space exploration accessible to the wider population, to help them realise a reality that humans have dreamed for centuries. 

On April 12th, 1961, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first to achieve this long-standing human ambition, becoming the first human in space. Subsequently, advances in space travel have come in leaps and bounds, stimulated in no small part by the rather well known space rivalry between the then Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. 

It is a testament to how far we have progressed since then, that only sixty-two years after Gagarin, space travel is now a legitimate form of tourism. 

The advent of space tourism as a commercial activity is perhaps nothing surprising if we look at the natural evolution of such cutting-edge advancements throughout history. From aeroplanes to the internet and artificial intelligence, it seems all roads lead to wide-scale civilian commercialisation at some point in their development.

Attention of this nature is perhaps a desirable outcome for such fields anyway, with commercialisation bringing in investment and expertise which has served only to galvanise future innovations. 

While we have been engaging in space exploration for the better part of the last century, there has certainly been some debate over what actually qualifies as space travel. The current space tourism industry, in its admittedly fledgling form, is doing its best to accommodate such complexities in order to offer true space travel to their wealthy clientele. 

Space tourism. Credit

Space: Where does it begin?

There are multiple definitions of what constitutes space and where exactly it begins. After all, there is practically no natural demarcation which we can point to and say for certain that this is where space begins and the atmosphere ends. This has turned out to be a major point of contention for the companies offering commercial space travel, such as claiming that a competitor is not actually going to space.

The line which indicates the edge of space with respect to Earth’s atmosphere has several contenders. Perhaps the most widely accepted  is the Kármán line set by the Fédération aéronautique internationale (FAI), an international aeronautics body which defines space as beginning a hundred kilometres from mean sea level. 

The other contenders have various different heights as their baseline for what constitutes the edge of space, with another popular one being eighty kilometres from mean sea level. This definition is the criteria used by the United States Armed Forces to award ‘Astronaut Wings’ to their pilots for crossing into space. 

On the other hand, it is not even necessary to specify a height at which space officially begins. There is an argument to be made that space is the lowest perigee of any orbiting spacecraft, whatever it may be. This is the currently accepted definition as per international law and the United States government apparatus.  

There is no international or in some cases, even national consensus on what exactly is space. Therefore, commercial space tourism generally aims to qualify for any one of the definitions above in order to claim that they are indeed sending people to space, and not just on a ridiculously  high plane ride. 

Space: Tourism

The general understanding of space tourism is that it is the act of engaging in space travel for recreation rather than any strictly official scientific expedition. This, naturally, involves actually going to space, whatever your definition of it may be. 

However, it is worth noting that space travel is not the only possible medium of space tourism. 

Every year, thousands of people travel to see space launches, space centres, space museums and a variety of other space related paraphernalia. One can go even further and recognise eclipse tourism, stargazing and other such activities as falling under space tourism.  While even this kind of tourism is relatively recent, it offers a much broader scope for the general public to engage in what can be considered ‘space’ tourism. 

Space tourism in the form of civilian space travel was kicked off by the American multimillionaire Dennis Tito in April 2001. He spent twenty million dollars to be afforded the privilege of spending eight days on the International Space Station. He now holds the honour of being one of only 266 people to have visited the space station. 

The space tourism industry has its fair share of dangers which have proven to be obstacles for wide-spread commercialisation. The Space Flight Participant Program of the United States which sent civilians to space was stopped after the tragic loss of the Challenger spacecraft in 1986. 

Even today, space travel is fraught with danger and is definitely more risky than the average tourist location. Incidents of this nature have led to extensive safety regulations not just for the sake of the tourists themselves but the potential implications of a disaster in space. 

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifting off. Credit

There are a number of companies which are currently directly or indirectly involved in sending tourists to space. Companies such as Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Rocket Lab and SpaceX are directly involved in sending people to space. They develop or lease their own space shuttles and rockets to give you the experience of a lifetime,all for the right price of course. 

The experiences that you get from each of these companies vary wildly, from time spent in space, overall safety to the costs involved. 

Here is what you might expect to get from each of these companies:-

If you elect to fly with Virgin Galactic, the ticket reportedly costs around two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and lasts not more than a few minutes. It does not cross the Kármán line but does reach the eighty kilometre line, enough to get you ‘Astronaut Wings’. 

SpaceX has gone pretty much the opposite way compared to Virgin Galactic. SpaceX offers tourists a fifty-five million package that will get you a trip to the International Space Station. The station is actively orbiting the Earth so it has gone way beyond the Kármán line, meaning that there is absolutely no question that it actually gets you to space. 

If SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are the two extremes, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin offers an experience that seems to be straight down the middle of both of them. While they have not officially disclosed the price of their ticket, it is speculated to be around 1.25 million dollars.Their ‘New Shephard’ rocket technically crosses the hundred kilometre mark so that they cross the Kármán line.

The clientele these firms cater to are not your typical tourists. The waiting list for space flights reads like a who’s who list of some of the wealthiest people in the world, looking to join the handful of people in history to have made it to space. 

The Space Report 2022 Q2. Source: The Space Foundation.

According to the Space Foundation’s 2022 Q2 report, the global space industry was worth $469 billion in 2021, and that number is expected to keep growing. Commercial space enterprises account for a decent chunk of that figure, with space tourism in particular seeing significant growth. 

The global space industry itself has enormous growth potential. UBS expects it to double while Bank of America expects it to quadruple within a decade. Space, the final frontier indeed.  

Space tourism is a driving force for many innovations for the space industry at large largely due to the deep pockets of their billionaire founders. While the scalability of the business is very difficult to predict as it is still in its infancy, the economic effect of this newfound space race can already be seen. Thousands of jobs have been created and technologies have been further refined to fulfil one of humanity’s oldest dreams: travelling among the stars.  

So, while the space tourism industry is still in its nascent stages, there is potential for tremendous growth. It is an interesting convergence of commercial enterprise and innate human curiosity. The very idea that space tourism is no longer a phenomenon seen in science fiction but rather a real business with billions of dollars in revenue speaks to the vast progress that humanity has made in fulfilling one of its oldest ambitions. 

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