The Need:

Space Tourism is based on the idea that people want to make trips into space. Not people with the so-called 'right stuff', but ordinary people, probably slightly better off than average, but otherwise ordinary people.

People like zero-g. They like to float around; it's relaxing, unusual and fun. They like orbit even more, they can look down at the earth as it slides past. They can look up at the stars. They like the fact that they have an experience shared by few others.

Questionaires seem to confirm this view- a majority of people asked on the subject claim that they would actually pay significant amounts of money to make a journey into space; and people have offered to pay very large sums to go there; and Dennis Tito actually did it.

There is a wideranging, comprehensive survey that has been released at http://www.futron.com/spacetourism.

The current state:

Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth are the only two space tourists to have gone so far. The exact terms have not been revealed, but are believed to be about $15 million. SpaceShipOne has not launched any tourists as yet- all the pilots have been paid to be there. This is likely to change soon.

Let's examine why Russia is currently launching the tourists; rather than America. In Russia, their admittedly less capable rockets cost a tiny, tiny fraction of the NASA models- the $15 million would have paid for their flight to the ISS and back again as well as contributing to costs of flying the other 2 astronauts on each trip. The rocket itself is believed to have cost just $5 million (according to Gary Hudson of Rotary Rocket fame).

The low Russian costs relate to the low pay of engineers in that country; but also to some clever design and manufacturing decisions, for example their rockets use robotics in their construction, and their rockets are assembled horizontally. NASA has never been under much pressure to reduce the cost of launch vehicles; indeed pork barrel politics tends to push up the cost. NASA clearly needs to work harder on their cost structures, but if they did that, they would employ less people, and less votes would acrue to the politicans that fund NASA.

Interestingly Boeing is currently engaged in a joint venture called Sea Launch, using the cheap russian vehicle and Norwegian sea technology and Boeings other sales and technology. American space tourism proponents are fighting this trend, by trying to create non-governmental and presumably more efficient startups- most of which are doomed to fail, but some are likely to make it in the long-run.

The potential of space:

The cost of launching may eventually go as low as $200/lb; see Costs of Launching to Orbit. If it can reach these low levels with reliability then launch costs could be below $10 thousand; people would be able to spend long cruises in space in zero-g; watching the earth glide by.

Trips you might make

The likely tourism trips for the foreseeable future include:

  • short suborbital flights (a few minutes)
  • orbital stays (a week or more)
  • lunar (dark side of the moon) flyby
  • lunar landings/stays
  • mars trips (18 months minimum)

    Future

    The latest news is about SpaceShipOne, and how it can briefly enter space, giving more than three minutes of zero-g (6 times longer than parabolic flight). If things go to plan, based on this technology, Richard Branson's and Virgin Galactic are intending to offer routine flights into space for $200,000 within a few years time.

    Beyond that, there are exotic designs for flying straight into orbit- Skylon for example; Space Elevators are looking more and more plausible (however Space Elevators for tourism have big safety issues due to the Van Allen belts, most tourism is likely to be in Low Earth Orbit for the foreseeable future), and there are plenty of conventional designs for rockets to go into orbit.

  • Space tourism is defined both as the act of traveling for pleasure in space and the business of providing services for tourists in space. While I would presume just about all voluntary astronauts ever have found at least some aspect of space travel "pleasurable", for the purposes of this writeup, I will exclude any trips made primarily for military, scientific or commercial purposes -- and yes, this includes John Glenn.

    The Theory

    NASA has studied the idea of space tourism quite extensively, and the summary of their investigations can be found in a lengthy report entitled General Public Space Travel and Tourism (1997), available (for time being) at:

    http://www.spacefuture.com/archive/general_public_space_travel_and_tourism.shtml

    The big conclusions are more or less obvious:

    • There is a definite consumer demand
    • Current means of transportation are way too expensive and unreliable
    • The idea of space tourism suffers from a "persistent lack of credibility"

    The report was written five years ago and the few predictions it offered -- "travel and tourism business interests are offering initial space trip services that could begin in the next few years" -- have for most part come true. Still, the numbers required for wide-scale, profitable space tourism remain depressingly far off:

    • An orbital trip should be achievable for $1-2 million, about 100 times less than a Space Shuttle flight
    • An overall safety of 0.9999+ is required, about 100 times safer than the Shuttle
    • Even after reaching these a trip will cost about $50000 per passanger

    A more optimistic assessment, albeit a rather scathing one towards the inaction of government space agencies, can be found at http://www.spacefuture.org/tourism/.

    The Past

    By the initial definition, there have been only two space tourists so far. The first was Dennis Tito, the millionaire founder of Wilshire Associates and a lifelone space enthusiast, who paid some $20 million for a jaunt on a Soyuz up to the International Space Station on April 30th, 2001. Tito was originally supposed to fly to the Russian Mir space station, but after Mir was taken down, his flight was moved to the ISS despite fierce NASA objections. The second, Mark Shuttleworth, a young multimillionare who was the former owner of Thawte Consulting, followed suit on April 25th, 2002 with an 8-day trip to the ISS, this time without too much grumbling from NASA.

    The Present

    Tito's route remains the only option if you want to get into space as a pure tourist, and with two tourists now having proven that it is possible there has been much media speculation about the next visitors -- one oft-mentioned name is Lance Bass from the boy band N'Sync. Image World Media is also planning to fly two game show winners to the ISS sometime in 2003.

    And, unfortunately, that is pretty much it at the moment, although there are a few ways to pretend you are in space. Some jet fighters, like the MiG-25 Foxbat, can fly at an altitude of over 25,000 meters, high enough to see the curvature of the earth. (Estimated price tag: $12,000 per flight.) Another option is simulated zero-gravity flights, where a jet flies in an steep reverse arc providing a whopping 30 seconds of microgravity; one flight with 8-12 of these hops will set you back about $5000.

    Pretty much the only serious space travel agency at the moment is Space Adventures, which has handled both Tito's and Shuttleworth's flights and also offers all the activities listed above.

    The Future

    Science fiction writers have spent the last 100 years conjuring up visions of space travel for the masses, but I'll limit this to projects with a snowball's chance in hell. In decreasing order of probability:

    There are now so many competitors for the X Prize that one of them may actually manage the trick some day not too far off in the future, namely, reaching a suborbital altitude of 100 km twice in 14 days with the same ship. (See commercial space flight for some of the contenders.) Space Adventures plans to offers suborbital flights starting in 2003-2005 for $98000 a pop and is already taking reservations; some of the contractors are claiming prices as low as $50000.

    SPACEHAB, an American contractor for the ISS that was responsible for the Spacehab module currently in use as crew quarters, is busily designing the Enterprise, which is not just a clever in-joke but the world's first commercial inhabited space structure. If all goes according to plan, the Enterprise will be added to the ISS in 2005. While the primary use will probably be for long-term experiments, reading between the lines, it appears that use of the structure for other purposes might be possible as well; after all, there is exactly one use for space multimedia that is guaranteed to draw an audience.

    However, quite possibly the most exciting development in space tourism these days comes from MirCorp, the original mastermind behind Tito's flight, which has signed an apparently entirely serious deal with Rosaviacosmos, the Russian space agency, and RSC Energia, the main contractor for the Mir and much of the ISS, to build a small commercial space station that would accommodate three people for up to 20 days, tentatively entitled Mini Station 1 and scheduled for commercial operations in 2004.

    NASA's report didn't even bother considering options for tourism beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), but moving down into the "don't hold your breath" category, the Artemis Project is working on detailed plans for colonizing the Moon. Actual achievements so far seem to be limited to a few rather dinky VRML models of the planned moonbase though, and funding seems equally dubious.

    Oddly enough, the technically far more challenging task of going to Mars seems to have a more serious group, the Mars Society, behind it. Mars Society has gotten its act together well enough to be presently conducting two simultaneous experiments on simulating life on Mars, one for arctic conditions on Devon Island in Nunavut, northern Canada, and the other for desert conditions in southern Utah, USA. Still, the Mars Society's goals are also distinctly more modest (or should that be realistic?), mainly conducting Mars-related research and pressuring NASA and other national space agencies into doing a manned flight.

    And finally, barring immense scientific breakthroughs, interstellar flight and terraforming other planets just isn't going to happen in our lifetime, although there are plenty of websites out there that would love to tell you otherwise...

    References

    Space Adventures, http://www.spaceadventures.com
    MirCorp, http://www.mir-corp.com
    SPACEHAB, http://www.spacehab.com
    Artemis Project, http://www.asi.org
    Mars Society, http://www.marssociety.org

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