As the world looks to the stars to test technology, advance science, and build an economic engine to get to the moon and beyond, space tourism will play an important role. But, giving private citizens the view of a lifetime comes at a cost. What are the risks and the opportunities? Via Space asks early movers to share how they see the industry unfolding — as a new space race takes hold, driven not by governments, but by visionary entrepreneurs seeking to make space accessible to everyone.
Hitching a ride to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) soon will no longer be the domain of elite trained astronauts — it will be within reach of wealthy private citizens as early as this year, if NASA and a host of early space firms realize their ambitions.
With the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sir Richard Branson leading the charge for privately funded space excursions, one fact is clear: space tourism is coming — buoyed by public support, government incentives, and private sector innovation.
In a press conference on June 7, NASA announced its strategy to open up the International Space Station (ISS) for commercial business as part of its drive to accelerate a thriving commercial economy in LEO.
Included in NASA’s sweeping announcement was welcoming the first non-astronauts onto the space station for week-long stays as early as next year — at a price tag of $50 million per rider to land on station, and $35,000 per night to stay there.
NASA isn’t alone. Virgin Galactic intends to offer its first tourist flights to space from the company’s “Spaceport America” in New Mexico as early as next year. SpaceX announced last September its first private passenger to the moon: Japanese retail entrepreneur and art collector Yusaku Maezawa. The billionaire’s trip, slated for 2023, will include several invited artists and possibly SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Blue Origin “is targeting human flight this year, but it’s not a race – we’ll fly when we’re ready,” says Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut and orbital sales.
As part of its announcement on May 30, NASA released summaries of its LEO commercialization studies. A total of 12 companies examined the potential growth of a LEO economy, as part of an effort to transition LEO operations to a commercial model in which NASA would be one of many clients of commercial space facilities.
The plan calls for for-profit activities, including space tourism, in-space manufacturing, video products for entertainment, and in-space assembly and servicing, and transportation of people and cargo to and from LEO.
One study participant, Jeffrey Manber, CEO of NanoRacks, has long advocated for commercial space tourism from his days as head of Mir Corp., which leased the aging space station Mir for two years. He explains that while NanoRacks’ focus is more on supporting “professional astronauts,” or those hosted by companies and academic institutions, those individuals, too, will be space tourists when not working.
He envisions a future where “everyday people will be living, working and playing in space.”
“We will see space hotels, we will see outposts for professional astronauts, and we’ll see in the next decade about 10 private space stations — some automated, some for tourists, some for professional astronauts,” he predicts, though how quickly this occurs will depend on launch prices coming down.
While acknowledging the excitement for space tourism, Manber cautions that it shouldn’t overshadow the critical in-orbit work of scientists and commercial firms. “I don’t want our future as a space-faring nation to be dependent on tourism. We’re focused also on breakthroughs in research, new technology and in-space manufacturing.”
Clearly, NASA is looking to the “creative private sector” to drive a LEO economy. It hopes dollars from space tourism and professional astronaut missions will help fund its broader science and space exploration goals, including the push to the moon and Mars. And, not surprisingly, there’s no shortage of entrepreneurs looking to be first out of the gate to offer people with means a ride.