Is space tourism possible?

Exploring the history and current possibility for turning space into a tourist destination
By Joshua Sky  Published on 10/17/2018 at 9:00 AM EDT

When you think of space, you probably think of science fiction’s final frontier, or of a galaxy bound together by some vast infinite Force. Or maybe you think of NASA and its astronauts, a small group of highly-trained people venturing out into the cosmos on a mission, at great risk. Space is intensely scary, yet it has called to us since our species first glanced up toward the night sky.

Today, there are billionaires who see space travel not just as possible, but instrumental to the future of our species. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, has been working tirelessly to make space travel within our lifetime commonplace. Meanwhile, Elon Musk is launching rockets from sunny California into the orbit and back in the hopes of one day transforming mankind into an interplanetary species.  

But that’s for billionaires. How close are we to achieving affordable space travel in this generation? What is the likelihood that I, or my future children, will have a chance to pierce the atmosphere, step on the moon, or wake up on Mars?

Space tourism is not a new idea. Originally born in the minds of science fiction writers during the pulp era, such as Frederik Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein (whose work inspired the name of this website) — it’s something a lot of creatives and engineers have pondered for a long time. Pohl and Heinlein in particular, believed that the future of space travel would not be heavily advanced by governments, but by business. During a televised interview about the moon landing in 1969, Heinlein publicly stated his surprise that it was the American government that had funded and executed such an endeavor and not a private enterprise.

Flash forward to today, where our space race is what Heinlein had predicted: instead of governments jockeying for the cosmos as America and Russia once did, companies like Space X, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are led by billionaire titans of industry who use their wealth to support space travel to advance humanity, influence the future, and make a buck while they’re at it.

The two main impediments to space tourism are how much it costs and the dangers involved. In April 2001, 60-year-old American businessman Dennis Tito became the first space tourist, spending nearly eight days in orbit, most of it aboard the International Space Station (ISS). He paid approximately $20 million for the experience. Since then, there have been only six other space tourists. The end of early space tourism came when the crew size of the ISS doubled in 2009, and the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. Tourists did not have a vehicle to utilize, nor a destination with enough room to house them.

In terms of danger, Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Galactic, had pre-sold 700 tickets at about $250,000 each, raising $80 million for future space flights; then his test craft, Spaceship Two, exploded over the Mojave Desert in 2014, killing his test pilot and slowing down his program for years. The public’s fears about supporting space tourism were strengthened: The pilot’s death reminded them of the inherent risks of orbital flight.

The two main impediments to space tourism are how much it costs and the dangers involved.

From the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, to the Challenger explosion in 1986, and the disintegration of space shuttle Columbia in 2011 during reentry, the history of space travel is fraught with terrible failures. Each of these tragedies cost not only lives and a tremendous amount of money, but public support, and that set back advancement for years. The Challenger incident was especially tragic, because along with its lost crew came the cancellation of the Space Flight Participant Program, which invited non-astronauts to join flight crews to promote public awareness of their missions. The first of these was the Teacher in Space Project, which endeavored to combine publicity and educational opportunities for NASA. Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in Space, was killed in the Challenger disaster.  

Though heartbreaking, it was during those moments of tragedy that public opinion should not have been so easily turned off by the dangers of progress. They should have remembered the great accomplishments of space programs as well, like Sputnik, the Apollo 13 rescue mission and the Moon Landing. Space travel isn’t the first time humans have spent lives and money for the sake of advancement. Circumnavigating the world, building the Brooklyn Bridge, and the invention of flight were costly achievements at the time, but generated untold rewards, expanding our understanding of how the world works and our perspectives on the scope of humanity.

Yes, space travel is insanely expensive. Yes, it’s risky as hell. To paraphrase Elon Musk, “It’s going to cost lives.” But today, public support remains crucial. We have the means and minds to devise the technology to make space tourism more feasible and affordable, but collectively there must be greater interest and resolve from the world’s citizens. The risk of losing lives is a sobering deterrent. However, in past ages of explorations, death was more commonplace: people would die just loading a cargo ship, and on the expedition itself with dangers like disease and famine. But because we paid that price for progress in the past, we enjoy longer and better lives today.

We should not be cheap with the future of our species. We have to see tomorrow as a worthwhile investment. Like the generations before us, we must be willing to lean into risk in order to make our mark. I guess, when it comes right down to it, it’s all about attitude. Understanding that sacrifices must be made for a better tomorrow, and a willingness to take on bold challenges.

If we want to increase our odds of survival, we must spread out across the solar system and then the stars, for the simple fact that the more places we inhabit, the greater our odds are of enduring environmental calamity as well as our own tendencies of self-destruction through war and conflict. We must extend our reach so that we may know more about the nature of the universe and life itself, and because deep at heart, we are a species of explorers.  So if you’re asking me, “Will my generation live to see a future where space tourism is possible?” I would answer, “Why the hell not?”

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