Space Tourism: soon a reality, but at what price?

Going back to the moon, admiring planet Earth from the porthole of his “room”: a sweet dream? More really. Thanks to the fads of a handful of tech billionaires, space tourism seems to be on the move.

Soon, walking in the canyons of Mars, jumping like a goat on the moon, or watching the Earth from the porthole of his room (in a ship) will perhaps be just part of our dreams. Space tourism is coming soon.
The kickoff of “space tourism” was given 15 years ago, but things have really accelerated since 3 billionaires a little megalos threw themselves into something that no longer seems to be as utopian as that .

It all started in 2001, when Dennis Tito, a wealthy Californian entrepreneur, fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming the first civilian to travel in space. He flies aboard the Soyuz TM-32 mission … against a check of 20 million dollars to the Russian Space Agency. Since then, 6 other millionaires have offered this kind of orbital journey, proposed by Roscosmos.

Towards the “commercial” era of space travel

Then comes another type of space tourism, more affordable: the “suborbital flight” – an incursion at the threshold of space that allows flying at 100 kilometers altitude for half an hour, the time to contemplate the Earth since ‘space. More modest, but a hundred times cheaper than an orbital flight.

Three tech billionaires have decided to make it a real business. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, is a pioneer. In 2004, he founded the company Virgin Galactic, with the crazy idea of ​​transporting tourists in space for $ 250,000.

Supported by NASA for 4.5 million grants, Branson designs a spacecraft, the SpaceShipTwo. Forty people, including actor Ashton Kutcher, book their ticket, for flights expected to take place in 2014. But “the commercial era of space travel” as desired by the boss of Virgin knows a hard stop, when the VSS Enterprise, a test ship, crashes into the Mojave Desert (following a human error), killing a pilot.

Virgin Galactic will wait 2 years before returning to space. In February 2016, she presents a new model, the VSS Unity. No tourist flights have yet taken place, but several tests have been passed successfully. And although Virgin Galactic still has many tests to perform before proposing commercial flights, the company, optimistic, aims late 2017. Although it is likely to postpone the deadline, Richard Branson has already invited Stephen Hawking to embark .

From simple flights to space hotels

Since 2000, another tech heavyweight, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, has already invested more than half a billion dollars in a competing project, “Blue Origin”. To achieve his dream of sending “millions of people into space”, the billionaire has designed a launcher, the “New Glenn”, unveiled with fanfare in March 2017. The first launch of its reusable rocket, “New Shepard” , is planned for 2020.

For Jeff Bezos, also supported by NASA ($ 25 million grant), space tourism is only a first step. He wants to “explore space, and use it to save the Earth”, by creating space factories and colonizing the moon. But before realizing this utopia, he thinks of creating hotels in space, where “would stay and work thousands of people”.

This is also the idea of ​​entrepreneur Robert Bigelow. Since 1999, with his firm Bigelow Aerospace, he is working on a concept of inflatable modules, sent into orbit, which would constitute a “mini-station” space for tourists.

A little tour around the moon

Let’s move on to the most media-rich billionaire, the co-founder of PayPal Elon Musk. Those who dream of colonizing Mars by 2025 plan to use SpaceX rockets before that, to send tourists around the moon. “Two rich personalities” have already commissioned him such a tourist trip.

Elon Musk stands out from his competitors by his strong partnership with NASA, which has been dragging the private sector since the end of the cold war to save money, and which has chosen Space X to supply the ISS, compared to $ 1.6 billion. . With this support and his personal fortune ($ 14.6 billion), the founder of Tesla Motors has already scheduled his first suborbital flight, aboard the ship “Dragon 2” and the rocket “Falcon 9”, for 2018 .

Space travel only for rich?

With such projects, led by ambitious billionaires who are not afraid to spend huge amounts of money, space tourism looks good soon. So much so that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is preparing, for 2021, specific legislation for suborbital travel.

But a question arises, beyond the risk of crash or explosion in space: who can afford to pay for such a trip? The ticket to fly aboard Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin or SpaceX ships is expected to cost between $ 200,000 and $ 250,000. As Mashable rightly writes, “passengers will be very rich people, crazy and bored.”

Can we still dream, one day, of a “low-cost” ticket for space? According to Trip Chowdhry, of Global Equities Research, in 10 years, “the cost of a trip in space could not be different from a trip by plane”. For her, the costs will drop “thanks to privatization, but also thanks to the competition.” The former president of Virgin Galactic, Will Whitehorn, has the same certainty, and bet on a gradual decrease in the price of the ticket, from $ 150,000 to $ 68,000 by 2027.

That space tourists are only a handful of millionaires or that this concerns everyone, it will ultimately care for extraterrestrial sites visited. Otherwise, Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 essay, “The Promise of Space”, would become reality. The science-fiction writer imagined a Moon sacked by the Earth, after a century of visits.