For many (your author included), having the opportunity to visit space has been a long-held dream. Now, after many false dawns, it is becoming an increasing reality. For those who missed it, at the weekend SpaceX successfully docked a capsule at the International Space Station. What made this mission unprecedented, however, was its payload: a spacecraft designed to carry humans. On this occasion, it contained only 400 pounds of cargo and a mannequin named Ripley (in homage to the film ‘Alien’), but humans could be next.
A combination of better materials, reusable rockets and scale economies means that space is becoming easier to access. Against this background, four different companies (Blue Origin, Boeing, SpaceX and Virgin) have all announced plans to commercialise space and usher in an era of tourism. Back in 2001, American multimillionaire Dennis Tito became the first space tourist, flying to the International Space Station, for a reputed cost of $20m. Six other people have followed in his footsteps, but none since 2009.
However, more than 700 people have bought tickets on Virgin Galactic at a cost between $200,000 and $250,000 (~£150,000-190,000). There will be six passengers on each flight, each of whom will get to experience several minutes of weightlessness while taking in the views. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has also confirmed its first passenger (a Japanese billionaire) and has said that flights may be possible from July. Already, two NASA astronauts have begun training for Musk’s missions. It seems likely that Blue Origin (backed by Jeff Bezos) and Boeing will likely be close behind. Before we all get too excited and start cancelling our summer holiday plans, do not forget that things will go wrong. The technology is still maturing, launch costs are significant (as would be civilian tickets for short flights), crashes happen and even the term ‘space tourism’ could be considered misleading; it can lull people into believing that such ventures are routine and low-risk, whereas the opposite is currently true. These concerns won’t put everyone off; time to start saving for that first trip to space…
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