Space Tourism Takes Off

Marianne Dyson, June 2021

Space tourism is finally getting off the ground. For young people interested in STEM careers, the future is full of stars. And space tourism might lead to some cool jobs on the ground as well.

It has now been 20 years since Dennis Tito paid $20 million to the Russians to spend a week on the ISS. Six more wealthy fliers, including the first woman (Anousheh Ansari) bought flights through 2009. No “spaceflight participants” (the fancy name for tourists) have flown since because, with the Space Shuttle retirement, NASA bought all the available seats—at a cost of $90 million each last year.

But now that SpaceX is flying crew for NASA, Russia is set to fly two more tourists (for $50 million each) to the ISS later this year. [Ref: Space.com]

And SpaceX is also entering the space tourism business. Their first all-civilian three-day flight to orbit is scheduled to launch from Florida with a crew of four, including the youngest woman to ever fly (Hayley Arseneau is 29) in September. [Ref: Inverse.com] Four SpaceX flights to the ISS in conjunction with Axiom Space (that plans to build a private space station) begin next January, with seats costing about $55 million each. [Ref: CNBC]

Boeing’s Starliner is slated to start flying crews of four to the ISS in 2022 for a cost of about $90 million each. [Ref: cnbc] However, once Starliner flights are offered to the public (via Space Adventures), the price is expected to drop to $50 million or less. [Ref: Spaceflightnow]

No word yet on whether the Chinese will sell rides on a Shenzhou to their new Tiangong (heavenly palace) space station.

All this activity means more jobs for engineers, scientists, and pilots—some of whom will get to accompany the rich tourists into space. But if you aren’t longing to be an astronaut, and you’re not a billionaire (yet), you may still have a chance to fly to space.

Suborbital Options

Suborbital flights don’t go into orbit, but arc to the boundary of space (62 miles altitude) and then freefall for 3 to 8 minutes.

Virgin Galactic completed a successful manned test flight of their winged ship in May. Rather than riding atop a rocket, it is carried to a high altitude and released to rocket up the rest of the way and glide back to Earth. Their next test flight is the first week of July. They expect to fly paying customers (four per flight with two pilots onboard) out of Spaceport America in New Mexico next year. [Ref: arsTechnica] They presold more than 600 tickets for $250,000 each, enough to fill their first 150 flights. That price is no longer available and going up. So if you’re not a millionaire, you might need to sell your house or win the lottery to buy a ticket.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo was carried aloft by White KnightTwo, released, and flown (by a crew of two) to 51.4 miles altitude in December 2018. The total flight time was about 2.5 hours. Photo credit Virgin Galactic.

Blue Origin’s first manned suborbital flight (with billionaire Jeff Bezos aboard) is scheduled for July 20. [Ref: BBC] They plan to offer flights to the public eventually, including orbital flights, but no tickets or prices are yet available. They auctioned off a seat for $28 million, though.

Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard rocket, shown on its 12th flight in December 2019, launches from west Texas. Photo credit: Blue Origin.

Suborbital flight companies need not depend on rich tourists to be successful. Many business travelers, as well as emergency response teams and the military, are willing to pay a premium to fly to the other side of the planet in an hour. We can all hope that eventually prices for a one-hour nonstop from Houston to Tokyo will drop to less than the price of a mansion.

Parabolic Flights

I got to try out being weightless without having to be an astronaut or sell my house to buy a ticket. That’s because weightlessness is a result of falling, not being in space. [See my blog: Say No to Zero G] The key is to fall without hitting the ground!

NASA managed this feat using a modified KC-135 (later a C-9, both dubbed the “Vomit Comet”). It flew up to 25,000 feet and then fell through 10,000 feet to provide 30 seconds of weightlessness. I flew 40 parabolas and then one each of lunar and Martian gravity in 1999. The “uphill” portions subjected me to 2 g’s, what astronauts feel on the way to and from space.

Space Adventures and ZERO G offer parabolic flights for $6700 each. Catch a flight from airports on either coast or from Las Vegas. [Ref: Space Adventures and ZERO G]  

The cover of my eBook describing my experiences preparing for and flying on NASA’s “Vomit Comet” in 1999.

I wrote about my experience with loss of cabin pressure (via training in a hyperbaric chamber) and freefall for Ad Astra and Analog magazines. For those who want to know what it is REALLY like, check out my 99-cent eBook on Amazon called “Science Fiction Versus the Real Thing: What I Learned on NASA’s Vomit Comet.”

If none of these options work for you, you can always let your imagination take you to space for the price of a good book. (Check out Fly Me to the Moon and other stories.) However you go to space, as a tourist, through your job, as a passenger, or through your imagination, I hope you enjoy your flight!

Writing about Space

My new book, Shuttle Mission Control: Flight Controller Stories and Photos, 1981-1992, is now available in print and eBook forms via Amazon. Order autographed copies through my website, www.MarianneDyson.com.

Speaking about Space

I am now fully vaccinated and willing to do in-person author visits. I also offer virtual author visits. See details on the Author Visits tab of my website. I look forward to sharing space stories with you!