27Aug2015

Why Space Tourism Is Going To Be Utterly Disappointing

Get ready to pay $250,000 for six minutes of weightlessness. (Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/Getty Images)

People have been dreaming about space tourism for nearly a century. Think of the orbiting space hotels in the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the Martian visits in the suspenseful Total Recall.

Years before anyone had ever even been to space, people were thinking of vacationing there. Now billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have poured tons of money into building vehicles for space tourism — and it seems possible that sometime in the next few years, one of their companies will become the first to carry paying passengers into space.

But there’s a catch. Their plans merely involve flights into suborbital space: high enough up to technically cross the 100-kilometer line considered the lower boundary of space and give fliers a few minutes of weightlessness, but not high enough to actually enter Earth’s orbit like a satellite or the International Space Station.

The sad reality is that Virgin flights, currently priced at $250,000 for an estimated six minutes of weightlessness, might not provide an experience tremendously different from what’s currently available to anyone willing to spend $5,000: a brief zero gravity flight on a plane often called the “vomit comet.”

Suborbital flights will cross the 100-km Karman line that marks the bottom of space — but won’t go much higher

Now, all these companies — along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX — have vague plans to eventually bring tourists all the way into Earth’s orbit, but experts say it’s a long shot. “Fundamentally, it’s all very hard to do,” says John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute. “We’ve been launching people into space for 54 years now, and less than 600 people have made the trip. I think the idea that there’s some magic bullet that could open up orbital space to large numbers of people is illusory.”

The hard truth is that we’re closer to the era of space tourism than ever before — but if you’re waiting for vacations in space, you’ll probably be disappointed.

The X Prize jump-started the space tourism industry

“The idea of space tourism has been bandied about, at least in science fiction, since the 1920s,” Paul Milo, author of Your Flying Car Awaits a book about 20th-century speculation on future technologies — told me for an article last year. “In the 1960s, there was this perception that by the 21st century, space tourism — whether a stint aboard an orbiting hotel or a trip to the moon — would be as common as a flight from New York to Tokyo.”

The main reason that isn’t the case is money. After the moon landing and the perception that the US had won the space race, Congress’s funding for NASA dried up significantly in the 1970s. For decades, dreams of space tourism went nowhere, as space travel remained far too expensive and risky.

That began to change in the late 1990s, when a pair of entrepreneurs created the X Prize: a standing offer of $10 million to the first private organization that created a reusable spacecraft. In 2004, the prize was won by Burt Rutan, who twice flew his spaceplane, SpaceShipOne, to an altitude of more than 100 kilometers — and in doing so, scraped the bottom edge of space.

Virgin Galactic diagram

SpaceShipTwo would scrape the bottom edge of space, giving passengers six minutes of weightlessness. (American Museum of Natural History)

Soon after, Richard Branson licensed the technology for use in developing a similar craft (SpaceShipTwo) that could carry paying passengers to the same altitude, allowing them to experience zero gravity and see the curvature of Earth from space. But though his new company Virgin Galactic has generated lots of hype — and got about 700 people to sign up for the waiting list for the $250,000 flights — it has had to repeatedly push back its timetables for commercial flights.

Most recently, plans had called for them to begin in the spring of 2015, but a crash that destroyed the sole SpaceShipTwo in existence and killed one of the co-pilots has caused delays.

To date, just seven people have gone into space as tourists — and they were all carried there on existing flights operated by the Russian space agency, paying $20 million to $40 million each for weeklong stays on the International Space Station. Even these flights have been put on hold (mainly because NASA will pay more to reserve those spots for American astronauts), but they’re expected to start back up in late 2015.

We might finally be getting close to spaceflight for tourists

After many years of delays, there’s some reason to think that at least suborbital tourist flights might be around the corner. For one, the field has recently become crowded with a number of legitimate, well-funded companies. Apart from Virgin, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin has quietly been working on its own suborbital rocket. After a few failed test flights, it finally conducted its first successful one earlier this year, sending it to an altitude of 93,000 meters — just below the lower edge of space.

Eventually, the company says, its New Shepard craft will be able to carry three people into suborbital space, for tourism and research purposes.

Meanwhile, the California-based company XCOR Aerospace began developing a series of spaceplanes for the same purpose in 2008. It still hasn’t conducted any actual flights, but last month the company raised the price of future flights on its Lynx craft from $100,000 to $150,000, promising that test flights will soon follow.

Virgin has seemingly moved on from its crash and appears to be the farthest along in development. A federal investigation largely blamed Scaled Composites (the company contracted to design and test SpaceShipTwo) for the disaster, and Virgin reportedly plans to begin testing an improved replacement craft later this year.

But there are some good reasons for skepticism

virgin crash

Wreckage from the 2014 Virgin crash. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

On the other hand, it seems that we’ve been just a few years away from commercial flights for some time now. In 2008, for instance, Virgin founder Richard Branson predicted commercial flights would begin sometime in 2009. In 2012, the company’s CEO, George Whitesides, said they’d start in 2013. When XCOR debuted its spaceplane design in 2008, it was supposed to fly by 2010; in 2012, it was supposed to fly in 2013.

You get the idea. “It’s always the same number, but it never gets any closer,” says space expert Howard McCurdy. Still, he believes that suborbital flights will eventually happen, given the number of companies involved and the large pool of wealthy people willing to pay for the thrill. Virgin and others have some technical problems to solve (most importantly, the aerodynamic difficulties of decelerating a plane from 2,600 miles per hour to landing speed), but they’re doable, given enough money.

The Virgin crash, however, was a painful reminder of the inherent risks of space travel: after decades of research, about 5 percent of rocket launches still end in failure. For a purely recreational flight, this number might be too high for many would-be space tourists to swallow.

At the same time, McCurdy points out that even though 1 percent of the people who attempt to climb Mount Everest die, about 1,000 still attempt it each year. “The extreme adventure market carries substantial risk, but that doesn’t keep people off Everest,” he says. If Virgin or another company can approach this 1 percent figure, many thrill seekers might be willing to fly. Source: Vox Space

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