Photo: Orbital Technologies
NASA may be winding down its space shuttle operations, and the endeavour launched for a final voyage today.But things have never looked better for the private space sector.
Several companies, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, have completed successful test missions and are booking seats on soon-to-launch suborbital flights.
Space Adventures, the company that sent several space tourists to the International Space Station aboard Russian vessels, is expanding its orbital and suborbital offerings.
And the ageing International Space Station is no longer the last word in extraterrestrial accommodations.
Companies like Bigelow Aerospace are designing and building low-cost, spacious alternatives to the 13-year-old facility.
We’ve rounded up the latest updates in the burgeoning space tourism industry.
Here’s a peek at where we started, and what lies ahead.
Humans have long dreamed of visiting space, but the first space tourist only left the earth's atmosphere in 2001.
Humans have always dreamed of visiting outer space, but the idea of space tourism really heated up during the 1950s and '60s, as the Space Race between the U.S. and Russia began and space travel became a viable reality.
Astronaut Alan Shepard became the second person, and first American, to enter outer space in 1961, but it was not until 1984 that the first non-government astronaut did so.
After that, two congressmen flew into outer space in the 1980s, and New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe was to be the first teacher in space, until she tragically died in the Challenger explosion of 1986.
The first space tourist, Dennis Tito, blasted off in 2001. Tito, a former NASA employee, paid $20 million for an 8-day trip on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz TM-32, including a stop at the International Space Station.
Virginia-based Space Adventures Ltd. is the only company that has actually sent tourists into orbit.
Since Tito's voyage, only six other people have visited space as 'space tourists.'
All were clients of Space Adventures Ltd., a Virginia-based space tourism company.
They include entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth and Iranian telecom mogul Anousheh Ansari.
Charles Simonyi, an ex-executive at Microsoft, became the first tourist to travel to space twice, making a return trip to the International Space Station in 2009.
Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto sued Space Adventures after the company canceled his 2006 mission, citing medical reasons, and refused to refund the $21 million he had paid.
That lawsuit was eventually dismissed.
The Federal Aviation Administration published a set of rules for space tourism in December 2006.
The guidelines cover crew qualifications and training, as well as informed consent for passengers and crew members, according to the 2008 book Tourists in Space: A Practical Guide.
However, they do not provide guidance on the issues of insurance and liability.
Under U.S. law, any company proposing to launch passengers from American soil must receive a licence from the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
Despite the regulations, the fact remains that space travel is relatively untested, and relatively dangerous.
NASA has a fatality rate of around 6% for manned space flights, making space travel less dangerous than climbing Mt. Everest (with a fatality rate of 12%) but far more risky than flying commercially (with a fatality rate of 0.0000002%).
Space Adventures has already signed up one customer for the nine-figure trip, and is in negotiations with a second, according to Space.com.
That means the first flight could occur as soon as 2015.
The company also recently announced plans to upgrade the Soyuz spaceships it uses to make them more comfortable for high-paying passengers.
According to Space.com:
This newly announced habitation module will almost double the room in the Soyuz, adding substantial volume to the otherwise cramped quarters of the Russian capsule, Space Adventures officials said.
'It would be an extraordinarily comfortable trip to the moon and back,' said Richard Garriott, vice chairman of Space Adventures, who himself flew on one of the company's commercial flights to the space station in 2008. 'It's considerably larger than any that the Apollo era people had on their journeys to the moon and back.'
Space Adventures also recently announced plans to offer far more affordable, 'suborbital' flights to a height of 62 miles, where space technically 'begins.'
Those tickets would cost an estimated $102,000, nearly half of the price of tickets for a similar excursion offered by competitor Virgin Galactic.
Space Adventures is partnering in the venture with Armadillo Aerospace, a Texas-based company founded by computer game entrepreneur John Carmack, according to MSNBC.com.
The experience would be fleeting, as MSNBC explains:
Flights aboard Armadillo's vertically-launched rocket ship in development will depart from a spaceport in the United States and take passengers to regions above 62 miles (100 kilometers), where space begins.
After the engine is shut down, those aboard will experience up to five minutes of weightlessness and will have the opportunity to gaze out at 360-degree views into space and Earth's horizon below.
The time in space will be a few short minutes, but the complete experience, including training, will last a few days.
Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson's space endeavour, hopes to become the first company to regularly operate suborbital space tours.
The company reached a major milestone in May 2011, when its rocket plane, SpaceShipTwo, had a successful deployment of its landing gear during a test flight.
The Los Angeles Times explains:
The one-of-a-kind design is vital to reducing wear and tear on the six-person rocket ship, so it can reach the company's goal of carrying scores of paying customers into outer space several times a day.
The company has already signed up 410 prospective passengers and expects to launch its first flight next year.
Virgin Galactic hopes to make its first passenger flight within the next year, and has already signed up around 410 reservations from prospective passengers.
For $200,000, tourists will be shuttled to a suborbital altitude of around 60 miles above the earth's surface, where they will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the earth.
That price tag could eventually be cut in half, former Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn recently predicted.
Instead of vertical launches from the ground, (like NASA's), Virgin Galactic flights launch horizontally from an aircraft at around 50,000 feet.
Passengers will spend two or three days training at the company's launch pad in New Mexico before setting off for space.
And to accommodate visitors to the launch site, dubbed Spaceport America, tentative plans are in the works to build a luxury hotel nearby.
Several other space tourism companies are lined up to send tourists into suborbital space.
Rocketship Tours, started by $5-A-Day Tours co-founder Jules Klar, has partnered with XCOR Aerospace to design and build its 2-seater Lynx rocketplanes.
Tickets for those flights are currently on sale for $95,000, and include a 4-day orientation, medical screening and G-force training at an Arizona resort, according to the company's website.
The company has even sold a ticket to Victoria's Secret model Doutzen Kroes, who is scheduled for a trip in 2014.
Isle of Man-based Excalibur Almaz is also on track to start offering suborbital flights in the near future.
The company, whose designs are based on the Soviet space program's, plans to offer weekly flights as early as 2013.
SpaceX, a space exploration company started by the co-founder of PayPal, is developing its own shuttles to carry tourists into orbit.
The company celebrated a major success in December 2010, when its Dragon spacecraft completed a successful test flight, orbiting the earth twice before landing in the ocean.
The test was part of a contract with NASA for SpaceX to potentially deliver cargo to the International Space Station, Wired reported.
But the Dragon is also designed to carry people -- it has space for between five and seven passengers, according to Wired.
The company is also reportedly in talks with space module maker Bigelow Aerospace to transport one of its habitable modules to space in 2014.
Many companies are vying to put humans into orbit, but Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace is working to develop inflatable space habitats in which to house them.
The company, founded by Budget Suites of America owner Robert Bigelow, has already launched two test modules into space. Both are currently still in orbit.
Bigelow plans to launch its latest module, the Sundancer, in 2014.
That pod will be able to accommodate 6 people for short-term visits, and three for longer-term visits, according to Bigelow's website.
According to Bigelow:
Bigelow Aerospace's shielding is equivalent to or better than the International Space Station and substantially reduces the dangerous impact of secondary radiation....
...Sundancer will boast four large windows coated with a film for UV protection, providing an unparalleled opportunity for both celestial and terrestrial viewing.
The company eventually plans to mass produce the modules as a low-cost alternative to the International Space Station.
While the company has distanced itself from the term 'space hotel,' Bigelow told Space.com in an interview last year that if Hilton or Marriott wanted to lease his modules, they certainly could.
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