Is Space Tourism Finally Within Our Reach?

Interplanetary Transport System; Courtesy of SpaceX
Private space travel companies are democratizing the industry and widening humanity’s potential reality.

Now seems like the perfect time to book a one-way ticket to space. Honestly, almost anywhere would do. Maybe there’s another dimension?

It’s been an uncomfortable (read: nightmarish) few weeks since Donald Trump entered the White House, and scientific research has been among the many vital American institutions under siege.

The administration’s decidedly anti-science bent has inspired its own resistance movement, replete with a planned Earth Day Science March and several alt Twitter accounts, including @RogueNASA, rallying citizens to fight back.

Iridium Launch: Courtesy of SpaceX

But while there is plenty to fear when it comes to the denigration of scientific discovery, space travel may actually not be one of the casualties of our new fascist regime. There have been murmurs about NASA possibly going back to the moon (never mind that this glorious journey will likely come at the expense of climate change research budgets), and our chances of going to space thankfully aren’t limited to the twisted whims of the President or politicians on Capitol Hill.

Now seems like the perfect time to book a one-way ticket to space. Honestly, almost anywhere would do. Maybe there’s another dimension?

For the last several years, we’ve witnessed the rise of several prominent companies hoping to send civilians to space. The “space tourism” industry is booming, and you might be surprised to learn it’s quickly becoming more affordable.

Private space travel companies are slowly but surely democratizing the industry—expanding it beyond the reach of billionaires—and widening humanity’s potential reality.

Raptor (liquid fuel engine) testing; Courtesy of SpaceX

The biggest players in the field — aside from government space agencies like NASA and the Russian Roscosmos — are Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and peripherally SpaceX (as Elon’s goal is more of a “practical move” to put people on Mars for the survival of the human race as opposed to just for funsies). All three companies are headed by billionaire men, a fact that has been widely lamented, but they have also opened the door for a wide range of other companies to enter the market, diversifying our options for going to space in the next five to 15 years while driving down prices.

There are some basics of space tourism that need to be stated — for outer space fans, these may be redundant, but given the infancy of the industry, not everyone is familiar with these facts:

  • Regardless of transportation, most space tourism flights are expected to take place in Low Earth Orbit (160–2000km above earth). The International Space Station operates in LEO, for context.
  • Most companies in the space tourism industry predict human flights (as opposed to test flights) will begin somewhere in 2018 or 2019.
  • The current price tag for most space tourism options ranges from $100,000-$250,000.
Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) glides for the first time after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve (VMS Eve) over the Mojave Desert on 3rd, December 2016.

While most space tourism depends on rockets, the last six months have seen the rise of balloon-based space tourism (think of a hot air balloon with an enclosed capsule suspended beneath it). Jose Mariano Lopez Urdiales is the founder of Zero 2 Infinity, a balloon-travel company based in Spain. (Any aspiring Bloonauts out there?!)

Rockets have been the primary driver of space exploration because they are also weaponizable.

Urdiales explains that rockets have been the primary driver of space exploration because they are also weaponizable. Balloons, on the other hand, can “safely fly above more than 99% of the atmosphere and are not widely used.” As the demand for space tourism has grown, “I only had to connect the dots,” he says.

Microbloon Space-View; Courtesy of Zero 2 Infinity

Zero 2 Infinity has diversified its offerings, proposing balloons for both satellite and human space launches. While it doesn’t have a specific timeline for human launches, Urdiales says it could be as early as 2019. Right now, interested passengers can put their name on a list for €10,000 — in total, passengers will make two more €50,000 payments before they can take a flight.

The Microbloon; Courtesy of Zero 2 Infinity

The space tourism industry is rapidly innovating, but it’s also woefully overpriced; SpaceVault is one company determined to create a sustainable business of it. SpaceVault — part of the financial technology company Finsophy — promises investors in their 40-year certificate of deposit a ticket to space on maturity. By investing $10,000 now, SpaceVault is confident it can successfully reinvest and create high enough returns for its clients to afford a ticket with a company like SpaceX.

SpaceVault is confident it can successfully reinvest and create high enough returns for clients to afford a ticket to space.

Founder and CEO Jason Aspiotis shared insight into the structure of the CD. Like its parent company, SpaceVault aims to offer investors transparency in their investments. Its space travel certificate of deposit splits the investment between low risk treasuries, bonds, index funds, and loans. Interest earned will be reinvested into commercial space ventures and companies, helping to ensure that investors actually get to take that space flight they’ve been waiting so many years for.

Options like the CD offered by SpaceVault, plus improvements in space technology, will help reduce the cost of space travel, theoretically — eventually — rendering it less classist. As early as March of 2016, former NASA astronaut Don Thomas predicted that a ticket to space will cost as little (or rather, relatively little) as $10,000-$15,000 within the next two decades.

While this is obviously still pricey, there are reasons to hope the industry can be further democratized over time. For context, this is about the same price tag of traveling to Antarctica in the 1980s and 1990s. The cost of travel to Antarctica has become consistently more affordable over the past five decades, as transportation efficiency increased and more companies began offering services to help people travel there. As with most destinations, space tourism is likely to follow a similar pattern, sharply driven by growing interest coupled with advancements in the science that will bring this reality to fruition.

While it remains a stretch of the imagination to conceive of casual space travel — after all, a heady handful of tangentially related industries need to come together to make it available and affordable — it’s truly within reach for our generation.

And while scientific innovation and discovery have become a target of our current administration, our collective moon-bouncing will at least likely remain insulated from the whims of the President or his Cabinet-minions.

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