Imagine packing your suitcase for spring break and booking a round trip ticket to outer space. It may sound a bit like something out of the Jetsons, but space tourism is closer than you might think. Ever since NASA first took it’s “giant leap”, the private sector has been trying to find a way to make spaceflight marketable to civilians.
Virgin Galactic is one among several companies that are currently competing for a stake in the futuristic industry of space tourism — if the name reminds you of a certain wireless company, you’re correct, they are connected. In 2004, it seemed the goal was finally within grasping distance when SpaceShipOne, which had been licensed by Virgin Galactic, successfully flew over the Mojave desert and entered history as the first privately financed aircraft in space.
Shortly after, the company announced plans for a commercial version and immediately began taking reservations. At the time, Richard Branson, owner of the spaceline, predicted that the first commercial flights would begin in 2007. Now 2011, progress has been slower than was originally anticipated.
Although the promise of commercial flight has yet to be realized, powered test flights are scheduled to begin sometime within the next year. 75-year-old venture capitalist, Alan Walton, requested a refund on his $200,000 ticket deposit earlier this year.
Walton, who has traversed the North Pole and skydived over Mt. Everest, admits, “This was a decision I wish I didn’t have to make,” but that he’s not as young as he once was and, “it was time.” Virgin Galactic, however, is only one in a cluster of organizations set on privatizing space travel.
A few others include Blue Origin, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, and Scaled Composites, whom many consider the leader of the pack. All of these companies are privately held with no shareholders, and keep most of the details of what they’re planning out of the public eye.
Then there’s also SpaceX, a corporation with even more far-reaching goals than mere space tourism. CEO Elon Musk claims that their distant, “holy grail objective” is to one day make mankind a multi-planet species. Musk is quoted in Ira Flatow’s 2007 book, Present at the Future:
It sounds a little odd to contemplate, but I think there actually is a business model, potentially, if you can make it cost somewhere around a few million dollars to move to Mars and become one of the founding people of a new planet.
But even if no future technical drawbacks were to appear to impede the private sector’s progress into space, many still worry that such an expensive form of tourism would not (forgive the pun) take off in such a poor economy, never mind the price of actually living outside of orbit.
The fact that Virgin Galactic’s fee of $200,000 is considered rather a good deal seems to support the theory that the market might not currently be as large as developers would like to hope. Space policy expert John Logsdon begs the question, “In the current economic climate, how many people have that level of discretionary money?”
Not very many, but more than you might think. Virgin Galactic currently has approximately 450 ticket-holders in line to fly. If you have a couple hundred thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket, you might want to check out their website. Once there, you can conveniently book a ticket directly through them or, “with your local accredited space agent.”