Space Tourism: A comprehensive history

With the world’s most well known billionaires all fighting over their moment of commercial space flight glory it is no surprise to see the industry develop as rapidly as it has, despite no flight officially being launched as of yet. Space tourism is, in essence, the act of consumers paying to go to space, mostly for fun and not for Governmental research purposes. Some prefer to use the term ‘private astronaut’ over ‘space tourist’ but both equate to the same outcome. The advancement of technology so that humans can visit space for recreational reasons is exceptionally exciting and not far away at all.

Richard DalBello, Vice President of business development at Virgin Galactic, stated in 2017 that the space tourism business is seeking to democratise space access, allowing anyone, money permitting, to embark on an unimaginable excursion, “We’re not looking for superheroes.” Tamela Maciel, space communications manager at the National Space Centre, echoes DalBello’s sentiment, “what’s exciting for us is that anyone can go, as long as they’re physically fit.” This is backed up when looking at those who have signed up to Virgin Galactic’s space programme, “Virgin Galactic Future Astronauts come from more than 50 nations around the world. More than half of these nations have never celebrated a space flight and more than a dozen that have, are still waiting to see their first female astronaut […] In ages spanning the teens to the 90’s, Virgin Galactic Future Astronauts come from diverse backgrounds, practice many professions, and speak many languages.”

Paul Milo, in his 2009 book Your Flying Car Awaitsoutlines the view of space tourism from past years, “The idea of space tourism has been bandied about, at least in science fiction, since the 1920s. 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.” Less than a quarter of the way through the century and with some of the world’s most influential and financially backed minds involved, it surely won’t be long until this prediction prevails.

The history of space tourism

The timeline of space tourism is clear and unavoidable, from expensive and rare beginnings to what could potentially be a thriving aerospace community. In the mid 1980s and early 1990s ‘civilians’ were selected from occasional projects and schemes to visit space on official missions with intensive astronaut training provided. In January 1986 the notable Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from New Hampshire, after over a years training and being sponsored by NASA, boarded the Challenger Space Shuttle which was set to launch. After just 73 seconds of flight all seven crew members died as the shuttle broke apart.

Christa McAuliffe during training. Source: NASA

In the 90s it was the turn of Japanese television journalist Toyohiro Akiyama and British chemist Helen Sharman. Akiyama, in 1990, became the first human to embark on a commercial spaceflight and was headed to the Russian space station. Both Akiyama and Sharman travelled to the same location, the Mir, a space station destroyed in 2001. Both ‘astronauts’ travelled months apart and were both sponsored by different companies thus not official space tourists.

Through the 2000s the Russian space agency would spawn the birth of space tourist, allowing individuals the opportunity to purchase a seat on pre-planned missions. Dennis Tito, a now 78-year-old entrepreneur, is widely known as the first to gain the tag of ‘space tourist’ although he would rather be called an ‘independent researcher’. Tito was accepted on to a Russian federal space agency flight after paying a reported $20 million in 2001 and faced initial backlash from NASA. When he visited the Johnson Space Centre in Houston to receive extra training all of the astronauts and recruits were sent home with Robert Donald Cabana, the director of the centre, preventing training and saying that “we are not willing to train with Dennis Tito.” His apprehension is understandable however in 2001 Tito was on board the Soyuz TM-32 and was part of a crew that orbited the Earth 128 times.

The success of Tito’s eight day trip, in which he even conducted several scientific experiments, saw the Russian space agency’s partnership with civilian participants grow. A year later it was Mark Shuttleworth’s turn to hit the headlines, his stint on the Soyuz TM-34 mission seeing him conduct experiments regarding AIDs and speaking to Nelson Mandela. Gregory Olsen followed in 2005, Anousheh Ansari in 2006, Richard Garriott in 2008, Charles Simonyi in 2007 and 2009, and Guy Laliberte in 2009 before the space shuttle programme run by NASA shut down, leading to the US relying on seats on Russian flights to get to the ISS, International Space Station. NASA had previously declined invitations to send civilians into space after the tragedy of Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger mission.

Dennis Tito landing back on Earth. Source: Getty

Whilst Akiyama and Sharman did not pay for their tickets, Tito, Shuttleworth, Olsen, Ansari, Garriott, Simanyi, and Laliberte all did. However none of them see themselves as ‘tourists’ and have objected this very term, instead seeing themselves as a “private space explorer” or a “pioneer of commercial space travel”, space agencies use the term “space flight participant.” The word tourist takes with it negative connotations which are both unwanted and unwarranted. All seven participants that paid for their entry into space embarked on rigorous training lasting over a year with some even having to relocate. All seven participants conducted scientific research in space. In 2009 Russian cosmonaut Maksim Surayev said it best when speaking of his now colleague Guy Laliberte, “It’s become fashionable to speak of space tourists. He is not a tourist but a participant in the mission.”

The XPRIZE and the birth of Virgin Galactic

Whilst Government agencies and missions have allowed ‘non-cosmonauts’ access to space it has been rare. Private organisations were always sitting in the back, observing how they could push forward into an unexplored market and into unfamiliar territories. In 1995 the official seed of space tourism as we will soon know it was planted with the creation of the XPrize foundation by Peter Diamandis and Robert K. Weiss. The XPrize mission was simple, to encourage “radical breakthrough for the benefit of humanity” via the medium of competition.

The most well known XPrize is the Ansari XPrize, named so due to donations from the aforementioned Anousheh Ansari and her brother-in-law Amir. The Ansari XPrize was launched in 1996, inspired by the Orteig prize of the 1920s which championed flight across the Atlantic ocean. Peter Diamandis is quoted as saying, “such a prize, updated and offered as a space prize, might be just what was needed to bring space travel to the general public, to jump-start a commercial space industry.” Thus the Ansari XPrize was born, offering a prize of $10 million for the first non-governmental organisation to build and launch a spacecraft that would be “privately financed” and “reusable”, capable of carrying three people to 100km above the Earths surface to the Karman line, the boundary of space, twice within a two week period.

A statement on the official Ansari XPrize website sums up succinctly what happened next, “On October 4, 2004, XPRIZE captured the worlds attention by awarding the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE – the largest prize in history – to Mojave Aerospace Ventures for their SpaceShipOne. Led by famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites, with financial backing from Paul Allen, the team’s winning technology was licensed by Richard Branson to create Virgin Galactic. With the awarding of this competition, a brand new $2 billion private space industry was launched.”

Richard Branson, left, and Burt Rutan, right in 2008. Source: Spencer Platt

Burt Rutan, an esteemed aerospace engineer, is known for innovation having previously designed the Rutan Model 76 Voyager aircraft, the first to fly around the world without stopping. In 1978 Rutan met Mike Melvill and immediately hired him as a pilot. Twenty-six years later Melvill would become the worlds first commercial astronaut, piloting the first flight of SpaceShipOne. Brian Binnie, pilot of the second, award-winning, flight would soon become the second.

With Virgin Galactic launching in September 2004 off the success of Rutan and Scaled Composites, Richard Branson was beaming with pride and filled with ambition, “Today is a historic day – it will bring the dream of space travel for many millions closer to reality. I hope, with the launch of Virgin Galactic and the building of a fleet of spacecraft, that one day children around the world will wonder why we ever thought that space travel was a dream we read about in books.” Branson then infamously stated his commercial space flights could take place in three years, the world waited for 2007.

A year after the launch, in mid 2005, Branson and Rutan teamed up again to create The Spaceship Company set up for the purpose of owning technology created by Scaled Composites for Virgin Galactic, acting as a partnership between the two in the form of an organisation. In 2008, a year after the first expected flight, Branson released WhiteKnightTwo to the press which was the carrier craft of the space shuttle so it could reach the needed altitude. The Virgin owner then offered up another estimation, that flight would take place within eighteen months. A year later, in December 2009, the SpaceShipTwo is unveiled to the public with launch still eighteen months away according to Branson. Fast forward a few months and in March 2010 the first joint flight combining the WhiteKnightTwo, named Eve, and the SpaceShipTwo, named VSS Enterprise, took place in Mojave, California.

It was finally happening consumers thought but, despite more than three hundred heavily priced tickets being sold, the launch was pushed back further in 2011 when Branson again announced, “I hope 18 months from now, we’ll be sitting in our spaceship and heading off into space.” It was becoming his go-to line. Virgin Galactic spacecraft continued running test flights throughout 2012 and the following years. It seemed that Richard Branson did not quite grasp the mechanism of time or he was intent on consistently promoting his ideology so that the press did not forget, but how could they?

In May 2013 Branson infamously told a Dubai radio station that he would visit space on Christmas day of that year, joking that he may “dress up as Father Christmas.” It didn’t happen. Another year passed and Eve Branson, mother of Richard and inspiration for the naming of the WhiteKnightTwo, spoke to the Observer and said what most were now thinking, “I think it’s the end of the year. It’s always the end of the year.”

Tragic developments

2014 was a pivotal year for Virgin Galactic. Starting off with unsatisfied customers and headlines such as “The $80m Virginauts stranded on Earth”, the company was almost seen as a laughing stock among the public with date predictions for the first consumer space flight now seen as a joke and not trusted, consumers and the public alike knew the perceived deadlines would not be met by Branson and co. However, an interview on the 9th October 2014 between George Whitesides and The Guardian showed Virgin Galactic for what it was and what it was slowly becoming. Whitesides spoke of replacing Will Whitehorn as president of Virgin Galactic in 2010. The company changed completely after the takeover from Whitehorn, former head of Virgin’s public affairs, to Whitesides, former chief of staff at NASA, with staff numbers rushing up from a measly 25 to 425. Whitesides stated, “We’ve changed dramatically as a company. When I joined in 2010 we were mostly a marketing organisation. Right now we can design, build, test and fly a rocket motor all by ourselves and all in Mojave, which I don’t think is done anywhere else on the planet.”

Sir Richard Branson with George Whitesides
Richard Branson, left, and George Whitesides, right. Source: Virgin Galactic

Perhaps Richard Branson had been caught up in what he perceived as the immediate success of SpaceShipOne when winning the Ansari XPRIZE and did not conceive of any major reasons as to why progress would be slowed. However as is written in the Guardian there were always issues, “On two of the six powered flights SpaceShipOne had made before being hung in the Smithsonian museum, its pilot Mike Melvill experienced potentially life-threatening failures. And in 2007, with the project already behind schedule, an explosion during the testing killed three of Rutan’s engineers.” Unfortunately the biggest wake up call was to come just twenty-two days after Whiteside’s enlightening interview.

On the 31st October 2014 pilots Pieter Siebold and Michael Alsbury entered the VSS Enterprise and settled in for just another test flight. The rest would go as following: The VSS Enterprise would be carried up to an altitude of 50,000 feet by Eve, the WhiteKnightTwo, before releasing and using rocket engines to blast up to around 330,000 feet, the edge of space. The test started as planned but upon the release from Eve the VSS Enterprise lasted just ninety seconds before being destroyed, torn apart by technical problems.

It was suspected to be an issue with the wings prematurely shifting into the descend phase which served to slow the craft down, a new engine fuel was also suspected to be a cause. Whatever the cause, the outcome was catastrophic. Siebold was able to parachute to safety but his co-pilot Michael Alsbury was unable to escape the craft. The only SpaceShipTwo in existence was not in pieces which obviously meant delays but the human cost involved garnered news headlines worldwide. Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic had the spotlight shone on them as they had always wanted, but now they wished for nothing more than to fade into the shadows.

Understandably, questions surrounding the safety of commercial space flights arose with critics validating the opinion that perhaps ‘space tourism’ is too far fetched and should be dealt with in the future. Others controversially claimed that Virgin Galactic had rushed testing and development so to keep up with the constant, ambitious deadlines set by those in power. I disagree with said criticism and find myself aligning with fact rather than fictitious narratives. A post from in 2009 showed statistics relating to rocket reliability, the USSR, US, and EU saw their craft fail at least 6.5% of the time. This correlated with Virgin Galactics record of one ‘failure’ in twenty-three test flights.

Wreckage of the VSS Enterprise crash. Source: Reuters

This instead raises questions not about the running of Virgin Galactic, but the overall safety of the space tourism industry. But with Branson maintaining support from investors and with only 3% of Virgin Galactic’s waiting list cancelling it seemed as if normal service was to be resumed and the sensationalised effects were kept to a minimum. Marco Caceres of Teal Group, an aerospace consulting company, summed it up perfectly in the aftermath, “The kind of people that sign up for this are adventure seekers. They thrive on risk. Many of them won’t be daunted by this.” He was right, they weren’t.

Virgin Galactic were now even more motivated to push forward, safety at the top of their priority list. In February 2016 the aptly named VSS Unity replaced the VSS Enterprise and test flights were a roaring success, reaching around halfway to space in 2018. Branson’s new approach was “step-by-step” with extensive testing and intensive inspections now second nature to Virgin Galactic. Despite constant improvements, Branson could still not quit old habits, saying after another successful test flight that “It will be something like two or three more flights before we’re actually in space.”

Speaking directly after the crash Howard McCurdy, then a professor at American University, uttered the words “I think if Branson doesn’t do it, someone else will.” Whilst Branson and Virgin Galactic was the most well known consumer space flight organisation, ultimately their failings allowed others to catch up in the background and zoom into the foreground. Branson was not the only billionaire who had cosmic dreams.

Blue Origin

In September 2000 Jeff Bezos, now the worlds wealthiest person, founded Blue Origin. Eighteen years previously in 1982 Bezos was interviewed by the Miami Herald in which he said his goal in life was “to build space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people who would be in orbit.” His company, with the imaginative tag line of “Earth, in all its beauty, is just our starting place. We are of Blue origin, and here is where it begins”, stayed private until 2003 when land in Texas was purchased and people questioned what it was for.

For the first fifteen years of its existence nobody knew what the plans of Blue Origin were, what they wanted to achieve and what they may have already achieved. Taking a notably different approach to that of Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin only broke their silence in 2015 after their first test flight of their spacecraft New Shepard was successful. Financially backed by Bezos’ $1 billion a year the company grew and grew, seeking inspiration from their now public activity with staff increasing from 250 people in 2013 to now more than 1500.

Jeff Bezos posing in 2018

Blue Origin’s testing stages have thus far been carried out impeccably and without mistake. On April 29th 2018 the eighth successful test of New Shepard was executed and reached over 300,000 feet in altitude carrying NASA experiments and a test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker, put in place to research potential effects on humans. A few months later a ninth test took place in which safety and escape methods were analysed, it was another success.

The continual positivity surrounding Blue Origin has led to some high up in the company to suggest that flights could take place within the year. Blue Origin’s offer to consumers is simple and explained in such terms on the official website, “The New Shepard Capsule’s interior is an ample 530 cubic feet […] it seats six astronauts and is large enough for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults. Sitting atop a 60-foot-tall rocket in a capsule designed for six people, you’ll feel the engine ignite and ramble under you as you climb through the atmosphere. Accelerating at more than 3Gs to faster than Mach 3, you will count yourself as one of the few who have gone these speeds and crossed into space.” The statement continues, “As the main engine cuts off, your capsule will separate from its booster and perfect stillness will surround you.”

In total the experience is set to last around eleven minutes, with only a day and a half’s training required. The New Shepard also includes reclining seats, panoramic windows, and supposedly even wi-fi. A stark cry from the adventures of the likes of Akiyama and Laliberte, the new consumer has every right to be branded a space tourist. With the price set around $250,000 a ticket, Blue Origin has set a marker very close to that of Virgin Galactic in terms of cost and experience, risk and reward.

SpaceX and a different approach

Two billionaires is never enough, we need a third. Elon Musk, well known as CEO of Tesla, founded SpaceX in 2002 “with the goal of helping make the human race a multi-planetary species.” Ambitious, yes. Stupid, no. In SpaceX’s sixteen year existence they have slashed rocket costs as well as being the first to reach a number of significant milestones including being the first organisation to land an orbited rocket’s first stage craft on land and on sea, overseeing the first relaunch of a used craft, and being the first private company to send a spacecraft to the ISS. SpaceX is synonymous with gargantuan achievement and they continue to strive.

The SpaceX launch in 2002. Source: SpaceX

In February 2017 SpaceX announced to the world that two passengers had booked onto a trip into space described by Musk as “a long loop around the moon. It would skim the surface of the moon, go quite a bit further out into deep space and then loop back to Earth. So I’m guessing, distance-wise, may be [300,000] or 400,000 miles.” The initial plan was set to use SpaceX’s Dragon Crew Capsule and Falcon Heavy Rocket in much the same way as Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. There has been a hold up, as expected, with their progress. Whilst the Dragon capsule has been to the ISS multiple times on cargo missions, SpaceX decided to phase out the Falcon Heavy, which infamously transported a Tesla to orbit the Sun, and use the BFR instead. The BFR, known by many as the Big Fucking Rocket, had been in the minds of Musk and developers since 2012 but as of yet no flight testing has been done with Musk confirming that “construction of the first prototype spaceship is in progress.”

This week, September 17th 2018, Musk unveiled the new BFR model to the media. The spacecraft is built to hold one hundred people at around 180 foot long. Musk was full of pride when faced with the world’s journalists and cameras, “I think this design is probably on par with the other one. It might be better. It’s slightly riskier technically, because of coupling legs and sort of the activating wing-fin flaps. But I think it’s the right decision overall. I think it look’s beautiful. I love the Tintin rocket design, so I kind of wanted to bias it towards that. If in doubt, go with Tintin.”

The main reason the media was called to the SpaceX headquarters on Rocket Road, California, was for SpaceX and Musk to announce that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is to be the first consumer to embark on a lunar expedition using the BFR.  With the announcement so recent not much is known about the logistics but Maezawa hopes the date will be 2023. It is also not known how much Maezawa has or is willing to pay for such a trip but it is rumoured to be significant in helping finance BFR development and SpaceX evolution.

Maezawa, left, and Musk, right, after their 2018 announcement. Source: Yusaku Maezawa

On an official site created by Maezawa after the announcement, #dearmoon, he outlines his aims for the forthcoming project, “In 2023, artists representing the Earth will head for the moon. A painter, musician, film director, fashion designer… some of Earth’s greatest talents will board a spacecraft and be inspired in a way they have never been before. During the week long spaceflight, what will they see? What will they feel? And what will they create? An awe-inspiring, global, universal arts project is about to begin.” Whilst Maezawa’s mission is clear and to be appreciated, his faith and investment in space consumerism is astounding and important. A futuristic and ambitious industry spring-boarded at the start of the century and, after almost two decades of research and development, success and struggle, now sees its launch sequence commencing. The countdown has begun.

This segment of The Mind List is dedicated to Christa McAuliffe, Michael Alsbury, and the three Scaled Composite employees that lost their lives during the story of space consumerism.

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