The battle has begun. While the recent ‘visit’ to space by British billionaire Richard Branson is the latest chapter in the new plot of commercial space tourism, it seems clear that the next few months, even years, the topic seems destined to make big headlines and controversial parties.
Despite being a business that has been active for more than two decades, it is now, when tycoons like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or Branson himself, with their own space vehicles, are taking off on their aircrafts (and all the marketing) from one one of the most promising booming sectors with a potential market of 10 billion dollars.
But what is the real future of this industry?
It was the nineties when Russia, still preserving the infrastructures of the space race but plunged into an enormous crisis after the disintegration of the USSR, considered freeing one of the seats of its Soyuz spacecraft – which until recently have transported the more than six hundred astronauts who have passed through the International Space Station (ISS) – to bring, with millionaire payment, people who, simply for pleasure, wanted to visit space.
This is how Dennis Tito, an American magnate and former NASA engineer, became the first space tourist in April 2001, after paying around $ 20 million to the Russian Federal Space Agency. “I come from paradise, despite being exhausted, sweaty and so weak that I could not get out of the Soyuz capsule on my own,” said Tito when landing on the ground after spending six days on the ISS. After him, six more people would make the same stay – sometimes even longer – paying up to $ 40 million for that coveted seat.
In parallel, the aeronautical industry developed space planes with which costs were reduced, although they barely crossed the now famous Kármán line, or the limit at which the International Aeronautical Federation indicates that space begins, at an altitude of 100 kilometers over the surface.
On October 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne, guided by veteran test pilot Mike Melville, then 63 years old, became the first privately funded manned space vehicle to cross the border, at 103 kilometers high.
New era of space tourism
All of this laid the foundations for the current “new era of space tourism”, as Ana Bru, a space flight agent in Spain and Andorra for Virgin Galactic, describes the present moment, a company that experienced one of its most glorious moments, when its space plane, baptized as Unity, rose 88 kilometers from the ground, achieving three minutes of weightlessness in a flight of 15 minutes total duration.
“It was very exciting. After waiting so many years, it has finally come true,” she says, who also together with her husband booked one of the company’s future flights into space more than a decade ago. Since then, she and the more than 600 people who have booked the ticket (priced between $ 200,000 and $ 250,000) have created an ever-communicating community of space enthusiasts that has come together to celebrate Branson’s own birthday.
“There have been difficult moments, it is true,” says Bru referring to the failed test of 2014, in which the prototype aircraft exploded, resulting in the death of pilot Michael Alsbury, “but this is proof that we are at the beginning of a new space age. Richard [Branson] is excited. ” And Bru knows this first-hand, because the owner of Virgin Galactic, with whom she maintains a close relationship, held an online meeting with the company’s ‘family’ to tell them about his feelings. «It bothers me that it is thought that this is just a frivolity of people with money. This goes further, because the theme of traveling into space is not improvised ».
Branson’s ‘space surprise’ to Bezos
Branson, whose intention was to fly in late summer, pushed the date forward after the news was made public that Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and the Blue Origin company, tested his own ship, the New Shepard, coinciding with the 52nd anniversary of the arrival of man on the moon.
Bezos traveled with his brother and two other passengers, the octogenarian pilot Wally Funk, who was left out of the US space program due to gender issues in the 1960s; and the young Oliver Daemen, the Dutch student whose father had bought the ticket for a figure that has not transpired.
But despite this ‘spatial surprise’ of dates, Bezos wished Branson luck, although not without pointing out the differences between the two experiences. And the truth is that the proposals differ in important points: the reusable New Shepard spacecraft – a rocket probe and not a space plane, like Virgin Galactic’s – does not need a pilot, has undergone triple the number of tests and will reach 106 kilometers. As for tickets, Bezos has only put up for sale one seat of the four that make up the crew of the inaugural flight, acquired at an auction for $ 28 million.
Elon Musk, with his head on Mars
The third party in contention in this emerging market is Elon Musk. The creator of Paypal, Tesla, Hyperloop and, of course, SpaceX has set his goals further than the others and even dreams of creating the first human colony to Mars (advancing that he is “very sure” that he will be able to send to the first people to the Red Planet in 2026 or even earlier and, in fact, their wish is literally to die there).
At this moment, he has an agreement with NASA to transport American astronauts to the ISS on its Crew Dragon ship – which will no longer depend on the Russian Soyuz – and with other private companies, such as Axiom Space, created by two partners, one of them the exastronaut of Spanish origin Miguel López-Alegría, who traveled to space under the acronym of the US space agency in 1995, before Pedro Duque.
In fact, he will be the one who will man the first commercial flight of the Crew Dragon bound for the ISS next January, along with three other millionaires who have paid 55 million dollars for the experience. And Axiom is also contemplating the creation of the first commercial space station, which will carry out “microgravity experiments, fabrication in space, critical exploration life support, testing and hosting of institutional private and professional astronauts.”
International space tourism
“This is not a race between millionaires, there is a latent demand,” says José Mariano López-Urdiales, creator of the company Zero 2 Infinity, a Spanish firm that uses balloons to send cargo into space and, soon, according to its owner without give specific dates, humans. And what is the true value for the space tourist? The views. People want to see that the Earth is round, blue, that we are inside the same ‘ship’. When astronauts return to Earth, then they talk about the experience for years. There must be a reason”. This aerospace engineer presents a different concept to the previous ones: the idea is to launch a pressurized capsule into space in a balloon up to 36 kilometers high, stay there for two hours, and go down again.
“From that height you can already see the curvature of the Earth and absolute black,” says López-Urdiales, who refers us to the images of Félix Baumgartner, the paratrooper who in 2012 broke three historical records by launching in free fall from almost 39 kilometers at more than 1,350 kilometers per hour after having gone up in a manned balloon. The price of the ticket: 110,000 euros, although it is still in the testing phase.
A very similar concept presents EOS-X Space, although, according to its creator, Kemel Kharbachi, more “immersive” and for a price of 150,000 euros per person -the first tests, according to Kharbachi, will begin in October and one of its headquarters will be Seville-. And there are other projects underway, such as that of the Gateway Foundation, which wants to inaugurate in 2027 the first space hotel in the stratosphere with an area of 50,000 square meters and capacity for 440 people.
But it’s not just private companies and billionaires who win from these flights. Science can also take advantage of them. A clear example is that of Álvaro Romero, an aerospace engineer doing a doctorate in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, and who will shortly launch his experiment of electrolysis of water – extracting hydrogen and oxygen through magnets – in microgravity.
“I understand who sees space tourism as an unnecessary activity for a privileged few,” says Romero. But on the other hand, the rise of all these suborbital companies is proving very positive for the development of terrestrial observation systems, basic science research, or the preparation of technologies for interplanetary travel, among others. It gives us more launch options with higher frequencies and lower cost, which allows us to accelerate the testing of new technologies. And let’s not forget, it is a tremendous source of inspiration for future generations. Not everything is pleasure in space, certainly.