Anyone who has dreamed of traveling into space could get the opportunity as soon as next year, said representatives of four major private spaceflight companies at an annual space conference earlier this week. And best of all, they are looking for “regular people” — assuming they can cough up the money — to do it.
Speaking on Monday at the International Astronautical Congress were representatives from Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company started by the ageless British impresario Richard Branson; Blue Origin, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s true passion project; aerospace giant Boeing; and its rival Lockheed Martin.
These presentations weren’t meant to provide rigorous reviews of the company’s new technologies, nor were there any prices discussed. Rather, the company reps gathered in Australia to address an enthusiastic crowd of space geeks who wanted to learn about the latest in aerospace tech and dream a little trips to near-zero gravity.
These trips to space are anticipated to go on sale in 2018, giving adventure seekers the chance to see their personal “overview effect”, and maybe, when they land back on Earth, to feel a little nicer about our planet after seeing it from above.
Ultimately, a trip beyond the Kármán Line — the border between the Earth’s atmosphere and the blackness of space 100 kilometers above sea level — could become the hottest tourist destination, or at least the most sought-after one, by 2020.
In addition to raising money that could fund research to build better rockets, space tourism is about “democratizing” access to space, said Virgin Galactic’s Rich DalBello. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in February two private citizens had already put down a “significant deposit” for a trip around the moon scheduled for late 2018.
“We’re not looking for superheroes,” DalBello said. “We’re looking for regular people who want to go to space. What we’re trying to do is create an experience that can be shared with people of all different ages, shapes, sizes, and fitness levels.”
These companies are tasked with finding the right balance between providing a once-in-a-lifetime tourism opportunity and ensuring the safety of those they’re launching into space. But the Federal Aviation Administration, the government body responsible for regulating flight, has yet to provide specific guidelines for this still-young industry. This means these aviation companies are largely on their own to decide what safety standards and requirements they want to put in place, FAA regulator George Nield said during the event this week.
Now it’s easier than ever to go into space — all participants technically need to do is sign a piece of paper.
See for yourself what these companies are doing in their next ventures to launch people into space:
1. Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule
The company’s capsule seats six people for an 11-minute flight from launch to landing, said Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell, Head of Business Development & Strategy. Participants would fly into Texas, where the company currently tests its spacecrafts. In a short day-and-a-half of training, customers would practice breathing, emergency protocol, and etiquette for experiencing zero gravity in the capsule at the same time as five others. The New Shepard rocket is made for suborbital flight, meaning it never goes fast enough to launch into orbit and why it’s able to reenter the atmosphere so quickly.
Cornell did not reveal how much the New Shepard trips would cost, but reiterated the Blue Origin company line that envisions “millions of people living and working in space.” The company announced in October 2016 that it would send up the first space tourists in 2018, a prediction it stuck with this week.
2. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo
This six-passenger flight is also suborbital, but the entire trip is two hours long. Testing occurs in southern California but commercial flights will launch out of New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic is moving next year, says DalBello, the company’s vice president of business development and government affairs.
DalBello makes it clear that Virgin Galactic is not trying to compete with NASA, and instead prides itself on launching “regular people” into space and providing experienced staff to help them do it, along with a three-day training program before taking flight.
In April, Branson said in an interview that he hopes to send a crew of humans into space by the end of 2018, and DalBello confirmed that goal. Virgin Galactic has already started to let people sign up — as of April, about 500 customers have each already put down $250,000 per seat.
3. Boeing’s Starliner
The capsule that Boeing is developing to send astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station could also launch tourists into low-Earth orbit, predicts Chris Ferguson, director of crew & mission systems.
NASA awarded a contract to Boeing — as well as Elon Musk’s SpaceX — back in September 2014 to build transportation capsules for the ISS. These two private companies have been battling it out since then for their capsules — Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon — to be first. They have both set summer 2018 as their target for launching humans into space.
The spacecraft is designed to carry five people for a six-month stay aboard the ISS. However, NASA only wants to send up four astronauts, meaning the last spot could be up for grabs for a space tourist. Boeing recently announced it would soon start selling this coveted seat, but refused to yet reveal the price.
Ferguson said that capsule, built to NASA standards, includes numerous new safety measures, including a self-diagnostic testing system, an ejection feature in case of an emergency abort, and a launch pad that’s equipped to land even on water.
4. Lockheed Martin’s Orion
Lockheed is aiming far beyond the Kármán Line and setting its sights on Mars. While the company works with NASA toward launching its deep space vehicle Orion on test flight Exploration Mission 1, which has been pushed back to 2019, they ultimately want to send astronauts to Mars and build a base camp there by 2028.
Plans for NASA’s Orion mission have been in the works for years now, but they’ve been consistently pushed back as NASA quickly uses up its federal funding to build and test its mega-rocket, the -Space Launch System, that will launch Orion into deep space.
Lockheed presented ambitious prototypes of its Mars Base Camp on Thursday at the conference, and its work helping NASA on the Next Step deep space gateway.
NASA and Lockheed hope to land astronauts on Mars’ surface by 2033.
Tony Antonelli, Lockheed’s chief technologist for civil space exploration, provided some details this week of the Mars mission. The spacecraft is designed with numerous capabilities to prepare for any type of situation, equipped with a radiation storm shelter and gear for a water landing. Training for the three-year trip includes everything you’ve learned in “your entire life,” he said.
“You have to be ready to solve real world problems with a ticking clock,” Antonelli said. “I’m convinced it’s not going to be if you have [an emergency] — I’m convinced it’s going to be when and which type on a deep space mission of that length.”
The requirements for such an extensive trip are of course much more far-reaching. Antonelli says astronauts must have excellent fitness levels, knowledge of another language in order to engage on an international mission, “latency robotics” skills, and a “science-oriented mind” that can figure out how to maintain the spacecraft on such a long journey — especially in the very likely event an emergency occurs.