Blue Origin, a company with ambitions to launch private citizens 62 miles above the earth for trips of four minutes at a time, made aerospace history Monday when it successfully landed a rocket that has traveled into sub-orbital space.
Led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin would like to transform space tourism from the stuff of fantasy into viable business, available to the public like a luxury vacation.
But the recent history of tourism beyond Earth’s atmosphere offers a daunting reminder of the challenges ahead for Bezos and his competitors, like Elon Musk of SpaceX — who’s not above engaging in Twitter beefs — in this new space race.
The facts are that only 551 people have ever journeyed to space. Just seven of them were private citizens, and they paid at least $20 million each to spend up to 10 days embedded with astronauts on the International Space Station.
During the 1960s, space tourism was viewed of as an industry that would one day balloon. Defunct U.S. airliner Pan-Am maintained a waiting list for eventual trips to the moon, while futurists forecasted that lunar colonies would be established by the year 2000. (Instead, we were concerned with this in the year 2000. ¯_(ツ)_/¯.)
Here is a brief history of space tourism, including some of its successes, failures, and notable events:
Charles D. Walker becomes first non-government employed astronaut in space: This sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, but Walker’s first expedition as a payload specialist in 1984 marks the beginning of private capital’s infusion with space exploration, and for that, he makes the list. Walker flew three times between 1984-85 as an employee of McDonnell Douglas, an aerospace technology manufacturer and defense contractor. At the time, McDonnell Douglas didn’t have any further plans to chart the universe in the name of corporate branding, but its involvement with NASA in the 1980s did suggest, albeit indirectly, that space might possibly be an object of desire for the billionaire class in coming decades.
Founding of Space Adventures: Amid the noise made by entrepreneurs scheming to kickstart tourism in space, Space Adventures, founded in 1998, is the only company to ever send private citizens beyond the stratosphere. According to Space Adventures, its clients, who range from just wealthy, to both overwhelmingly and gratuitously wealthy, “have cumulatively spent close to three months in space and traveled over 36 million miles.” Space Adventures charges anywhere from $20 million to $40 million for its services, which include a 10-day vacation in zero gravity at the International Space Station.
SpaceShip Two Crash: No one is more verbose than Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson, and no disaster cast as dark a shadow over the idea of space tourism as did the fiery crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two. Branson’s typical positivity gave way to grief as SpaceShip Two came plummeting to the earth in October of 2014, killing one pilot and severely injuring another. Writing in response to the event, Branson questioned “whether in fact it was right to be backing the development of something that could result in such tragic circumstances.” The realities of space exploration, let alone for the potential of tragedy affecting the private citizens involved, hit home in a very real way.
Lance Bass…in Space!: Lance Bass toured the world with his fresh-face and frosted-tips as part of amazing boy band NSYNC, but when it came to blasting off into low-orbit space with help from the Russian Space Agency, he was less successful. Although he made millions as a platinum-selling pop star, Bass’ money wasn’t long enough for the Russians, who had coordinated an expedition with the singer in 2002. Bass was expected to cough up $20 million for the endeavor, but Russia wanted more to compensate for rigorous training. Bass was unwilling, and the whole ordeal is one of the best pop-culture-bridging-science fiascos of the early aughts (or ever?).
The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster: In the 1980s, NASA had Space Flight Participant programs that enabled lucky citizens to partake in missions without any kind of government or scientific job to perform. As part of NASA’s Teacher in Space program, Christa McAuliffe was chosen from a dense pool of over 11,000 applicants to serve as a payload specialist. The Challenger tragically disintegrated a little over a minute after takeoff, killing all seven crew members. After the 1986 Challenger disaster, NASA cancelled all of its Space Flight Participant Programs.
SpaceX is Founded in 2002: Elon Musk spread his entrepreneurship into the realm of space exploration when he started SpaceX, which soon became one of the preeminent corporations vying for prestigious government contracts. While success has been attained — SpaceX crews are primed to visit the International Space Station in 2017 as part of a NASA mission — Musk’s plans to pivot the company toward space tourism, while certainly a possibility, haven’t really been addressed. Musk has however made frequent mention of spearheading a colony on Mars, orchestrated by SpaceX. “At Mars, you can start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big,” Musk said in November of 2012. While that’s not a direct allusion to space tourism, SpaceX did issue a note on its 10-year anniversary, pledging again to make “the human race a multi-planetary species,” which, if attained, would make space tourism a no-brainer.
Dennis Tito Becomes First Private Citizen to Fund His Own Space Trip: Multimillionaire Dennis Tito financed his own trip to space, cutting a cool $20 million to Space Adventures to spend eight days observing scientists in the International Space Station. Tito, who was originally accepted by the Russian Space Agency as a commercial flight candidate, had some problems with NASA while training for the American portion of his visit to the ISS. So being ever-the-businessman, Tito abandoned the original mission, and linked up with Space Adventures, where he blasted off onboard the Soyuz TM-32 rocket ship in 2001.
He gave the mission a thumbs-up.
Blue Origin Launches and Lands First Reusable Rocket:
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company Blue Origin landed the first reusable rocket ship in history on November 23, 2015. For a company primed to shuttle space tourism into modern age, the news is huge, given that reusable rockets are an economic “game-changer,” as Bezos put it. Blue Origin, with its ultimate mission of facilitating “millions of people living and working in space,” intends to launch capsules of tourists into low orbit space for four minutes at a time.