Ilida Alvarez has dreamed of traveling to space since she was a child. But Alvarez, a legal-mediation firm owner, is afraid of flying, and she isn’t a billionaire – two facts that she was sure, until just a few weeks ago, would keep her fantasy as out of reach as the stars. She was wrong.
Alvarez, 46, and her husband, Rafael Landestoy, recently booked a flight on a 10-person pressurized capsule that – attached to a massive helium-filled balloon – will gently float to 100,000 feet while passengers sip champagne and recline in ergonomic chairs. The reservation required a $500 deposit; the flight itself will cost $50,000 and last six to 12 hours.
“I feel like it was tailor-made for the chickens like me who don’t want to get on a rocket,” said Alvarez, whose flight, organized by a company called World View, is scheduled to depart from the Grand Canyon in 2024.
Less than a year after Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson kicked off a commercial space race by blasting into the upper atmosphere within weeks of each other last summer, the global space tourism market is skyrocketing, with dozens of companies now offering reservations for everything from zero-pressure balloon trips to astronaut boot camps and simulated zero-gravity flights.
But don’t don your spacesuit just yet. While the financial services company UBS estimates the space travel market will be worth $3 billion by 2030, the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to approve most out-of-this-world trips, and construction has not started on the first space hotel. And while access and options – not to mention launchpads – are burgeoning, space tourism remains astronomically expensive for most.
First, what counts as space travel?
Sixty miles (about 100 kilometers) above our heads lies the Kármán line, the widely accepted aeronautical boundary of the earth’s atmosphere. It’s the boundary used by the Féderátion Aéronautique Internationale, which certifies and controls global astronautical records. But many organizations in the United States, including the FAA and NASA, define everything above 50 miles to be space.
Much of the attention has been focused on a trio of billionaire-led rocket companies: Bezos’ Blue Origin, whose passengers have included William Shatner of “Star Trek” fame; Branson’s Virgin Galactic, where tickets for a suborbital spaceflight start at $450,000; and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which in September launched an all-civilian spaceflight, with no trained astronauts on board. Branson’s inaugural Virgin Galactic flight in 2021 reached about 53 miles, while Blue Origin flies above the 62-mile mark. Both are eclipsed by SpaceX, whose rockets charge far deeper in to the cosmos, reaching more than 120 miles above Earth.
Balloons, like those operated by World View, don’t go nearly as high. But even at their maximum altitude of 18 or 19 miles, operators say they float high enough to show travelers the curvature of the planet, and give them a chance to experience the overview effect – an intense perspective shift that many astronauts say kicks in when you view Earth from above.
Now, how to get there …
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, which are both licensed for passenger space travel by the FAA, are open for ticket sales. (Blue Origin remains mum on pricing.) Both companies have hundreds or even thousands of earthlings on their wait lists for a whirl to the edge of space. SpaceX charges tens of millions of dollars for its further-reaching flights and is building a new facility in Texas that is under FAA review.
Craig Curran is a major space enthusiast – he’s held a reserved seat on a Virgin Galactic flight since 2011 – and the owner of Deprez Travel in Rochester, New York. The travel agency has a special space travel arm, Galactic Experiences by Deprez, through which Curran sells everything from rocket launch tickets to astronaut training.
Sales in the space tourism space, Curran acknowledges, “are reasonably difficult to make,” and mostly come from peer-to-peer networking. “You can imagine that people who spend $450,000 to go to space probably operate in circles that are not the same as yours and mine,” he said.
Some of Curran’s most popular offerings include flights where you can experience the same stomach-dropping feeling of zero gravity that astronauts feel in space, which he arranges for clients via chartered, specialized Boeing 727s that are flown in parabolic arcs to mimic being in space. Operators including Zero G also offer the service; the cost is around $8,200.
You can almost count the number of completed space tourist launches on one hand – Blue Origin has had four; SpaceX, two. Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, on Thursday announced the launch of its commercial passenger service, previously scheduled for late 2022, was delayed until early 2023. Many of those on waiting lists are biding their time before blastoff by signing up for training. Axiom Space, which contracts with SpaceX, offers NASA-partnered training at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Virgin Galactic, which already offers a “customized Future Astronaut Readiness program” at its Spaceport America facility in New Mexico, is also partnering with NASA to build a training program for private astronauts.
Would-be space tourists should not expect the rigor that NASA astronauts face. Training for Virgin Galactic’s three-hour trips is included in the cost of a ticket and lasts a handful of days; it includes pilot briefings and being “fitted for your bespoke Under Armour spacesuit and boots,” according to its website.
Not ready for a rocket? Balloon rides offer a less hair-raising celestial experience.
“We go to space at 12 miles an hour, which means that it’s very smooth and very gentle. You’re not rocketing away from Earth,” said Jane Poynter, a co-founder and co-CEO of Space Perspective, which is readying its own touristic balloon spaceship, Spaceship Neptune. If all goes according to plan, voyages are scheduled to begin departing from Florida in 2024, at a cost of $125,000 per person. That’s a fraction of the price tag for Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, but still more than double the average annual salary of an American worker.
Neither Space Perspective nor World View has the required approval yet from the FAA to operate flights.
Whether a capsule or a rocket is your transport, the travel insurance company battleface launched a civilian space insurance plan in late 2021, a direct response, said CEO Sasha Gainullin, to an increase in space tourism interest and infrastructure. Benefits include accidental death and permanent disablement in space and are valid for spaceflights on operators like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, as well as on stratospheric balloon rides. They’ve had many inquiries, Gainullin said, but no purchases just yet.
“Right now it’s such high-net-worth individuals who are traveling to space, so they probably don’t need insurance,” he said. “But for quote-unquote regular travelers, I think we’ll see some takeups soon.”
And as the industry grows, so perhaps will space travel’s effect on the environment. Not only do rocket launches have immense carbon footprints, even some stratospheric balloon flights have potentially significant implications: World View’s balloons are powered by thousands of cubic meters of helium, which is a limited resource. But Ted Parson, a professor of environmental law at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that space travel’s environmental impact is still dwarfed by civil aviation. And because space travel is ultra-niche, he believes it’s likely to stay that way.
“Despite extensive projections, space tourism is likely to remain a tiny fraction of commercial space exploration,” he said. “It reminds me of tourism on Mt. Everest. It’s the indulgence of very rich people seeking a transcendent, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the local environmental burden is intense.”
Stay a while?
In the future, space enthusiasts insist, travelers won’t be traveling to space just for the ride. They’ll want to stay a while. Orbital Assembly Corp., a manufacturing company whose goal is to colonize space, is building the world’s first space hotels – two ring-shaped properties that will orbit Earth, called Pioneer Station and Voyager Station. The company, quite optimistically, projects an opening date of 2025 for Pioneer Station, with a capacity of 28 guests. The design for the larger Voyager Station, which they say will open in 2027, promises villas and suites, as well as a gym, restaurant and bar. Both provide the ultimate luxury: simulated gravity. Axiom Space, a space infrastructure company, is building the world’s first private space station; plans include Philippe Starck-designed accommodations for travelers to spend the night.
Joshua Bush, CEO of travel agency Avenue Two Travel, has sold a handful of seats on upcoming Virgin Galactic flights to customers. The market for space travel (and the sky-high prices that come with it), he believes, will evolve much like civilian air travel did.
“In the beginning of the 20th century, only very affluent people could afford to fly,” he said. “Just as we have Spirit and Southwest Airlines today, there will be some sort of equivalent of that in space travel, too. Hopefully within my lifetime.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.