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2022 the year of private astronauts

2022 the year of private astronauts

By definition, space tourism is human space travel for recreational purposes, something that is now available for anyone who can afford the tickets. The choice is whether one wants to stop for a brief moment to look back on Earth from the edge of it, or to spend more time in space at the International Space Station including activities such as spacewalk.

Space travel is the total opposite of underwater discovery, a great adventure and a memorable experience that  was limited only for astronauts in the past sixty years. Luckily, the technological race reached out to the public sector as well, creating lifetime opportunities for those who have the desire to get a different perspective of our planet.

When we talk about human space travel, we need to differentiate several different types of space tourism, including orbital, sub-orbital, space, and lunar space tourism. Each of them refers to the distance from the sea level of mother Earth.

An orbital flight is a spaceflight on the boundary of space, in which a spacecraft is placed on a trajectory where it could remain in space for at least one orbit. To do this around the Earth, the spaceship has to reach an altitude at the closest approach around 80 km (50 mi). To remain in orbit at this altitude requires an orbital speed of ~7.8 km/s.

A sub-orbital spaceflight is a spaceflight in which the spacecraft reaches outer space, an altitude of about 100 km (62 mi). This altitude is called the Kármán line (named after Theodore von Kármán) and it is a working definition for the boundary between aeronautics and astronautics. Interestingly, an object launched from Earth that reaches the Kármán line will always fall back to Earth.

Space tourism starts at an altitude of 150 kilometres (93 mi), which marks the end of the atmospheric drag. Since 2001, more than two decades now, there is also a possibility to travel to the International Space Station (ISS). The first space tourist on ISS was Dennis Anthony Tito, an American engineer, and entrepreneur who spent nearly eight days in orbit as a crew member of ISS EP-1.

Orbital flights, sub-orbital flights, and space tourism are all available today. Yet, lunar space tourism is still  another two decades away. 

Astronaut training
Astronaut training / Photo credit: Blue Origin

Orbital and Sub-orbital flights

When it comes to suborbital flights, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are the two most important players. Blue Origin was established in 2000 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, while Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004 by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson.

Jeff Bezos’ company has developed a spacecraft, New Shepard, — named after astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space, — that takes off and lands vertically and can carry four people to the edge of space, just above the Kármán line. 

Blue Origin rescheduled the original 2018 date for the first passengers several times, and eventually successfully flew its first crewed mission on July 20, 2021. The flight was approximately 10 minutes, successfully crossed the Kármán Line, and Jeff Bezos was part of the four-member crew along with his brother Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen.

Bezos’ greatest competition is Sir Richard Branson, who had a long personal history of balloon and surface record-breaking activities before he founded Virgin Galactic. In their sub-orbital race, Branson even managed for Virgin Galactic to become the first spaceflight company to independently launch a civilian into space just nine days before Blue Origin.

Richard Branson Welcomes VSS Unity
Richard Branson Welcomes VSS Unity Home from Second Supersonic Flight. May 29th 2018 / Photo credit: Virgin Galactic

Branson took a slightly different approach as he uses aircraft for commercial space travel.  Similar to Bezos, he also joined  the first sub-orbital flight  of Virgin Galactic, reaching out to the Kármán line. Branson, three other employee passengers, and the two pilots experienced approximately three minutes of weightlessness above Earth’s atmosphere. The entire flight lasted approximately one hour, from taking off to landing.

Virgin Galactic Spaceship Cabin
Virgin Galactic Spaceship Cabin Interior / Photo credit: Virgin Galactic

Over 600 commercial passengers have already signed up for Virgin Galactic, and since the successful first flight, the initial 200,000 USD commercial spaceflight ticket price has been hiked up to 450,000 USD per person.

Space tourism

For those who want to travel truly out of the space over the Kármán line, and not just for a short amount of time (typically less than 10 minutes), private space travel is the solution. It is also possible to spend days on the International Space Station at a staggering altitude of 422 km (262.2 mi) from the Earth.

Space Adventures is an American space tourism company founded in 1998 by Eric C. Anderson, which offers zero-gravity atmospheric flights with the option to participate in a spacewalk that allows participants to spend up to 1.5 hours outside the space station. 

The level of experience to travel to the ISS is so unique that they even have a returning space traveller who took two separate trips to space. The company’s advisory board included Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, and numerous astronauts and cosmonauts.

Their first client was Dennis Anthony Tito, who reportedly paid 20 million USD to become the first space tourist. Tito participated in Space Adventures’ other programs, including a zero-gravity flight, centrifuge training, and a supersonic jet flight before his space flight.

On June 7, 2019, NASA also announced that starting in 2020, it aims to start allowing private astronauts to go on the International Space Station, with the use of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. NASA’s space travel ticket is planned to be priced at 35,000 USD per day for one astronaut, and an estimated 50 million USD for the ride there and back.

Virgin Galactic's First Spaceflight
Virgin Galactic’s First Spaceflight on December 13th 2018 / Photo credit: Virgin Galactic

Spending time at the International Space Station is one of the most exciting public human spaceflight programs and it is no wonder that new competitors are joining as well. One of them is Axiom Space, founded in 2016 by Michael T. Suffredini and Kam Ghaffarian with a leadership team  largely composed of former NASA employees. Axiom is offering commercial, 10-day missions to the International Space Station and aims to own and operate the world’s first commercial space station in 2024.

Since 2021, SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk also offers alternatives for those who are not so keen to spend their days on the ISS but still want to experience spaceflights. The first of these missions completed with four, only private citizens aboard was about three days long. The Inspiration4 flight reached an orbital altitude of approximately 585 km (364 mi), the highest achieved since STS-103 in 1999 and the fifth-highest Earth orbital human spaceflight overall.

Lunar space tourism

For many generations, the Moon landing was the greatest human achievement in space. 

Human beings are genetically programmed as explorers. Since the dawn of the civilisation we always looked over the horizon to explore the new, and driven by this eagerness finally  reached out into the universe, beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

The way was paved by a terrier dog, plucked from the streets of Moscow, named Laika back in 1957, and followed into orbit four years later by the first human, Soviet Cosmonaut, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin.

While the former Soviet Union won the first step of the space race to send a human being to space, in their rivalry in a global struggle for power, the American NASA decided to turn their attention to the Moon landing. The United States landed two astronauts on its stark surface in 1969, and five more manned missions followed.

Just a year before, during the Apollo 8 mission, the first human spaceflight to reach the Moon without landing, astronaut William Anders took an iconic photo called Earthrise. It is a photograph of Earth and some of the Moon’s surface that was taken from the lunar orbit on December 24, 1968. 

Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. / Photo credit: NASA

Even if Anders’ colour image had been preceded by a crude black-and-white 1966 raster image taken by the Lunar Orbiter 1 robotic probe, the first American spacecraft to orbit the Moon, the Earthrise remains one of the most iconic photographs ever taken. It simply captures the dream to look back onto Earth from a different angle.

This also raises the question, why can’t we put a space station or a space hotel on the Moon? 

Well, in the history of human space flights, we have only managed to put astronauts on the Moon six times so far. These Moon landings took place in three years  between 1969 and 1972 and were part of a series of space missions called the Apollo missions.

The type of rocket used for the Moon travels was  extremely powerful even with modern standards. At the moment, nobody makes a rocket powerful enough to get people to the Moon.

Also, the International Space Station was made on Earth piece by piece and small parts taken into space and then assembled by astronauts. To build a Moon station would require numerous trips between the Moon and the Earth which also raises other problems. The International Space Station is only 422 km (262.2 mi) from the surface of the Earth, while the Moon is 384,000 km (238,606.5 mi). Each trip to the Moon would take about three days and would require incredible amounts of fuel, potentially adding to climate problems on Earth.

Scientists are experimenting on Lunar concrete which is being tested on Earth as a possible building material. They also need to think about what astronauts staying at the Moon station would need, including food supply, electricity to power equipment and breathable air. 

In May 2019, Jeff Bezos unveiled Blue Origin’s vision for space and also plans for a crew-carrying moon lander known as “Blue Moon”. 

Currently, SpaceX and NASA are also planning to create newer and bigger rockets that are capable of taking the astronauts on  new missions to the Moon. The lunar space travel race is on…

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity’s 7th Glide Flight in Mojave, CA on Jan. 11, 2018. Photo credit: Virgin Galactic

Criticism over the term  “space tourism”

As we are experiencing a new and exciting era for humans, not everyone is happy with space tourism. 

The study funded by NASA and The Aerospace Corporation in 2010, simulated the impact of 1,000 sub-orbital launches of hybrid rockets from a single location, calculating that this would release a total of 600 tonnes of black carbon into the stratosphere, creating a large-scale of environmental disruption. However,  researchers stressed that these results should not be taken as “a precise forecast of the climate response to a specific launch rate of a specific rocket type”.

Many private space travellers had already objected to the term space tourist, and preferred to be called “private astronaut”. They often point out that their role went beyond that of an observer since they also carried out scientific experiments in the course of their journey.

For private space travellers, the official term used by NASA is “Spaceflight participant”, the Russian Federal Space Agency uses the term “Private space travellers”, while the US Federal Aviation Administration awards the title of “Commercial astronaut” to trained crew members of privately funded spacecraft.

It goes without question that the space race of the 1960s is living its renaissance, with more and more participants on the horizon, bringing the space closer to all of us. Private space travellers are pioneers and modern-day Columbuses who are discovering the unknown, opening up the way towards something new.