Ilida Alvarez has dreamed of traveling to space since she was a child. But Alvarez, the owner of a legal mediation firm, is afraid of flying and is not a billionaire, two facts that made her certain, until just a few weeks ago, that her fantasy would be as elusive as the stars. But she was very wrong.
Alvarez, 46, and her husband, Rafael Landestoy, recently made reservations for a flight in a 10-person pressurized capsule that — tethered to a huge helium-filled balloon — will float peacefully 100,000 feet as passengers they sip champagne and recline in ergonomic chairs. Reservation requires a $500 deposit; the flight itself will cost 50,000 and will last between 6 and 12 hours.
“I feel like it was tailored for scaredy people 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 take off from the Grand Canyon in 2024.
Less than a year after Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson launched a commercial space race by launching into the upper atmosphere within weeks of each other last summer, the global market for space tourism is soaring, with dozens of companies now offering all kinds of activities, from zero-pressure balloon rides to astronaut training camps and simulated zero-gravity flights.
But don’t put on your astronaut suit yet. Although the financial services company UBS estimates that the space travel market will be worth $3 billion by 2030, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not yet approved most space travel. of this world and the construction of the first space hotel has not yet begun. And while access and choice — not to mention launch pads — are flourishing, space tourism remains astronomically expensive for most.
First, what is considered space travel?
About 100 kilometers above our heads is the Kármán Line, the most accepted aeronautical limit of the Earth’s atmosphere. It is the demarcation used by the Féderátion Aéronautique Internationale, which certifies and controls the world’s astronautical registries.
But many organizations in the United States, such as the FAA and NASA, define anything beyond 80 kilometers as space.
Much of the attention has focused on a trio of rocket companies run by billionaires: Bezos’ Blue Origin, whose passengers include William Shatner, famous for his role in the TV series “Star Trek.” ; Branson’s Virgin Galactic, whose cheapest suborbital spaceflight tickets are $450,000; and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which in September launched a spaceflight with all-civilian passengers, with no trained astronauts on board. Branson’s inaugural Virgin Galactic flight in 2021 reached just over 85 kilometers, while Blue Origin flies over 100 kilometers. Both are dwarfed by SpaceX, whose rockets reach much further into the cosmos, reaching more than 120 miles above Earth.
Balloons, like those operated by World View, don’t go that far. But even at their maximum altitude of 18 or 18 miles, operators say they hover high enough to show travelers the curvature of the planet, and give them a chance to experience panning, an intense perspective shift that many astronauts say that occurs when viewing the Earth from above.
Now, how to get there…
Tickets for Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, both licensed by the FAA for space travel with commercial passengers, are on sale now (Blue Origin has declined to say anything about their prices). The two companies have hundreds or even thousands of Earthlings on their waiting lists to travel to the threshold of space. SpaceX charges tens of millions of dollars for its farthest flights and is building a new facility in Texas that is being evaluated by the FAA.
Craig Curran, owner of Deprez Travel in Rochester, New York, is a huge space enthusiast and has had a reserved seat on a Virgin Galactic flight since 2011. The travel agency has a branch dedicated to space travel, Galactic Experiences by Deprez , through which Curran sells everything from rocket launch tickets to astronaut training.
Curran acknowledges that sales in the space tourism industry “are pretty hard to come by,” and that most of it comes from networks of friends. “You can assume that the people who spend $450,000 to go into space are probably moving in circles that are not the same circles that you or I are in,” he said.
Some of Curran’s most popular offerings are flights where you can experience the same feeling in your stomach that astronauts feel in space when reaching a state of zero gravity. He arranges these for his clients with specialized, chartered Boeing 727 planes that travel in parabolic arcs to mimic the feeling of being in space. Operators like Zero G also offer this service; the cost is around 8200 dollars.
You can almost count on one hand the number of launches that have been made with space tourists: Blue Origin has made four; SpaceX, two. Virgin Galactic, for its part, announced Thursday that the launch of its commercial passenger service, previously planned for late 2022, would be delayed until early 2023. Many of those on the waiting list are biding their time before liftoff by signing up. in training courses. Axiom Space, which has a contract with SpaceX, offers joint training with NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Virgin Galactic, which already has a “customized future astronaut preparation program” at its Spaceport America facility in New Mexico, will also partner with NASA to create a private astronaut training program.
Not willing to get on a rocket? Balloon rides offer a less dizzying celestial experience.
“We’re going into space at 12 miles per hour, which means it’s very smooth and very quiet. It’s not like you’re flying away from Earth on a rocket,” said Jane Poynter, co-founder and co-CEO of Space Perspective, which is building its own balloon-shaped tourist spaceship, Spaceship Neptune. If all goes according to plan, the trips are expected to depart from Florida in 2024, costing $125,000 per person.
It’s a fraction of the price of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, but it’s still more than double the average annual salary of an American worker.
Neither Space Perspective nor World View yet have the necessary FAA approval to operate flights.
Whether you’re flying in a capsule or a rocket, travel insurance company battleface launched a space insurance plan for civilians in late 2021, a direct response, CEO Sasha Gainullin said, to increased interest and infrastructure in space tourism. The benefits include accidental death and permanent disability in space and are valid for space flights with operators such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, as well as for stratospheric balloon rides. Lots of people have shown interest, Gainullin said, but there have been no sales yet.
“Right now it’s high-net-worth people going into space, so they probably don’t need insurance,” he said. “But for ordinary travelers, quote unquote, I think we’re going to see some acquisitions soon.”
Stay a little longer?
In the future, space enthusiasts insist, travelers won’t just go to space to wander around. They will want to stay for 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 in 2025 for the Pioneer Station, with a capacity of 28 guests.