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On July 20, 1969, more than 500 million people held their breath as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon. The idea of conquering space grabbed our attention and has never really let go of our collective psyche.
When NASA retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011, opting instead to outsource future space transportation developments, critics worried that it might be the end of America’s exploration of space. Instead, advancements by private aerospace companies are unveiling new developments at a dizzying pace. With these advancements, citizen astronauts might just be able to add space tourism to their bucket lists by the end of this year.
Virgin GalacticThe most immediate developments are focused on suborbital travel, where spacecraft soar about 62 miles above the surface of the earth, but continue to be influenced by the planet’s gravitational pull.
Certainly, the most visible player in suborbital space travel is Virgin Galactic, the brainchild of iconic businessman Sir Richard Branson. Virgin Galactic hopes to begin its first spaceflights on SpaceShipTwo by the end of this year.
Booking a 2½-hour flight will set your clients back $250,000, but the adventure includes three days of pre-flight preparation, including G-force acclimatization. Virgin Galactic Future Astronauts can also attend private forums at Richard Branson’s South African game reserve or Caribbean island home, as well as receive VIP invitations to major media events.
Nearly 600 people have already shelled out deposits for the opportunity, including celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber. The company has reportedly raised more than $70 million in deposits.
For the launch, SpaceShipTwo will be loaded on top of a mother ship known as WhiteKnightTwo, which will take off at speeds topping out at around 2,500 mph, or roughly three times the speed of sound. WhiteKnightTwo will travel to an altitude of about 50,000 feet, then SpaceShipTwo’s rockets will kick on, boosting it to the 62-mile line that marks space.
At its zenith, SpaceShipTwo will power down, and passengers will enjoy astounding views of Earth, as well as a zero-gravity experience.
Initially, Virgin Galactic intends to operate one flight per week. Passengers will fly on a first-come, first-served basis, which means new sign-ups may have to wait as long as two years before boarding a flight.
Virgin Galactic is only working with certified “Space Agents” — travel agents who have been specially trained through a Virtuoso program.
The Race is OnWhile Virgin Galactic is the most recognizable player in the space tourism game, it is by no means the only one.
XCOR Aerospace is also developing a reusable launch vehicle known as Lynx.
Lynx is equipped with only two seats, one for a pilot and one for the passenger who sits up front and gets the pilot experience. Lynx will use its own fully reusable rocket propulsion system to depart and return to a runway, eliminating the need for a mother vessel to boost it into space.
XCOR anticipates an initial schedule of four launches per day, with flights lasting just 30 minutes, and also hopes to see its first manned flights commence later this year.
Packages are selling for $95,000, and XCOR has reportedly sold 275 tickets during the past 24 months.
Another player in the suborbital race is Armadillo Aerospace, which is developing a vertical launch vehicle (think rocket, not space shuttle). The company has worked with NASA and the U.S. Air Force, and expects to charge $110,000 for sub-orbital flights, but a launch date has not yet been specified.
Low Earth OrbitBeyond suborbital travel, aerospace companies are also making tremendous strides in sending private citizens into low Earth orbit (LEO), which is roughly defined as anything located between 90 miles and 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface. The International Space Station (ISS) is located about 230 miles above Earth.
In 2011, NASA awarded $270 million to four companies to develop transportation vessels, including Boeing ($92.3 million), Sierra Nevada ($80 million), SpaceX ($75 million) and Blue Origin ($22 million), all of whom are building vessels that could eventually be available for citizen astronauts.
In May 2012, SpaceX made history when its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle in history to successfully attach to the ISS.
Although Dragon currently only carries cargo, it was designed to carry a crew of seven. Under a $440 million agreement with NASA, SpaceX is refining its specs for transporting crew and hopes to undertake its first manned flight by 2015. While details are still being worked out, it is SpaceX’s goal to be able to carry astronauts onboard Dragon for the price of $20 million per seat.
Boeing, the primary contractor for the ISS, and another NASA beneficiary, is currently developing the CST-100, a spacecraft designed to transfer crew and supplies to orbiting space complexes. Boeing hopes to see its first manned mission by 2016.
Space HotelsAdvances in LEO travel might mean that space hotels will soon appear on the horizon.
Bigelow Aerospace is already designing expandable habitats that could eventually serve as space hotels. The organization successfully launched two test modules in 2006 and 2007, and made headlines earlier this year when NASA announced that a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) would be tested on the ISS sometime in the late summer or early fall of 2015.
If successful, Bigelow will launch its own commercial space stations in modules known as the BA-330. Each module can hold up to six people, although they can be connected to each other in order to form larger complexes.
Bigelow itself doesn’t build transportation vehicles, so it will rely on SpaceX or Boeing to provide transportation to the modules, with rates ranging from $26 to $36 million depending on the carrier.
Although the asking price is significant, citizen astronauts may be able to stay onboard the space station for periods ranging from 10 to 60 days.
Space AdventuresSpace Adventures has been organizing space travel since 2001, when it sent Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist, to the ISS. Since then, Space Adventures’ clients, who include Cirque du Soleil’s founder Guy Laliberte, have spent, collectively, almost three months in space and have traveled more than 36 million miles.
Strictly a tourism agency and not a developer of technology, Space Adventures’ currently relies on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get clients to the ISS but is continually investigating new ways to get private citizens to space. The agency recently signed an agreement with Boeing to market seats on the CST-100.
The company is also eyeing the suborbital market and signed an exclusive agreement with Armadillo Aerospace.
As more private companies compete to build bigger, faster and more efficient spacecraft, travel agents will start to see a daunting array of products available for their clients. Savvy agents may want to launch themselves into the space race now.
The six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, by Virgin Galactic, is expected to transport passengers by late 2013 or early 2014 to the tune of $250,000 per seat. // (c) 2013 2013 Virgin Galactic
Lynx, a two-seat spacecraft by XCOR Aerospace, anticipates launching its first manned flight by late 2013 or early 2014. Seats will start at $95,000. // (C) 2013 XCOR Aerospace, Inc.
SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk to revolutionize space transportation, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. // (c) 2013 SpaceX
Falcon 9 lauch vehicle delivered back-to-back successes with its first three debut launches. The third flight made history, making SpaceX the first commercial company in history to visit the International Space Station. // (C) 2013 SpaceX
Dragon is a free-flying, reusable spacecraft developed by SpaceX in partnership with NASA. To be used to for the transport of pressurized cargo, unpressurized cargo, and/or crew members into Lower Earth Orbit, Dragon anticipates its first manned flights by 2015 // (C) 2013 SpaceX
The BEAM inflatable space laboratory, by Bigelow Aerospace, has announced it will provide the ISS with its first expandable module, and is expected to complete the mission by 2015. If successful, Bigelow plans to create private space stations/space hotels shortly thereafter. // (C) 2013 Bigelow Aerospace, LLC
Clients who need some preparation before hurtling through outer space have a few ways to prepare while never leaving Earth’s atmosphere.
Zero Gravity CorporationZero gravity technology catapulted to fame in 2004, when a now-retired NASA plane was used to film scenes involving weightlessness for the movie “Apollo 13.”
Today, Zero-G Corporation, which is owned by Space Adventures, is the only FAA-approved provider of weightless flights to the general public. Using an adapted 727-200, the company drops planes in a parabolic arc, allowing passengers to feel the experience of being weightless.
Flights are scheduled around the U.S. for 2013, and packages start at $4,950.
Adult Space CampSpace Camp, the popular children’s camp experience located at Alabama’s U.S. Space & Rocket Center, also offers two-night experiences for adults. The weekend program includes interactive space mission programs where participants learn what it’s like to train as an astronaut. Rates start at $549 per person and include on-site lodging and meals in the Space Camp Crew Galley.
Passport to Explore SpaceNASA recently introduced a “Passport to Explore Space” program, where registrants receive an eight-page passport and can collect commemorative stamps at each of NASA’s 11 visitor center and four space shuttle locations in the U.S.
Dec. 17, 1903Wilbur and Orville Wright make the first piloted airplane ride.
Oct. 4, 1957Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, makes an orbit of Earth.
Nov. 3, 1957Onboard Sputnik 2, Laika the dog becomes the first living being in space.
Feb. 1, 1958Explorer 1 becomes the first U.S. satellite in space.
July 29, 1958The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is created.
April 12, 1961USSR cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is the first man in space.
May 5, 1961Alan Shepard is the first American in space.
May 25, 1961President John F. Kennedy announces a plan to land a man on the moon by 1970.
June 16, 1963Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space.
Dec. 21, 1968Apollo 8 departs Cape Kennedy to become the first flight to orbit the moon.
July 20, 1969Neil Armstrong becomes the first person to walk on the moon.
April 12, 1981The U.S. launches Space Shuttle Columbia, the world’s first reusable spacecraft.
June 18, 1983Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space.
October 2000The first crew arrives at the completed International Space Station, which started construction in 1998.
April 28, 2001American businessman Dennis Tito become the world’s first space tourist and earns a place in “the Guinness Book of World Records.”
June 21, 2004SpaceShipOne travels to an altitude of more than 62 miles and becomes the first private craft to leave Earth’s atmosphere.
Dec. 8, 2010SpaceX launches the Dragon spacecraft and becomes the first commercial company to launch a spaceship into orbit and recover it successfully.