Whenever I see companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin claim that they’re getting closer to sending tourists to space, I always roll my eyes. Sure, more people will be getting to go to space, but they’re not people like us. For non-millionaire former childhood astronaut-wannabes like me (yes, I know, a shocker), the chance of going to space still seems far off. But how far? I decided to take a look at how people like me can make it to space, and how long we’ll have to wait.
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First, we need to start getting more people to space
Space tourism companies aren’t known for their timeliness. Virgin Galactic finally made it to space for the first time in 2018 after years of missed deadlines. SpaceX has scrapped plans to fly two people to the moon aboard the Falcon Heavy rocket by the end of 2018 in favor of waiting to put tourists aboard the Starship (the rocket formerly known as BFR and the Big Falcon Rocket).
But it seems (argh, awful pun coming up) the stars are finally aligning for space tourism. Blue Origin has now tested its tourist rocket 10 times and plans to fly people to space by the end of this year. Virgin Galactic is doing more test flights this year and plans to carry cofounder Richard Branson to space by mid-2019 to kick off its commercial flights. SpaceX’s first paying moon tourist has been named: Japanese billionaire entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa. It really does feel as though private citizens will be able to make it to space soon—if you have the cash.
The price tag
Tourists have been going to space aboard Russian rockets since the early 2000s, but the price for a ride was a hefty $20 to $40 million. Virgin Galactic’s flights (almost) seem like a bargain in comparison. The company already has 700 people on a waiting list prepared to pay $200,000 to $250,000 for a ride to space. We’re still waiting to hear how much a ride from SpaceX or Blue Origin will cost.
Getting costs down to coach prices
So what’s going to have to happen to get these tickets within range of my bank account? Yes, all of the first tourists will be rich, but airline travel started the same way—risky and expensive. Don’t expect costs to come down as quickly as in airline flight, as demand for space travel is nowhere near as high. According to a Pew study, most Americans aren’t even interested in traveling to space. But we can already see a downward trend in cost.
From a financial perspective, bringing the prices down is in the interest of these space companies. “There are two things they can do to get money. One feasible way is to presell tickets,” says MIT aeronautics and astronautics researcher Markus Guerster. “The other is to start with higher prices, say $2 million, and sell to the really rich people willing to pay a lot. When all of those people have flown, you reduce your prices.” As more competitors enter the market, the pretenders get weeded out, and companies begin to prove themselves, there’s no doubt that costs will drop. As with anything, being a first adopter means you pay a premium.
So for now, here are your options for getting to space as soon as possible:
1. Get your trip paid for Nonprofit Space for Humanity says it’s offering free trips to space to people who would normally never have the chance to go. They hope that bringing more diversity to space travel will create role models for people from around the world and spread excitement about space to new groups. While they have yet to divulge the sources of their funding, the organization’s executive director, Rachel Lyons, told me the goal is to send up six to eight people over the next two years. And they aren’t being shy about their ambitions. Lyons says Space for Humanity “intends to be the leading flight ticket purchaser.” So how do you get one of those slots? You submit an application to the website. Worth a shot, right?
2. Become an influential artist Umm, okay, granted this is a niche solution, but SpaceX’s first customer bought out the entire ship, not just a single seat, and is giving the others up for free. He’s looking to bring along artists who can share the experience. If other early adopters also make it a priority to include the rest of us who can’t afford a ticket, they could help equalize space access.
3. Work for a space company Before Blue Origin sends up paying customers, it plans to launch employees to space, so working there could get you a free trip.
4. Train to be a government astronaut Why not go the traditional route? If you really love space, it’s probably cheaper to get the degrees required to become an astronaut candidate than it is to buy a ticket.
5. Pay the money I’d recommend going to one of the big-name companies and paying more rather than giving a mere $100,000 to a less established company. The least expensive options haven’t panned out so well. XCOR, which was offering some of the cheapest tickets to space, went bankrupt, leaving hundreds of people out $100,000 and no closer to space. And some alternative providers, like balloon startup World View (which we covered back in 2016), have deferred their tourism plans for more profitable ventures.
6. Wait for the cost to go down Boo, I know—practicality and patience. But if you can’t afford a flight now, check back in five years (and maybe save up some money during that time, too). Guerster estimates that after a company performs about a thousand flights with at least five passengers, they’ll be able to slash their prices by half. While it’s still not pocket change, I’ll take a 50% discount any day. Lowering prices may be required, because otherwise there will be no one else to fly to space. “Once you have flown really rich people, they will likely only fly once in their life,” says Guerster. “You might have to wait for the next generation to have more customers.”
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