I remember the first time I fell in love with the idea of space travel. It was aboard the “Millennium Falcon,” a light freighter capable of interstellar flight commandeered by a scoundrel, a princess and a hero. I was hooked. Star Wars and the expanding genre of science fiction have been a staple in my life ever since. From space odysseys to aliens to Neil deGrasse Tyson, there are plenty of ways to nerd out, but all pale in comparison to the idea of blasting off to the cosmos yourself.
Fear not, earthlings—2018 just so happens to be the year when space travel is democratized. (Democratized, that is, for the über-rich. For now, most of us will have to settle for a terrestrial vacation. Lake George, anyone?) There’s a new space race afoot. And unlike competing superpowers with vaguely sinister intentions and looming doomsday clocks, this new race is between companies in the private sector. Their goal? To take wealthy citizens on the ultimate adventure: blasting off into the stratosphere, or to the moon and back!
As you might expect, “space tourism,” the term for this budding industry, isn’t exactly cheap. Tickets range anywhere from $250,000 to $58 million, depending on the company and the experience. (And for those misanthropes among us, some companies are even offering one-way tickets to the cosmos. More on that later.) For companies such as SpaceX, Orion Span and Virgin Galactic, it turns out that money and competition are excellent drivers for innovation.
For decades, human space flight has rested squarely in the government’s domain. Fewer than 600 people, almost all of them public employees, have left the Earth’s grasp. But entrepreneurs and “space billionaires” such as Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk are hoping to change that. While the rich will go first, these visionaries imagine a future where space travel’s affordable enough for citizen thrill-seekers and adventure travelers alike. Sound like science fiction? The day’s coming sooner than you may think.
The first space tourism company to leave the Earth’s atmosphere may very well be Virgin Galactic. Speaking on behalf of his New Mexico-based company, Branson has said that flights aboard SpaceShipTwo could begin as early as this year. So far, more than 500 aspiring astronauts have signed up—paying $250K a piece—including Hollywood A-listers Ashton Kutcher, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. If you can’t picture a life without some of those names, consider this: A fatal accident during a test run in 2014 claimed the life of a Virgin Galactic pilot and set development back by years. While the rewards—getting to experience weightlessness, having a dinner party trump card—may outweigh the risks, space is an inherently dangerous place. SpaceShipTwo certainly sounds innocuous enough, but it’s an air-launched suborbital spaceplane designed to carry six passengers and two pilots to an altitude of about 62 miles above our home planet. Things could go wrong. Fast.
For Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is planning to send a privately crewed “Dragon 2” spacecraft beyond the moon, an independent FAA-funded analysis found the risk of death to be 1 in 270—or roughly equivalent to that of climbing Mount Everest. The weeklong flight will largely retrace the path taken by “Apollo 8” astronauts in 1968, and two customers have reportedly shelled out “a significant deposit,” per SpaceX, or what experts believe is anywhere from $58 million and up, for a ticket. Musk is known for offering overly optimistic timetables, but he’s said that the mission could come as soon as late 2018.
And what about the next decade? Musk founded SpaceX way back in 2002 with the not-so-small intention of colonizing Mars. So far, SpaceX has set an aspirational goal for the first cargo mission to land on the Red Planet in 2022. Objectives include confirming water resources and identifying hazards: fewer little green men and more living safely on a dead rock. To that end, initial power, mining and life support infrastructure will need to be put in place.
A second mission, this time with both cargo and crew aboard, is targeted for 2024. Piggybacking on SpaceX’s eventual ecological developments, Dutch company Mars One is intent on sending space travelers off, with a one-way trip to the Red Planet sometime in the next couple of decades. The company’s wrongly claimed in the past that it’s received more than 200,000 applicants—the figure is closer to 3000—and its criteria for selecting astronauts is downright dubious. At the moment, Mars One is weathering claims that it’s a hopeless endeavor or even a hoax. It remains to be seen if such a project will eventually lift off. Unfortunately, your idle daydreams of that annoying, weird coworker volunteering to live on Mars should stay in the realm of fantasy…for now.
Compared to the Mars voyages, Orion Span has a less ambitious but nonetheless exciting goal: construction of the world’s first luxury space hotel. Think strolling the Maldives counts as exotic? Aurora Station will orbit 200 miles above the Earth’s surface. Luxurious accommodations will include private suites for two, while every 90 minutes the space station will complete a full orbit around the Earth. Those willing to pay $9.5 million will see day and night every 1.5 hours during their 12-day stay. (No filter necessary, of course.) In addition, those luxury cosmonauts will experience weightlessness and fast, wireless Internet access—in space! Because how else are you going to post all your sunset-from-low-orbit photos to Instagram? The Aurora Station plans to launch in 2021.
Don’t like the idea of spending time in the cold, dark, lifeless reaches of space? Not to worry. SpaceX also has its sights set on transforming what it’s calling “Earth to Earth” transportation—or using space travel to deposit you in far-off places in a frighteningly short amount of time. In addition to vastly increased speeds, one great thing about space travel is the lack of almost any friction. Once the ship leaves the atmosphere, there’s no turbulence or weather to worry about. (Although you might want to consider an Ambien for blastoff.) The benefits of “Earth to Earth” are huge: A flight from New York to Paris could take as little as 30 minutes. Now that’s an innovation we can all enjoy.
While it’s not quite Star Wars’ “Millennium Falcon,” I’ll take a suborbital trip over a coach ticket on a commercial airliner any day. Close the pod bay doors, HAL. And get me a drink. STAT.