Space Tourism

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Orange streaks of flame obscure the view outside the spacecraft’s small circular window.  Smoke wafts from behind control panels. Loose equipment bounces around the cabin at the thud of Earth impact.

These images, recorded by Richard Garriott from inside the Russian Soyuz TMA-12 capsule as it descended from orbit, feature prominently in Mike Woolf‘s documentary Man on a Mission. Released in January, the film includes about twenty minutes of zero-gravity footage captured by Garriott, who in 2008 became the sixth private citizen to visit the International Space Station. These scenes include eating with crewmates, shaving, juggling tennis balls and performing science experiments. Garriott also takes viewers on an end-to-end tour of the International Space Station from the research labs to crew quarters.

While inclusion of this zero-gravity footage is arguably the highlight of Man on a Mission, the documentary begins with Garriott’s childhood inspiration to go to space.  His father, Owen Garriott, was a NASA astronaut who flew aboard the Skylab space station in 1973 and the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1983. Scenes of father and son are weaved together throughout the film—including demonstrations by each Garriott, recorded decades apart, of how gyroscopes work in weightlessness. Man on a Mission goes on to describe the younger Garriott’s meteoric career as a video game developer, which enabled him to afford the $30 million required by the Russian Space Agency for passage to the International Space Station. Additionally, the film follows his year-long space flight preparation in Star City, which included Russian language lessons and survival training in open-water and wilderness environments.

Man on a Mission is not the first documentary about private space flight. Christen Frei’s Space Tourists follows Anousheh Ansari, the first female space tourist, on her training and flight to the International Space Station. Released in 2011, the film also looks at space tourism through the eyes of Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen, who visits with villagers and scrap collectors in Kazakhstan who gather rocket debris falling to the ground from Souyz mission launches. In 2009, Guy Laliberté, CEO of Cirque du Soleil and the first Canadian space tourist to visit the International Space Station, took a different approach. He produced a two-hour webcast to promote awareness of water shortage issues and raise money for his One Drop Foundation. Titled Poetic Social Mission: Moving Stars and Earth for Water, the webcast featured a speech by Al Gore and live artistic performances, including U2, in fourteen cities across five continents.

These entertainment and media productions depict space tourism on the grand scale—orbiting over 200 miles up onboard the world’s only operational space station.  However, the private space industry is developing lower-altitude, lower-cost space flight options for what is believed to be a growing market.

“Space tourism companies are building the technical, legal and economic base for private space flight,” said John Spencer, space architect and President of the Space Tourism Society. Spencer is pioneering several aspects of the space experience, including the design of orbital yachts as well as earth-based immersive resorts and learning centers that simulate Mars. But Spencer anticipates that in the near-term, sub-orbital flights, which go above the boundary of space without completely circling the Earth, will “enjoy the glory at first.”

Virgin Galactic, perhaps the most well-known of space tourism companies, is preparing to offer sub-orbital space flights aboard its SpaceShipTwo. Passengers of the six-seat spacecraft will fly more than 60 miles up, above the somewhat arbitrarily-defined edge of space known as the Kármán line, enjoying approximately five minutes of weightlessness and the view of Earth. Despite the fact that commercial flights have yet to begin, Virgin Galactic has pre-booked flights aboard SpaceShipTwo with over 500 customers at a price of $200,000 each (reservations cost $20,000—those who pay in full get to fly earlier). Ticketholders reportedly include Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Katy Perry. Virgin Galactic’s 500th SpaceShipTwo customer is Ashton Kutcher.

A number of companies will compete with Virgin Galactic in sub-orbital and other private space flight offerings.  For example, XCOR Aerospace has pre-sold more than 100 reservations for a sub-orbital flight on its Lynx spacecraft for a $95,000 seat.

“We will probably have the first commercial sub-orbital passenger flight in a year or two. In three to five years, they could be offered by multiple competing companies,” said Will Watson, Executive Director of the Space Frontier Foundation.

While a long-term goal of space tourism is to make space more accessible to the public, the cost of even sub-orbital flights will be beyond the vast majority of people for at least a decade. But companies anticipate that public fascination with space flight will buoy the industry as it seeks investment, political support, and regulatory approval. Advocates anticipate that interest from the entertainment industry, which could be further ignited when sub-orbital commercial passenger flights commence, will only deepen public appreciation. A number of Hollywood producers have reportedly been interested in Survivor-like reality shows featuring ordinary people in space flight. Others believe that music videos or social media projects have potential for mass appeal.

“If done professionally, popular culture entertainment can help people make a connection to space flight and realize it could soon be accessible to private citizens, not just professional astronauts,” said Paul E. Damphousse, Executive Director of the National Space Society. He expects that greater public awareness of not only space tourism, but of new capabilities in suborbital research, commercial orbital flight, and resource production in space, will create visibility and demand, which could help push down the cost. Space tourism industry advocates are also eager to take advantage of the fact that many of their first customers will be celebrities with fans and followers who may not otherwise be aware of the space experience.

“It matters who goes up there at first,” said Watson. “Imagine the number of people who would notice when someone like Ashton Kutcher tweets from space.”

Matt Aldag is a former Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Academies.

Image credit: Richard Garriortt as seen in Man on a Mission, a film by Mike Woolf.  A First Run Feature release.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.