Humans have been fascinated by the heavens for nearly our whole history as a species. Until the mid-20th century, going there was just a pipe dream. But then the space race happened, and we proved it was possible.
Ever since, there have been those who dreamed of getting up there. The ability for the average person to go into space is going to be a reality, and companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are committed to making it happen — but when, exactly, will space tourism become a reality for everyone. Let’s break down the players.
While they aren’t there yet, Virgin Galactic seems to be one of the better hopes for commercial space travel. Since they are funded by billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Records with a history of ambitious projects, there is the needed capital and drive to keep pushing forward.
Virgin has decided to go primarily with a reusable shuttle type of craft that is able to land like a plane on a runway. This has the advantage of lower G-forces on the occupants as well as keeping costs lower since you don’t have to build anything new between launches. While SpaceShipTwo doesn’t technically get into “space” as we usually picture it, it still gets into suborbital flight and will likely go higher in the future.
The VSS Unity and Virgin Galactic are going for a comfortable experience with lower G-forces on the occupants as well as a smoother landing that is more in tune with what we think of as space tourism.
Many of the same advantages of Virgin Galactic could be said of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Musk, most notably of Tesla Motors, has a great ambition to push the human race forward.
SpaceX primarily has two vehicles, the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon V2 Capsule. The Falcon 9 can and has been used to resupply the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 has also been modified into the Grasshopper variant, which has the ability to take off and land vertically. The highest altitude reached has been 2,400 ft.
SpaceX’s Dragon V2 capsule is designed with human occupation in mind and is quite different from the capsules the Apollo astronauts came back in. One major change is the ability to hover, which could lead to softer landings for returning astronauts. This capsule is slated for a human crew in 2017.
One of the biggest successes SpaceX has had is lowering the costs of sending payloads into space. The older costs per pound of material to send into low earth orbit was in the neighborhood of $10,000, with SpaceX managing to bring costs into the $1,000-2,500 per pound range. This accomplishment, in turn, has put pressure on other commercial space programs to lower their prices.
While space tourism is gaining ground, there are many factors to consider. Price is still a major one for the average person. Virgin Galactic has been selling seats for their VSS program at $250,000 per person, an amount way out of reach for most people. But this is a far cry from the estimated $20+ million some have paid to get into space with the Soyuz program.
There is also the safety element to consider. While space flight has become much safer since the early days, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been accidents. The Challenger and Discovery accidents have been the most recent.
Venturing into space is an inherently dangerous endeavor, but having good maintenance and knowing the limits of your spacecraft go a long way to making sure everyone returns home safely. Incidents such as the Challenger disaster were caused in large part due to the failure of an o-ring, and advances in materials technology help to mitigate potential disasters like this from happening again.
If advancements such as SpaceX’s successful landing of a rocket on an autonomous boat while simultaneously delivering supplies to the ISS can continue at its current pace, commercial space travel is going to be a reality sooner than you might think.
About the Author: Aaron Foster is a Phoenix-based tech enthusiast. He specializes in digital cameras and accessories, Android mobile devices and PC hardware.