…space tourism, that is.
Despite all the buzz of space joy rides and space hotels in the past two decades, eager leisurenauts are still waiting for their chance to visit the great beyond, and it’s getting a little frustrating. According to The Jetsons, we’ve only got 46 more years to make orbiting burger joints a reality, but at this rate my Spaceburger franchise agreement is never going to pay off.
Of course, there has been some progress made; we’ve seen several splashy headlines this year from a variety of contenders in the space tourism industry. None of these companies are close to taking regular Joes like me and you into orbit, but several of them seem poised to start offering a few minutes of weightlessness and some pretty spectacular views – if you’re into that whole, “I can see Earth’s curvature” kind of thing.
Sir Richard Branson’s company appears to be leading the space tourism pack. SpaceShipTwo – the successor to Paul Allen’s X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne – is carried up by a larger airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, before launching two pilots and six passengers upwards and onwards for a few weightless minutes at the edge of the atmosphere.
Which doesn’t quite count as outer space.
The specific ship that might soon be carrying tourists to near-space has been dubbed the Unity, but the current price of passage is hardly unifying: folks have donated $250,000 for the chance to be among the first passengers, and they’re still waiting to board.
Bezos-backed Blue Origin had a successful launch of its not-at-all-phallic-looking rocket in January; even more impressive than getting it up was getting it to come back down without blowing its top (just try to tell me there’s anything better than space-travel-sex-puns). It’s a proof of concept similar to Space X: a reusable rocket that goes up smoothly enough for conventional travel and transport, and comes back for a controlled and upright landing.
Given the company’s vision of “millions of people living and working in space,” the elevator-like trip of Blue Origin’s current generation of rockets make sense. This is geared more towards space commuters than space tourists, and the company is working on orbital vehicles that would presumably serve as living and working spaces in the world of the future.
I’m still waiting for my jaw-dropping trip into outer space and back, though.
I ain’t gonna get it with World View’s balloon ride, neither, but it is a much more low-key and low energy way to enjoy a trip to the edge of space than a rocket-fueled elevator or a regular old plane ride. This seems like a likely contender for the first near-space tourism adventure to be deemed safe enough for consumer sales, though of course safety has its drawbacks.
Part of the appeal of space tourism is the journey, not just the destination. Folks who like going up in hot air balloons will probably love the silver-bagged conveyance that World View provides, but I’d like to know there’s an active engine keeping me aloft, and I’m looking for that high octane (or enriched uranium) thrill ride on my journey to the stars.
Or at least a little bit closer.
What’s To Come
It’s likely that all three of the vehicles these companies are currently testing will be carrying the first paying customers to space (sort of) within the next few years. More significantly, these vehicles are all meant to get consumer space travel right before scaling up to larger crafts and longer distances.
So as much as the current curmudgeon in me is underwhelmed by the state of space tourism today, I must admit to a certain childish glee when I think of what we’ll see in the next decade, and I guess we have to start somewhere.
Maybe we’ll catch up with the Jetsons after all.
Daniel A. Guttenberg is an Atlanta-based writer who fell into the startup world by accident and has been gleefully treading water ever since. He will be survived by his beard and his legacy of procrastination.