Yesterday at 3.16pm the first crewed SpaceX capsule docked to the International Space Station. After decade-long delays, the age of commercial space tourism is finally ready for lift off.
When Frank Sinatra crooned ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ he surely couldn’t have imagined doing so on a reality TV dating competition. But earlier this year Yusaka Maezawa did just that, tweeting a casting call for single women to join him on the world’s first private circumlunar flight, scheduled for 2023. Within days Maezawa had 27,722 applications, eager to take their seat beside him on Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket, and ‘shout our love from outer space’.
Two weeks later the Japanese billionaire retracted the offer, citing ‘mixed feelings’. Aside from the dubious nature of the suitor, the exercise highlighted that space travel as recreation is finally on the cards. Or is it?
Dennis Tito became the first space tourist in 2001, spending an estimated $20 million on his 6-day stint aboard the International Space Station, the space lab that orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, travelling at 17,500 miles per hour. Despite the lack of showers, poor catering and challenges of taking a dump in microgravity, the billionaires kept lining up: another six “commercial astronauts” (their preferred moniker) followed, before the opportunity to hitch a ride on Roscosmos’ Soyuz was closed down in 2009.
Since then, progress in space tourism has been slow. "Earth, in all its beauty, is just our starting place," reads the tag for Blue Origin, the space company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos in 2000. Fifteen years later New Shepard made its first suborbital flight; it’s made several since, none with crew. Bezos has repeatedly stated that the long-term survival of the human species is dependent on our ability to colonise artificial space cylinders – climate-controlled environments that will include farms, mountains and beaches – but to date Bezos appears more focused on colonising Earth with Amazon warehouses.
Flamboyant Branson, who launched Virgin Galactic in 2004, has been better at raising money than getting passengers into space – in October he floated Virgin Galactic, raising around £370 million in funding; last month he flogged another 25 million shares to help keep his portfolio of global leisure, holiday and travel businesses afloat. Then again Virgin Galactic has been unapologetically ‘space travel lite’: suborbital rather than orbital, their proposed two-hour joy ride will show passengers the curvature of Earth and give them a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth, at £202,000 a pop.
The serious contender in the space race has always been Elon Musk. On Saturday two NASA astronauts finally boarded his Crew Dragon craft. Doug Hurley uttered the words, ‘Let’s light this candle,’ (echoing the words used by Alan Shepard on America’s first human spaceflight in 1961), and the Falcon 9 rocket blasted pin-arrow upward; 19 hours later he and fellow astronaut Bob Behnken docked on the ISS, the first to do so from US soil since NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011.
Aside from outsourcing development of transportation to private companies like SpaceX, NASA’s announcement last year that a port on the ISS would be made available for commercial use has been the real boost for space tourism.
Houston-based Axiom Space bagged the rights in January, and will be the first private company to establish a habitable module in space. Established in 2016 by retired ISS programme manager Mike Suffredini, Axiom Space wasted no time in commissioning Philippe Starck to design a space hotel: a space ‘nest’ that is essentially a cream padded cell sprinkled with nano-LEDs that change colours to match ‘the mood and biorhythm of its osmotic inhabitants’.
With SpaceX contracted to be their ‘space taxi’, Suffredini can now start in earnest to market his maiden voyage to the ISS, scheduled for the second half of 2021. Relative to the Starck-designed hotel, which is only due to be completed in 2024, a 10-day stay on the original orbiting outpost is ‘roughing it’. Guests will wear a NASA-grade spacesuit for the rocket ride to the station (disturbingly, this includes a nappy) but will be able to change into designer leisure suits once onboard. And yes, there will be Wi-Fi.
"Everybody will be online," says Suffredini. "They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window."
Estimated cost? Around $55m. If that seems a little steep, Space Adventures, the orbital space travel agent that arranged the first eight private missions to the ISS, has entered into its own agreement with SpaceX. Up to four individuals will board Crew Dragon and “see planet Earth the way no one has since the Gemini program”. Space Adventures will merely orbit the earth, and the experience of shorter duration; as such the price – as yet undisclosed – is likely to be lower, albeit still in the two-figure millions.
For Elon Musk, all this is just preparation for the real dream: to build a self-sustaining city on Mars. In an old interview with Andy Weir, author of The Martian, Musk claims that the entrepreneurial opportunities on Mars will be phenomenal.
"There will be people wanting to create anything, from the first pizza joint to the first iron-ore factory." Which makes one wonder, and not for the first time: has Musk been inhaling his rocket fuel? Composed of more than 95 percent CO2, the air on Mars is unbreathable. At an average -64C, the temperature unbearable. Without a substantial magnetic field (such as the one we inherited gratis with Earth), there is nothing to deflect harmful radiation. Why would anyone want to live in confinement in a windowless cell, breathing recycled air, eking out a daily drink of recycled urine and mealtime blobs?
But 2020 has shown how quickly the world can change. Before Andy Weir wrote The Martian, he was a software engineer. "It taught me the importance of backing things up," he quipped back then. "We need to have a human population somewhere other than Earth."
With the safe arrival of Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on the ISS, Elon Musk’s SpaceX will surely usher in a new era of space travel, one that has always appealed to those with cash to burn.
But me? I’ll pass. Because the real luxuries – the twittering of a dawn chorus; the caress of a spring sun; the smell of rain on Earth, solid beneath your feet – are countless, and free. Even in a time of quarantine.
Could you be tempted by a holiday in space? Comment below to join the conversation.