Space tourism

Source: By Mehr Gill: The Indian Express

Virgin Galactic launched a test flight of SpaceShipTwo, its reusable winged spacecraft t00k off from New Mexico’s Spaceport America for the first time and is expected to reach an altitude of 80 km.

Virgin Galactic is a publicly traded company founded by British entrepreneur Richard Branson and is one of the companies that is working on offering flights to space to paying customers.

This flight will mark the first crewed flight of the rocket-powered spacecraft that eventually aims to carry tourists to space, which the company claims will start in 2021.

Once the spacecraft takes off, it will test elements of the customer cabin and flight controls. The spacecraft will also carry payloads as part of its agreement with NASA. In June this year, Virgin Galactic signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center to encourage commercial participation in orbital human spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS) and help in the development of a Low Earth Orbit economy.

This flight will be followed by two more test flights in the coming months before the company can start commercial flights.

SpaceShipTwo can carry a total of eight people, including two pilots, and has more windows than any other spacecraft in history, the company claims. When it was unveiled in 2016, it was named VSS Unity by Stephen Hawking.

Space tourism is a segment of space travel that seeks to give lay people the opportunity to go to space for recreational, leisure or business purposes. The idea is to make space more accessible to those individuals who are not astronauts and want to go to space for non-scientific purposes.

A report published by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes that the concept of space tourism is “fairly new”. The report mentions that in 1997, the private company Space Adventures was founded to offer “bookable space-related adventures”.

In fact, Space Adventures is the only private company to send paying customers to orbital space so far, the report says. In 2004, test pilot Mike Melville became the first private astronaut to fly beyond the Karman Line (recognised as the edge of space).

In 2008, the billionaire video game developer, Richard Garriott became the sixth private citizen to fly to space. As per media reports, Garriott paid over $30 million to spend about 12 days at the ISS, which he traveled to aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Before Garriott, Space Adventures’ customer Dennis Tito became the first space tourist in 2001. His flight to space was objected to by NASA citing lack of training. As per CRS, the company has sent seven paying customers to space between 2001 and 2009 and tourist visits to space came to halt in 2011, when NASA suspended its shuttle program, after which American astronauts were given seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to the ISS.

As of now, companies including Virgin Atlantic, SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Armadillo Aerospace are working on providing space tourism services to people.

As per Virgin Galactic, over 600 people have already paid to avail its services that will take them to space and the company might become the first in the world to take tourists to space if it can begin commercial operations next year. As per the BBC, singer Justin Beiber and actor Leonardo DiCaprio are among the 600 people who have already paid.

As of now, potential customers can pay a $1000 fully refundable registration fee to Virgin Galactic, after which they will be notified as and when tickets go on sale. “Please note that, although we have not yet announced final pricing, we will be charging more than the $250,000 ticket price offered to those who signed up early,” it says on its website.

According to The New York Times, Axiom Space offered a $55 million ticket on a SpaceX capsule for a 10-day stay on the orbiting outpost. The flight could take off as soon as in the second half of 2021 and will take a total of three passengers.