Space Tourism: Will It Be Worth the Money?

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Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic / Reuters

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2 glides toward earth on its first test flight after release from the mothership, WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave desert in California.

Even before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon's surface in 1969, people were planning their holidays to space. A year earlier, when Apollo 8 showed the world the first image of Earth from orbit, airline Pan Am started taking advanced bookings for its first flight to the moon. But 40 years on, just a handful of private citizens have flown into space, and that's only after going through rigorous medical examinations, enduring months of training and shelling out between $20 million and $45 million for the privilege.

This could be about to change. On Oct. 22, Richard Branson's commercial space-flight company Virgin Galactic flew the world's first commercial space craft over the world's first commercial space port. The VSS Enterprise, which had already made its first solo flight two weeks earlier, took the short ceremonial trip to celebrate the completion of the runway at the space port in New Mexico. "This is history," Branson declared to a crowd of reporters. "We're making it right here."

"Space tourism has definitely arrived," says Stephen Attenborough, CEO of Virgin Galactic, which was founded in 2004. "The market is established. The vehicles are flying. It's not a paper project." He is confident that Galactic will be taking passengers by next year, but is unwilling to set an exact date. Tickets will cost $200,000, but, he says, prices are likely to fall swiftly as the industry grows. And Virgin is already facing competition from Space Adventures, which in 2001 was the first space-travel company to send a private citizen into space and in May this year announced that it will run similar flights to Virgin's for more like $100,000. Experts says that in 10 years, the cost of a trip into space could drop to around $50,000.

But what will those astronomical sums get you? The Virgin Galactic experience will start with a couple of days light preparation: medical tests, safety training and some time for the space travelers and pilots to get to know each other. The aircraft will set off attached to a mother ship, which will climb to 50,000 feet before detaching. Then the Enterprise's rocket motors will ignite, accelerating the ship to three times the speed of sound, taking it up over the Earth's atmosphere. At that point, the engines will shut off, leaving passengers weightless, able to somersault freely, and, most importantly, see Earth from space. "That's the point when the switch flicks," says Attenborough. "You get an understanding of the fragility of life and the beauty of the planet." After four or five minutes gravity will begin to drag the Enterprise back down to earth. The whole trip is over in less than an hour.

While Virgin Galactic is offering quick sub-orbital jaunts to just over the Earth's atmosphere, Space Adventures is planning to take its customers even further, for longer. The company has already sent seven private citizens on orbital flights — which travel hundreds of thousands of miles, as opposed to sub-orbital's 100 miles, and last around 10 days. CEO Eric Anderson says that while Space Adventures does plan to offer shorter flights, its focus is on developing orbital trips — with their price tag of $30 million each. Orbital is "absolutely a real space-travel experience," says Anderson. "It's the difference between tickets to the World Cup where you're sitting in the front row and a five-second view of it on TV. It's just not the same thing."

Sounds like good fun — but is it big business? It's estimated that sending stuff into space costs NASA $20,000 per pound. Not cheap, but Virgin isn't worried. "It's certainly profitable or we wouldn't be doing it," says Virgin Galactic's Attenborough. The company has so far had 80,000 people register their interest and taken $50 million worth of deposits, even before it has flown its first passengers. And last year Galactic received its first outside investor, Abu Dhabi-based global-investment company Aabar, which put $280 million into the business for a 32% share, a real vote of confidence in the fledgling industry.

So with major companies aiming high and big investors onboard, it seems space tourism is finally here — even if it's not what we were hoping it would be. "We're not going to be visiting space hotels on the moon for $10,000 in the next ten years," says Space Adventures CEO Anderson. "But we might be within the next 50 years." No doubt the room service will be out of this world.