Space. The final frontier, and quite possibly your family’s next March Break vacation.
Experts say 2018 will be the year space tourism takes off. But while great leaps are being made at what seems like warp speed, it’s a venture that’s still fraught with issues that go far beyond its out-of-this-world price tag.
Cost of launch, of course, remains a major barrier, and one way to bring it down from seven figures to six, or even five, is to build rockets that don’t end up as space junk after one launch.
“Unless space tourism is to remain exclusively for billionaires, then having vehicles that can be used again and again, with a very low failure rate, is essential to a viable industry,” says Dr. Jaymie Matthews, a professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of British Columbia.
Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, got a step closer last month when it successfully reused an orbit-class booster — the most expensive part of the rocket — which then landed itself on a platform in the ocean.
Blue Origin, founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has launched and landed its liquid-fuelled New Shepard rocket into suborbital space five times in unmanned test flights. It wasn’t even expected to survive the last one, in October, which was intended as a test of the capsule’s escape system.
But a handful of flashy rocket launches hardly constitute a safety record.
“Imagine the disastrous effect on the space tourism a catastrophic loss of tourists would engender — quite apart from the tragedy to the families,” says Alex Ellery, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Carleton University and Canada research chair in space robotics and space technology. “It would kill the space tourism industry at its birth.”
Both companies have yet to send rockets to space with passengers on board. SpaceX plans to start by taxiing astronauts to the International Space Station this year.
“Tourists must have confidence that they are going to return from their trip in one piece,” Ellery said. “As the number and frequency of successful launches increase so does confidence on the part of the tourists and that of the engineers that they have solved their technological problems.”
The Space Adventures company, for instance, has notched just seven spaceflights — all happily catastrophe-free. A handful of private citizens paid a reported $20 to $40 million apiece to fly to the ISS aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Yet when it comes to space tourism, regulation lags behind innovation.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses launches, takes a “relatively hands-off approach” to passenger safety, says Charles Oman, an aeronautics and astronautics researcher and lecturer at MIT who worries the hype around space tourism overshadows the potential dangers, and there are no protections in place for travelers.
“For now, the FAA requires only that participants be briefed on risks by the spaceflight company selling the tickets,” Oman said.
“Who can really objectively inform the prospective buyer how safe it is?”
Oman says he would ultimately like to see travelers discuss their decision to fly with a “technically qualified, independent ombudsperson who verifies the participant is aware the risk is far greater than the one-in-several-million associated with commercial air travel.”
To the moon and back
It’s a lesson learned the hard way.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, one of the first out of the gate in space tourism in 2004, has fallen behind, beset by delays and a tragic test flight in October 2014 that killed one pilot and injured another.
Still, the experts are not counting Virgin out, with its reported wait list of 700 people who’ve paid $250,000 apiece. And the company’s space ambitions may have just gotten a big boost when physicist Stephen Hawking said he had accepted Branson’s invitation to take a flight.
But what, exactly, is a trip to space?
So far, it means taking passengers to the Karman Line — nearly 10 times the altitude of your flight to Paris. Travelers get to the edge of space, experience weightlessness for a few minutes and come back. It’s like a roller coaster ride “where the peak of the roller coaster is a little more than 100 kilometres above the Earth’s surface,” Matthews says.
Musk has set his sights farther, on the moon, where he said he is sending two paying customers on a flyby in 2018.
Maxim de Jong believes space tourism is so close, he’s building space hotels.
De Jong’s Thin Red Line Aerospace, based in Chilliwack, B.C., is at the forefront of space habitats, having successfully designed and built the very first inflatable ones for U.S. company Bigelow Aerospace. Genesis 1 and 2, launched in 2006 and 2007, are still in orbit and will eventually burn up.
Those prototypes were ahead of their time: “The problem has always been affordable launch vehicle availability — that’s what was holding everything back for many years,” says de Jong. “And now we’re sort of on the verge of that being a real possibility.”
De Jong’s design was also used for the ”soft goods structure” (the walls) for the BEAM — the first human-rated expandable habitat that was launched in April 2016 and attached to the ISS, where astronauts are periodically running habitability tests over two years.
De Jong says the technology is sound.
“So you get to orbit, you pump it up and you get this nice hotel,” he says, with “elbow room.” He’s also working on an airlock system for NASA to transfer passengers between the spacecraft and the habitat.
Ellery sees a time in the not-so-distant future when spaceflights could cost $10,000-$20,000.
“I think we live in very exciting times in which space will no longer be the exclusive preserve for a few lucky people,” he said.
“When the price comes down more in line with the financial capacity of ordinary folk of more modest means, I will sign up.”