When Blue Origin held the first round of auctions for a seat on the first crewed suborbital flight of their New Shepard rocket, they left out one bit of information: Company founder Jeff Bezos would be coming along. But as the company prepares to livestream the final stages of the auction for a flight now tentatively set to launch on July 20 (the anniversary of the date on which Apollo 11 landed on the Moon). According to the company, just under 6,000 people from 143 countries sent in bids in the first round and will now have a chance to sit next to Bezos. The current high bid stands at $4.8 million.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic, which completed its first test flight from a new base in New Mexico just two weeks ago, has already sold over 600 tickets at $250,000 a seat for upcoming rides on its VSS Unity spaceplane. The company, owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, might also be preparing a last minute effort to upstage Bezos. That’s because rumors are circulating that Branson might climb on board for a flight into space on July 4. No word on whether the craft would carry other passengers; in theory, it can seat six passengers in addition to two pilots. Of course, Branson—whose company has been flying iterations of the spaceplane for nearly a decade—was supposed to go on a flight in 2020. That didn’t happen. So … all bets are off. (Except they’re not, because of course U.K. bookies are taking wagers over which billionaire crosses the Karman line first.)
Of course, neither man will be the first space tourist. That would be Dennis Tito, who spent eight days in orbit after buying a seat on a Russian rocket in 2001. While Branson and Bezos will have flights measured in minutes, Tito actually got to visit the International Space Station. And … oh yeah, he’s also a billionaire.
Tito’s ticket cost a reported $20 million — a bargain, considering that Russia now charges the U.S. more than three times as much for astronaut seats on Soyuz flights. Since then, flights have also been sold to South African Mark Shuttleworth (worth a mere $700 million), American entrepreneur Gregory Olson (also only a several-hundred-millionaire) , and American billionaire Charles Simonyi—the only person to buy a private ticket into space twice. Another ticket went to Iranian American businesswoman Anousheh Ansari, who was the principle sponsor of the Ansari X-Prize—the same prize that drove the creation of the spaceplane Branson is now set to fly.
The ranks of tourist astronauts also includes a couple of figures notable for something other than simply having deep pockets. One is Richard Garriott, known to an early generation of PC gamers as “Lord British.” Garriott literally got into space on the profits that I—and tens of thousands of others—poured into creations like Ultima Online. Good for him. Oh, and Garriott used his time on the ISS to film a science fiction short film. Because of course he did.
Singer, actress, and all around extrordinary person Sarah Brightman was also supposed to go up, but she withdrew from training before the flight. Which is a shame.
But now the world seems to be entering a whole new era of space tourism, one that’s open to anyone who can spend a few million a day—or is willing to open up their IRA and shell out $250,000 for a 10-minute adventure out of the atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic has already sold tickets to both Tom Hanks and Katy Perry (either one of which might generate higher bids than Bezos if people could pick their crewmates). They’ve also sold tickets to people like a 61-year old professor who has already shelled out for “zero-g” flights on a special plane.
Blue Origin hasn’t yet set a price on tickets to ride the New Shepard rocket, but expectations are that they’ll be priced similar to flights with Virgin Galactic. On the surface, both companies are offering a similar experience. A flight with Blue Origin will last 11 minutes and reach a maximum altitude of around 100 kilometers. At the top of that flight will come about three minutes of apparent weightlessness. A flight on VSS Unity should take passengers to around 90 kilometers, and include about seven minutes of floating about.
But the two vehicles are actually quite different. Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a capsule that rides into suborbital space on a liquid-fueled rocket. The booster from that rocket makes a vertical landing back at the landing pad, ala SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The capsule, with up to six passengers (no pilots), makes a landing by parachute in the Texas brush. All of this is highly automated, and more than a dozen test flights have been made. (And yes, everyone is very aware of what Bezos’ rocket looks like.)
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity is very much a plane. It is air-dropped from the belly of the massive two-fuselage carrier aircraft, then ignites a hybrid liquid-solid booster that carries it rapidly to altitude. From there, the back half of the plane “feathers” forward, putting it in position for a landing. Twenty minutes later, it glides down onto the runway at the New Mexico Spaceport. All of this is very much under the control of two very experienced pilots. An earlier version of the craft, the VSS Enterprise, crashed in 2014, killing one pilot. Since then, the craft has made a number of glide tests and flown four flights into space.
On the surface, Blue Origin’s flight appears to be the “no drama” option. It looks like a rocket, because it is a rocket. And it appears perfectly capable of regularly taking a quarter million dollars from passengers so long as there are people in line. Virgin Galactic’s plane is definitely going to be the more exciting flight—and offer a longer time to float around and peer out at the stars—but it also might be a bit of a white-knuckle experience, based on videos from inside the cabin as the craft passes through Mach 3. (If you haven’t watched the video just above, watch the video just above. Then think about riding on that craft. Yeah.)
If you have $250K burning a hole in your pocket, and a powerful desire to see if your stomach can tolerate a massive change in G-forces in just a few minutes, that opportunity is coming. But if your pockets are even deeper, there are more options just ahead.
A company called Space Adventures is not only still offering seats on Russian rockets (Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is set to fly to the ISS in December), they’re also pushing the possibility of significantly more challenging flights. Like a two-person flight around the Moon in a Soyuz capsule. Or the chance to be the first private citizen to perform a space walk. The ticket price on these falls more or less in the “if you have to ask” category.
Where past space tourist shave been just one seat among three cosmonauts, another company, Axiom Space, has signed a deal with NASA that will bring a completely private crew to the ISS for an eight-day stay as early as next January. Onboard that first flight will be Axiom VP Michael López-Alegría, who happens to be an old space hand—he’s a four-time astronaut and veteran of both the ISS and Space Shuttle. Axiom also has their own space station in the works. Oh, and Axiom’s flight is the one that’s carrying a guy named Tom Cruise to the ISS to shoot some little film.
SpaceX has already sold an entire private flight of their Crew Dragon capsule to (say it with me now) billionaire Jared Isaacman. But a trio of non-billionaires will be along for the ride. That includes 29-year-old physician’s assistant Hayley Arceneaux, community college teacher Sian Proctor, and former Air Force officer Chris Sembroski. The flight, which has been named “Inspiration 4” will reuse a capsule from a previous flight that took NASA astronauts to the ISS. Exactly what Isaacman paid for the flight isn’t clear. A usual ticket for a full Falcon-9 flight is around $60 million, but NASA pays out $55 million a seat for manned flights.
Somewhere north of $100 million is a good bet.
But that’s far from SpaceX’s most spectacular sale. In a flight currently scheduled for 2023, SpaceX intends to send eight people on a trip around the Moon using one of their new Starship craft. Considering all the video of Starship prototypes undergoing “rapid unplanned disassembly” (blowing up) as they encounter the hard Texas ground, that may not seem very likely. However, SpaceX recently completed their first successful test flight, and plans to conduct a suborbital test around the end of the year. The “Dear Moon” flight has been chartered by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who apparently doesn’t think a trip to ISS will scratch his space itch. Starship is SpaceX’s all-purpose craft, which the company visualizes as a replacement for the Falcon 9 for hauling satellites, the basis of a new lunar lander, and a passenger carrier for the Moon and beyond. Think of as a space-going Douglas DC-3. (It’s also huge. Like … huge. It’s hard to get a sense of that in the video, but if you stood next to the pad, it would come just halfway up the lower fins. You could fit my house in this thing.)
Even that’s not the limits of where space tourism is expected to go in the next five years. In addition to the Axiom flight, NASA is actively encouraging tourists to fly to the ISS both on Crew Dragon and on Boeing’s upcoming Starliner. At least two more companies are working on private space stations. And a human-rated version of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane may soon offer another ride for passengers.
So now you know how to get into space. Step one. Get a billion dollars.
As with everything else, prices will come down, but probably not until the market for seats exceeds the number of ultra-wealthy willing to buy a ride.