Abigail BanerjiJul 13, 2021 09:57:21 IST
Somewhat contested, it is widely believed that brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright (aka The Wright Brothers) were the first people to fly an airplane successfully on 17 December 1903. Eleven years later, on 1 January 1914, the first commercial flight was undertaken by test pilot Tony Jannus along with his first paying passenger – Abram C Pheil, former mayor of St. Petersburg. They travelled 34-kilometres from St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida in a matter of 23 minutes.
What was once an exclusive treat and no doubt a pricey affair has become an easy, everyday occurrence now. Millions of people travel from one continent to another, over oceans and landmasses. It is no longer thought to be an elite mode of transport.
But this all started with a small flight and a dream.
Similarly, travelling to space was also once a grand affair. But humans now travel to space frequently, have multiple launches to transport men and women to an orbiting laboratory (ISS) that is 408 km above the Earth, have been to the moon and have plans for travelling to Mars. Space travel has gotten easier over the years, it is still a very closed community with government-run space agencies monopolising the space industry. We do have private aerospace companies making a breakthrough and establishing themselves as reliant, safe, and – dare I say – cheap alternatives.
Buzz Aldrin, an American astronaut and the second person to stand on the moon said, “I believe that space travel will one day become as common as airline travel is today. I’m convinced, however, that the true future of space travel does not lie with government agencies… but real progress will come from private companies competing to provide the ultimate adventure ride.”
To break this long-standing autonomy on space flights, billionaire Richard Branson and a crew of five senior Virgin Galactic employees, took a trip to space. Though short-lived, it has made the idea of going to space a more tangible reality for many.
Branson did throw open the proverbial door and break the glass ceiling and is definitely not the only one vying for a piece of travelling in space action.
Soon another billionaire entrepreneur, former Amazon CEO and Blue Origin’s CEO Jeff Bezos will follow suit – in fact, he is just nine days behind.
Billionaire Elon Musk has already made a name for his company – SpaceX – in the industry when he became the first private company to launch NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in May last year. He broke a nine-year drought of launching astronauts from the US after the risky Apollo missions shut shop. Funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, SpaceX will carry a private crew of four – Inspiration4 – for a trip around the Earth that will last three days in September this year.
SpaceX has yet another trip planned next year with Axiom Space that will carry NASA veteran Michael Lopez-Alegria and three businessmen — Larry Conner, Mark Pathy, and Eytan Stibbe. Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has also booked a trip with SpaceX, where he will take eight lucky people with him to space, in 2023
Is there something common among all these space flights planned?
You don’t need to look too closely. It’s glaringly obvious – All these private trips are being funded by billionaires with pocket change to blow up (pun intended) on a return trip to the outer world.
So while space travel IS becoming accessible, it is a luxury that only a few can afford.
According to a report by UBS, within the next 10 years, space travel will be a $3 billion industry. It also stated that high-speed space travel competes with long-distance airline flights. It also expects that the broader space sector, which is currently valued at around $400 billion, will more than quadruple to $805 billion by 2030.
There is a hope, that similar to airplane flight costs that have decreased as the demand and private players increased, the cost of spaceflight will also decrease. Only time with tell.
Branson’s trip to space is not the first time space tourists have gone to space. Russian space agency Roscosmos facilitated the trip of businessman Dennis Tito to the ISS on 28 April 2001. He paid $20 million for his seat in the Soyuz rocket. After him, only seven other people have made the exhilarating trip to the International Space Station.
Till 2019, it costs NASA $11,250 per person per day for life support and toilet capabilities and another $22,500 for things like food and air. According to NASA’s newly released pricing policy, the cost of the ISS crew time to support a private astronaut mission is $5.2 million per person. Integration and basic services, such as mission preparation cost $4.8 million each mission. Currently, it costs between $88,000 and $164,000 per person each day for pre-staging food and other cargo on the station for those voyages on NASA cargo vehicles, as well as cargo disposal on those spacecraft.
Bezos’ trip on 20 July will include his brother Mark, an 82-year-old female pilot Wally Funk and a mystery person who won the last ticket during an online auction. The cost of one ticket? $28 million!
The bids had reached $4.8 million on previous days but during the live auction, the price kept increasing in million-dollar increments. The mysterious entity outbid around 20 other people at the live auction. Their name hasn’t been revealed as yet and is supposed to be announced before the flight.
Blue Origin hasn’t yet disclosed how much a seat on its New Shepherd rocket will cost. The cost of the ticket for people launching will include training, the flight itself and accommodation.
After its first flight and before it officially begins flying paying customers, Virgin Galactic will take two more flights. From early 2022, Galactic will start commercial flights with the goal of conducting 400 flights per year. The tickets are priced at a whopping $250,000 and have been sold to over 600 people from 60 different countries, including some Hollywood celebrities as well. The cost of the ticket for Virgin Galactic’s space plane SpaceShipTwo will include the flight, training and a swanky blue spacesuit.
According to Business Insider, a trip aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon cost $55 million per head. For people who travel to SpaceX via Axiom Space, their costly ticket will include training, mission planning, life support, medical support, crew provisions and also a stay on the ISS for eight days.
Even if you have the money to travel to space, it is still not easy to become an astronaut. The European Space Agency calls it the most challenging programme to follow and organise. From countless simulation flights, underwater training and even working on a multitude of mock-up instruments, it is a gruelling process. These men and women are trained to survive in the harsh environments of space where any slip up can cause millions of dollars of damages and cost them their lives. It is an international affair with space agencies coming together to train people to live and thrive in space. While private companies have trained people for short flights, space tourists who want to live on the ISS still have to undergo training with NASA.
This makes human space travel a far fetched dream for everyone.
What can we expect in the future?
There are a lot of other private players trying to make inroads into this industry and bring space tourism closer to common people. From offering quick round trips to space to plans of an orbiting nightclub, space tourism is the next destination for people with the money to spend. With the advancement of technology that allows us to reuse rockets and boosters, make cheaper rocket fuel and increase in flight frequency, the cost of travel will decrease.
There are also talks about filming a movie on the ISS. There have been talks about a movie with actor Tom Cruise but nothing has been confirmed as yet. Cruise is supposed to travel with Hollywood director Doug Liman on board a SpaceX rocket.
Russia, which is caught in a space race with the US, recently announced that 36-year-old actress Yulia Peresild and 38-year-old film director Klim Shipenko will be launched to the ISS on 5 October 2021. Tentatively titled ‘The Call’, the announcement of filming a movie in space was made in September 2020 – only a few short months after the Hollywood plans were made public.
Space is only the next frontier and the moon and Mars are the next steps for humankind.
In the words of astronaut Christa McAuliffe, “Space is for everybody. It’s not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.”