Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic successfully completed its third human suborbital spaceflight test flight last month and is looking to fly paying passengers early next year. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which flies much more powerful rockets that send spacecraft to orbit, has private astronaut flights on its manifest that could send as many as 20 private citizens to orbit over the next few years. That’s more astronauts than flew during NASA’s Gemini program.
And Blue Origin has announced that its founder, Jeff Bezos, would be on its first human spaceflight mission, scheduled for July 20, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, along with his brother Mark. They are to be joined by the winner of an online auction that culminated Saturday and attracted nearly 6,000 bidders from 143 countries, all seeking to be part of a new era of space travel where wealth is as important as courage.
The trips aren’t cheap. Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that arranges training and all aspects of the flights, is charging as much as $55 million for a week-long trip to the International Space Station. It has booked four such flights on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon over the next couple of years.
Blue Origin hasn’t announced what it will charge for its relatively quick suborbital flights once ticket sales are live — though the auction would give it plenty of data about the potential market and a list of interested buyers for rides that the company promises will showcase startling views of Earth and glimpses of the cosmos “that will change how you see the world.” Virgin Galactic was charging as much as $250,000 per seat on its SpaceShipTwo spaceplane and has a waiting list of about 600 passengers. When it reopens sales this year, the ticket price is likely to rise to about $500,000, analysts of the business say.
The market has the potential to be robust, according to the analysts. In a note to investors, Ken Herbert and Austin Moeller, analysts at Canaccord Genuity, wrote the suborbital space tourism market could be worth $8 billion by 2030, with 1 million potential customers wealthy enough to afford the ticket price and willing to go.
Despite delays from technical issues and a fatal crash that killed one of its pilots in 2014, “we expect a surge in orders” once Virgin Galactic is selling tickets again, they said. And the company, they noted, probably will get a lot of attention when Branson flies later this year and as celebrities start to go as well. Using data from a French consulting firm, the analysts said there are 19.6 million people worldwide with a net worth greater than $1 million.
“We believe that the life-changing experience and value proposition of traveling to the edge of the cosmos is like no other,” they wrote. “And there are likely many single-digit millionaires who would be willing to contribute a sizable portion of their assets to partake in a once-in-a-lifetime space odyssey.”
Flying from Spaceport America in the New Mexican desert, Virgin Galactic has for years been promising a luxurious experience beyond the flight itself. Virgin’s astronauts would ride around the spaceport in specially designed Land Rovers, be outfitted in custom spaceflight suits tailored by UnderArmour, and be served post-flight drinks such as the “Galactic Martini” and the “Beyond the Clouds Cocktail.”
Blue Origin has made similar promises of a wondrous experience, especially as it seeks to up the bidding for its first flight in an effort that would benefit its nonprofit, Club for the Future, which works to encourage students to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
They’re not the first, though, to promise out-of-this-world rides. The Russian space agency flew seven wealthy people to space for some $20 million each during the 2000s. It is also sending up several private citizens in coming months. In October, Yulia Peresild, a Russian actress, and Klim Shipenko, a film director, are scheduled to fly alongside Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov on a trip to the space station, where they will shoot scenes for a film.
Then in December, Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, is scheduled to fly on the Russian Soyuz with his production assistant, Yozo Hirano, who will document the experience on the station for Maezawa’s YouTube channel. Previously, Maezawa had booked another flight, on SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, in a mission that would fly him and several other applicants in orbit around the moon. But clearly eager to get to space while SpaceX works on developing Starship, he decided to take a trip to the space station with the Russians while he waits.
“I’m so curious, ‘what’s life like in space?’” he said in a statement released by Space Adventures, the Virginia firm that helps book seats on Russian missions. “So I am planning to find out on my own and share with the world on my YouTube channel.”
In some cases, the wealthy space travelers are opening up the frontier for others — raffling off seats or giving them away in competitions. On his trip around the moon, Maezawa had initially wanted to fly artists who would be inspired by the mission, but then he decided to pursue a TV show where he would seek a romantic partner with whom to share the flight. Now instead he’s holding a competition for eight seats on the moon mission — an undertaking that, if it happens, would be the most ambitious mission civilian spaceflight ever.
“I want people from all kinds of backgrounds to join,” Maezawa said in a video released this year. He said he was looking for people who “want to help people and contribute to society. You want to take your creative activity to the next level.”
Jared Isaacman, the billionaire founder of Shift4 Payments, also held a competition for two seats on a mission, scheduled for September, that would orbit Earth in an effort to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. One went to Sian Proctor, an artist and explorer who spent more than 20 years as a science professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, the other to Chris Sembroski, an engineer at Lockheed Martin. The final seat Isaacman gave to Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at the hospital and a childhood cancer survivor.
Isaacman is an accomplished pilot who flies military and commercial jets and holds a couple of speed records. But he is not a professional astronaut, and the flight he is commanding would be the first time the crew would be comprised entirely of civilians.
Russia’s paid flights in the early 2000s were an effort to raise money for its struggling space program, at a time when NASA forbade the practice, saying spaceflight was too dangerous to be opened to ordinary people.
But in 2019, NASA reversed course, throwing the doors open to the space station, at least for those who could afford it.
“That’s the dream, right? That space isn’t just for NASA anymore, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do,” Kathy Lueders, who heads NASA’s office of human spaceflight, said at a recent briefing with reporters. “Our goal is really to be able to give access to as many folks in space as much as possible, so it’s kind of opening up opportunities for all of us.”
She acknowledged that for now only the super wealthy, or lucky, will have an opportunity to fly to the space station, which has cost taxpayers some $100 billion. But she said the prices would probably come down as the companies fly more frequently. “We’re right at the beginning of these private astronaut missions,” she said. “It’s tough at the beginning.”
NASA does get a share of the money. Under new pricing guidelines, the agency now charges $10 million for each private astronaut mission — for crew time to support flights to the space station, mission planning and communications. It also charges other, smaller fees, including $2,000 a day per person for food.
The agency has no plans to subsidize missions for ordinary people the way governments carve out affordable housing units for the working class. She said, rather, she hopes “we’ll have so many customers, the price point would go down.”
In the early days of the space shuttle, NASA had a different perspective. The space agency was convinced that the shuttle would fly so frequently, as many as 60 times a year, that it could fill seats with private citizens. In the early 1980s, NASA stood up a committee to determine whether that was appropriate.
“They went around to all the NASA human flight centers,” recalled Alan Ladwig, who ended up heading NASA’s “spaceflight participant program.” “They talked to astronauts, engineers. They even sent out a letter to 100 thought leaders, people from a broad range of society to comment on whether they thought this would be a good idea.”
The answer was yes, he said, “as long as it was for a purpose. And that purpose was communications.” NASA wanted people who would be able to communicate the impact of the experience and help educate the public on it. So first a teacher would go, then a journalist and after that perhaps an artist.
The teacher was Christa McAuliffe, of Concord, N.H., who was selected over thousands of other applicants in a ceremony presided over by Vice President George H.W. Bush. The decision “was pretty controversial at the time because certainly the journalists all thought they were going to go first and were quite upset that they didn’t,” Ladwig said.
Still, by the time of McAuliffe’s flight in January 1986 on the Challenger, NASA had already winnowed the list of reporters to 40 finalists, the late CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite chief among them. But after the Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, killing McAuliffe and the six other crew members, NASA ended the spaceflight participant program. “Putting a civilian back on the shuttle was not high on anybody’s priority list,” Ladwig said.
For all the hype and excitement about the coming private astronaut missions, spaceflight remains extraordinarily risky. And it’s not clear what will happen if there is an accident on a commercial vehicle. After Virgin Galactic’s fatal accident, Branson thought about shuttering the venture entirely before deciding to press on, saying opening the frontier to more people was worth the risk.
Virgin Galactic has said it is confident that it has fixed the problems that caused the fatal crash. But it noted in a recent annual report that “due to the inherent risks associated with commercial spaceflight, there is the possibility that any accident or catastrophe could lead to the loss of human life or a medical emergency.”