Billionaires Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX have been planning their space adventures for some time now. And two of them -- Branson and Bezos -- are going to space this month. Branson on July 11, Bezos nine days later.
Their journeys are expected to usher in a new era of commercial space travel.
They have invested billions of dollars in their startups that aspire to take space enthusiasts to the 'edge of space' (suborbital or 50-100 km from earth’s surface) for a pre-fixed price.
The space tourism market size could be around $3 billion per annum by 2030, estimates UBS, according to a Reuters report.
Branson’s space startup Virgin Galactic announced that its flamboyant owner would be a "mission specialist" aboard the SpaceShipTwo Unity, which will go to space on July 11, "pending weather and technical checks." The spaceplane will carry six passengers -- two pilots, Branson and three others.
Virgin Galactic has developed winged rocket ship SpaceShipTwo Unity and VSS Unity in Mojave (California) after 17 years of research, engineering, and innovation.
The reusable SpaceShipTwo system will have the VSS Unity spaceplane lifted to a height by a large carrier aircraft named VMS Eve till it separates.
Virgin’s Unity will take off on July 11 from Dead Man’s Route in New Mexico, one of the most isolated stretches of desert in North America.
Virgin Galactic’s suborbital fights hit more than three times the speed of sound -- roughly 2,300 miles per hour -- and fly directly upward, said CNN.
Branson is set to make the space trip with two pilots, Dave Mackay and Michael ‘Sooch’ Masucci, and three co-testers -- Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, lead operations engineer Colin Bennett and vice president of government affairs Sirisha Bandla (an Indian American).
Virgin Galactic is expected to offer a flight time of around ninety minutes from take-off to landing, including several minutes of weightlessness.
Virgin Galactic is reported to have more than 600 ticket reservations already, priced at around $250,000.
It expects to begin full commercial service in 2022 and eventually hopes to reduce the ticket price to around $40,000, as per Reuters.
Virgin Galactic is public-funded though Branson is believed to have invested $1 billion in the last 16 years.
It has been reported that over a million New Mexico investors put in nearly a quarter of one billion dollars to build Virgin Galactic's home at Spaceport America.
Virgin Galactic is valued at over $11 billion as of July 6, 2021, with its stock peaking at almost $60 following the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval on June 25, 2021.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is going on an 11-minute ride to space with his younger brother Mark on July 20. Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin announced that the Bezos brothers will be joined by another passenger who has won the spare seat on the New Shepard space rocket for $28 million.
Bezos founded Kent-based Blue Origin in 2000 but kept it a secret till 2003.
The Bezos brothers will be joined by 82-year old aviator Wally Funk, who will become the oldest spacefarer with this trip. She had trained to be an astronaut in the 1960s for the Mercury 13 programme.
The New Shepard booster and capsule system will fly (from west Texas) to a height of 100 km.
Unlike Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, Blue Origin's fully automated New Shepard is a rocket-and-capsule combination, which shoots off into suborbital space before separating. The rocket section returns to the launchpad, with the pressurised capsule falling back to Earth through parachutes. It features six observation windows, which is the largest ever used in space, states Reuters.
The suborbital flight is expected to be around 10 minutes after separation. Passengers will experience few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the earth before returning back.
Reuters reported in 2018 that Bezos' space venture Blue Origin was planning to charge passengers at least $200,000 per ride, though not confirmed officially.
Bezos had earlier said he would sell around $1 billion in Amazon stock annually to finance Blue Origin.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 and pledged $20 million to fund the mission. SpaceX has already taken a crew to the International Space Station (ISS).
In the summer of 2020, SpaceX launched and brought back two NASA astronauts on its spacecraft in a mission that was historic for both Musk’s company and the US space agency.
The test flight made SpaceX the first private company to send people to orbit, a feat only previously achieved by countries.
The company has plans to send an all-civilian crew into orbit in September. It is expected to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule can carry up to seven people. It sits atop a reusable Falcon rocket, which it uses to reach space.
Musk wants to build a fully reusable rocket system that can launch cargo or as many as 100 people at a time.
Musk has also said SpaceX will fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon with its forthcoming Starship rocket in 2023, reported Reuters.
The SpaceX missions are expected to last three to four days from launch.
While SpaceX hasn’t disclosed any specifics, the fee is likely to be about $50 million per person to fly with Crew Dragon.
A 10-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS) would mean a $350,000 bill with NASA. Under the agency’s cost structure unveiled last year, NASA would get $35,000 a night per person, as compensation for the agency’s services to the tourist while on board the ISS.
SpaceX is also privately owned and has raised billions of dollars in successive funding rounds. Strategic investors include Alphabet and Fidelity.
Earlier, Musk had said the fees charged for SpaceX's charter flights will go toward missions to the moon and eventually Mars.
Boeing’s Starliner capsule is also designed to carry seven passengers. Under Boeing’s contract with NASA, for every four astronauts it flies, the company is allowed to sell the fifth seat to prospective space tourists.
XCOR Aerospace is selling seats aboard its one-passenger Lynx rocket plane for $95,000. Lynx could begin commercial operations soon.
Space Adventures, Axiom Space and Virgin Galactic each offer some variation of orbital space tourism services.
In the last 20 years, US-based Space Adventures has flown seven tourists using Russian spacecraft reportedly at $20 million-plus per person. The private clients typically spent over a week onboard the ISS.
(Edited by : Shoma Bhattacharjee)
First Published: IST