Travel around the world has become increasingly affordable with technological improvements over the past few decades. For the middle-class, few places are still out of reach. The obvious candidate for a new frontier of tourism is therefore space – a travel destination that is still vastly unaffordable for all but the richest people in the world. But the allure of space is powerful, and for those of us with an adventurous streak, the idea of one day being able to leave Earth and see the world from a different perspective is extremely enticing.
Intuitively, the idea of ‘space travel’ involves leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and, at the very least orbiting Earth, if not making it as far as the moon or another planet. So far, this is far from the reality. To date, space tourism has got people as far as the International Space Station, in low Earth orbit, between 160 and 2,000 km above the surface of Earth. By contrast, to get to the moon you’d have to travel around 38,000 km. For 8 years between 2001 and 2009, Space Adventures offered flights to the International Space Station on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, with a pricetag of $20 – 35 million. However, in 2010 Russia halted this program as they required a greater number of crew for the space station itself, and seats for paying customers were instead given to crew. They plan to resume tourist flights in 2013, increasing the number of launches to 5 a year. Space Adventures remains the only company to have sent paying customers into space, shuttling 7 civilians into space in the 8 year period of operation. One customer, Charles Simonyi, liked his first trip in 2007 so much that he decided to go back again 2 years later. However, at those prices, few people can afford a first visit, let alone repeat voyages!
A future of interstellar tourism seems even less plausible – although it is extremely difficult to estimate, a single interstellar voyage is likely to cost at least $3 Billion just in terms of fuel, requiring 1020 joules of energy. The likelihood of reducing this cost any time soon is small.
However, a more affordable option is at hand – suborbital space travel. Although none have yet been performed, a few companies are developing suborbital space programs for paying customers, including Virgin Galactic. These flights take their passengers to an altitude of between 100 and 160km, just outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. This trip would offer it’s passengers around 5 minutes of total weighlessness, as well as a stellar view on one-side, an a view of the curved surface of the Earth below them.
Virgin Galactic is currently hoping to start sending passengers into space in 2013, and so far over 500 people have reserved a $200,000 ticket into space. This buys you a 2.5 hour flight, as well as participation in the 3-day training course to prepare you for the Gforce experienced leaving Earth. Suborbital flights are slightly more affordable largely because of the reduced fuel required to achieve lower altitudes, but additionally because the craft is not subjected to the extreme aerodynamic heating of reentry that is experienced by fully-orbital space ships, therefore negating the requirement expensive shuttle-like heat shields. At $200,000 a trip, however, suborbital tourism is still going to be a luxury of the wealthy for a long time. However, Richard Branson is optimistic about reducing the costs considerably within the next few decades. Virgin Galactic hope to reduce the cost to $100,000 in the first 5 years, however Branson goes further, saying that he expects his grandchildren will be able to easily afford an astronaut experience.
“Virgin Galactic, I think, will be the first to start taking people into space, and that will be in about 12 months time. It’ll cost you a couple of hundred thousand dollars to go on a Virgin Galactic spaceship, initially, but the price will come down over the years. Our aim is that 20 years from now, that your children, and my grandchildren, will seriously be able to consider becoming astronauts and enjoy the marvels of space travel”
Not only will the Galactic trips offer an experience of a lifetime to it’s passengers, but they also have plans to fly scientists out, enabling experiments which have been prohibitively expensive until now. In 2009, William Whitehorn, then president of Virgin Galactic, said that he felt continued human exploration of space had a great importance in paving the way for solutions to global disaster – it will only be possible to leave the Earth if we continue to invest in and develop manned space flight.
The big problem with achieving cheap space travel is the efficiency of energy conservation. Launching NASA’s Space Shuttle (an orbital craft) takes about 1,000 tons of solid fuel, plus 250,000 litres of liquid fuel per person. And this isn’t your everyday petrol, either! To make these quantities of fuel affordable to a middle-class family, fuel prices would have to come down to around 1 – 2 cents per gallon (1/4 of a penny per litre), a hundred-fold decrease on current prices. But with fuel prices set to continue to increase as we exhaust our remaining fossil fuels, this scenario seems extremely unlikely. Although improvements in technology may ameliorate this, it seems unlikely that orbital space flight will be anything other than a rich-man’s holiday any time soon.