dearMoon and the history of private space travel
With SpaceX’s Starship in the news for a few explosive issues, we’ve started to wonder more about the prospects for commercial space flight. A few weeks ago, Shivani signed up to dearMoon, which is planned as the first civilian mission to the moon in 2023, on a SpaceX Starship. The decision won’t be taken until May 2021, so in the meantime, we’re going to spend the next few weeks learning about the prospects for commercial space travel. Let’s start with a bit of the history of space tourism.
The beginning of private space travel
NASA ran the Space Shuttle program from 1981 to 2011, sending astronauts as well as non-astronaut specialists into space. Their missions ranged from delivering satellites to conducting research to working on the International Space Station. Usually, the non-astronaut passengers were somehow associated with the mission at hand (ie representatives of satellite companies). So while not technically the first space tourists, they’re somewhere in-between astronaut and tourist.
The patches above were the top three winners of a competition to commemorate the Space Shuttle program. Six different spacecraft flew for the program over 30 years: Enterprise, Colombia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis. Sadly, both Colombia and Challenger crashed, killing all crew members.
The Challenger story was particularly notable because it marked the first and last time NASA attempted to send a civilian into space. Christa McAuliffe had won a competition to be the first teacher in space. Her mission was part of NASA’s aim to excite interest in space among the broader population. However, when Challenger crashed, the program to send civilians into space was shut down.
The first space tourist
While the passengers on the Space Shuttle program were not all astronauts, they didn’t pay for their flights and they had to participate in the mission in some way. The world’s first paying space tourist was Dennis Tito (founder of Wilshire Associates) in April 2001. Tito spent $20 million to join the Russian Soyuz TM-32 mission. For that price, he got to spend eight days aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
- Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Thawte Consulting, HBD Venture Capital, and Canonical. He joined the Soyuz TM-34 mission in 2002 and was the first South African in space.
- Gregory Olsen, co-founder of Sensors Unlimited. He joined the Soyuz TMA-7 mission.
- Anousheh Ansari, co-founder of Telecom Technologies and Prodea Systems. She joined the Soyuz TMA-9 mission in 2006, and was the first self-funded woman, first Iranian, and first female Muslim in space.
- Charles Simonyi, who started the applications group at Microsoft and co-founded Intentional Software. He joined the Soyuz TMA-10 mission in 2007 and the Soyuz TMA-14 in 2009. He was the first space tourist to fly twice.
- Richard Garriott, co-founder of Space Adventures, a video game developer and entrepreneur. He joined the Soyuz TMA-13 mission. He was the second second-generation space traveler. Garriott paid Roscosmos in 2000 to research the possibility of private spaceflight (NASA declined), which kickstarted the first era of private spaceflight. However, following the dotcom crash, he was unable to afford the trip.
- Guy Laliberté, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil. He joined the Soyuz TMA-16 mission in 2009.
The potential for space tourismVery few civilians have been in space to date. The costs have been prohibitive and from 2011-2020, Roscosmos took a decade-long break from sending tourists. NASA had ended their Space Shuttle program and bought up seats on the Soyuz missions to the ISS. However, there is a lot of excitement about the prospects for space travel in the coming years. In a widely cited report from 2018, UBS estimated that over a decade, high speed travel via outer space would be worth $20 billion annually and space tourism would be worth $3 billion. It’s worth noting that these figures don’t necessarily mean there will be a huge industry for sending people beyond Earth’s orbit. The $20 billion figure assumes that rockets would be used for on-Earth travel, replacing 5% of 10+ hour long-haul flights. And the $3 billion estimate assumes suborbital travel will become popular with the rise of private companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin. In the meantime, there are lots of engineering feats to overcome (see for example, the “rapid unscheduled disassembly” of the SpaceX Starships SN10 and SN11 in March 2021) and hype to build upon before space tourism comes to the paying masses.
Join the Ride
dearMoon and SpaceXBack in 2018, SpaceX agreed a partnership with Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese fashion billionaire. Maezawa will travel on the first commercial space flight around the moon. Liftoff is anticipated for 2023, and the flight plan indicates a 6-day round trip journey. Maezawa purchased all the seats on the flight and is running the dearMoon competition to find 8 people to accompany him. The application period closed on the 22nd of March 2021, and we anticipate the final selection in June. You can follow along @dearmoonproject on Twitter. (Controversially, Maezawa first ran a “girlfriend contest” for one of the seats on the flight to the moon. Thankfully, that move was swiftly and harshly criticised by the public and withdrawn. Yikes.)
SpaceX plans to transport the dearMoon crew on a Starship: a Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket, both of which are reusable. For those of us that won’t be making the trip, you can see how you’d look in the SpaceX spacesuit, on instagram or facebook. It’s not my best look, but it is fun to imagine being in one of those suits.
Maezawa’s crew won’t be the first civilians sent into space by SpaceX. That honour will be held by billionaire Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux (a physician’s assistant at St Jude Hospital), Chris Semobroski (a US air force veteran), and Sian Proctor (a professor of planetary science). Planned for September 2021, they will fly the first all-civilian, 3-day orbital spaceflight. The mission is called Inspiration4, and it will fly on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience. Notably, SpaceX has installed a glass dome on the tip of Resilience, to provide passengers a 360-degree view.
What about the rest of us?
The idea of travelling in space, orbital or suborbital, feels a distant and unlikely possibility for most of us. However, even if we don’t step on a spacecraft, we may benefit in other ways. This BBC article from 2014 has a few ideas, and we’ll share some of our thoughts on that topic soon. My hope is that, as the Apollo missions to the moon did, space tourism will excite a new generation of people to become engineers and scientists. And that some of those people will develop solutions to Earth’s biggest problems.
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