Spaceflight companies are already taking bookings for trips into Earth’s orbit and even around the Moon. Suddenly, a two-week holiday in the Caribbean looks very dull indeed, says Dominic Bliss.

Later this year, if all goes to plan, two very wealthy amateur astronauts will lift off in a rocket from Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A – the same launchpad used by the Apollo missions back in the 1970s – before looping around the Moon and returning to Earth. Presumably they’ve both remembered to reserve a window seat.

This very ambitious mission is being staged by a Californian spaceflight company called SpaceX. Founded by Elon Musk – he of Tesla and PayPal fame – SpaceX won’t yet reveal very much about the mission, not even the two astronauts’ names; only that they will be launching on a 70-metre-high Falcon Heavy rocket, and then circumnavigating the Moon in a much smaller autonomous Dragon 2 spacecraft.

“This would be a long loop around the Moon,” Musk revealed. “It would skim its surface, go quite a bit further into deep space and then loop back to Earth. So I’m guessing, distance-wise, maybe 300,000 or 400,000 miles.” The flight is expected to last a week; the price, undisclosed.

Much shorter and less ambitious are the spaceflights currently planned by British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s spaceflight company Virgin Galactic. For a $250,000 (return) ticket, ordinary punters will get a trip aboard SpaceShipTwo, a reusable, rocket-powered winged spacecraft with capacity for two pilots and six passengers. The amateur astronauts will fly into space, 60-plus miles above the Earth’s atmosphere, where they will “experience a thrilling, dynamic rocket ride; true unencumbered weightlessness; and the best possible view of Earth and the blackness of space”.

Virgin Galactic wouldn’t commit to a precise launch date for the first commercial flight, but its commercial director Stephen Attenborough did tell Business Traveller: “It’s on the horizon but one can never be entirely certain as to how far away that horizon is.” Paying passengers are merely a stepping stone towards the company’s ultimate goal of industrial spaceflight, with reusable craft. “Our quest is to reduce the cost of space launch, so reusable vehicles are the holy grail,” Attenborough says, suggesting that, in the future, Virgin Galactic may sell its transport services to asteroid mining companies, scientists, or companies and governments wishing to place astronauts or satellites in space. For example, it’s currently collaborating with communications company OneWeb, which aims, via a satellite network, to offer internet broadband to everyone on the planet.

Crossing continents

Virgin Galactic also has its sights on operating long-haul air travel above the Earth’s atmosphere, where lower gravity and lack of air resistance would save huge amounts of time and fuel. Flight times of a couple of hours from London to Sydney have even been mooted.

“With the exception of Concorde, we’ve been travelling through the air at a little below the speed of sound for many, many years,” Attenborough adds. “This would leapfrog supersonic speeds and probably get into hypersonic, in excess of Mach 5.”

One of Virgin Galactic’s rivals in commercial spaceflight is Washington State-based Blue Origin, which has already secured contracts to deliver satellites into space, and successfully launched New Shepard, a reuseable launch systerm. Company boss is Jeff Bezos, the man who earned his fortune through Amazon. He hopes space tourism will give his rocket scientists the practice they need to reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of space travel, with the ultimate goal of moving heavy industry off planet Earth altogether.

“It is a step towards a spacefaring civilisation,” he said in a recent BBC documentary, The 21st Century Race for Space. “We have sent robotic probes to every planet in the solar system and we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Earth is the best one. This is the best planet! The only way to really protect it is to eventually move heavy industry off Earth.”

Bezos understands why critics of space exploration want to see our home planet’s myriad problems solved before we head into space. However, he contends that space is “part of the solution” to Earth’s problems.

“Space is a much better place to do heavy manufacturing. In space, you have 24/7 solar power. Every kind of element that you need is available in very large quantities. Over the next couple of hundred years, that will allow us to both continue to have a dynamic, expanding, growing, thriving, interesting civilisation, while protecting the diamond of a planet that we evolved on.”


Within space industry, asteroid mining is an intriguing possibility. In 2014 the European Space Agency landed (and inadvertently bounced) a probe on the surface of a comet called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This was just the start. While comets tend to be dust and ice, asteroids are composed mainly of metals and rock, many of which are invaluable to the products and industry essential to modern life and that could be depleted from Earth within the next 50 to 60 years. Over the following few decades it’s thought spaceflight companies will send robotic probes to asteroids in order to extract valuable minerals and metals. A single asteroid of the right type would be worth a fortune if brought to Earth.

There are two major companies leading the way in this field. One is California-based Deep Space Industries, which has partnered with the government of Luxembourg. The other is Washington State-based Planetary Resources, which plans to mine metals for use in extra-terrestrial construction and spacecraft components. The latter suggests there are around 16,000 near-Earth asteroids, containing two-trillion tonnes of water.

Back at SpaceX, Elon Musk could well do with some of that rocket propellant. His cleverest boffins have designed the Falcon Heavy rocket, which they claim is three times more powerful than its predecessor, the Falcon 9. Musk states the new model can not only propel long-haul commercial flights up above the Earth’s atmosphere, or spaceflights around the Moon inside the Dragon 2 craft, but will also eventually transfer cargo and passengers to Mars, Venus, even Jupiter and Saturn.

“We should have a lunar base by now. What the hell’s going on?” Musk said at the International Astronautical Congress in September 2017. “And then, of course, Mars, and becoming a multi-planet species. Beats the hell out of being a single-planet species.”

Musk has the mind-bogglingly ambitious target date of 2024 to send humans to the red planet. First, in 2022, there will be an unmanned spaceship to “confirm water resources, identify hazards and put
in place initial power, mining, and life support infrastructure”.

Two years later the manned mission is scheduled to follow. “Then we will build up the base, starting with one ship, then multiple ships, then start building up the city, then making the city bigger. And over time terraforming Mars, and making it a really nice place to be.”

Much of Musk’s zeal stems from his fear that our planet might eventually succumb to an extinction caused by an asteroid
strike or a global pandemic. Should this happen, he argues, a human colony on Mars will ensure the human race doesn’t die out.

Despite all the promises (some might call them pipe dreams) from billionaires Branson, Bezos, Musk et al, space tourism has so far been a niche activity. There have only been seven amateur astronauts in space so far.

The very first was American investment specialist Dennis Tito who, in 2001, paid Russia’s space agency $20 million to visit the International Space Station and spend a week orbiting the Earth.

“The beauty of private space flight [is] you can be goofy if you want to,” Tito said in a BBC documentary that showed him aboard the station sipping a mocktail. “There’s no one to criticise you. You’re paying your own bill. You’re not having this trip on government money. So there’s a lot more freedom.”

Tito remembers spending half of every Earth orbit staring out of the spaceship porthole at the incredible views, while listening to opera. “I never got bored looking out. It was such an awesome experience being off the planet and being one of the privileged few humans to do this. It’s never left me. I think of it every day.”

What else can wide-eyed space tourists expect to behold? On any future space flights, the views of Earth will no doubt rapidly fill up the memories of their mobile phones. Zero gravity is another out-of-this-world experience they will surely dine out on.

George Pantalos works in bioengineering at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He was lucky enough to experience weightlessness on NASA’s KC-135 zero-gravity plane, otherwise known as the “vomit comet”.

“In weightlessness, you are effortlessly floating,” he explains. “The most comparable feeling is floating in water without the sensation of water on your skin. Because you feel so light, you can move about with the slightest amount of effort. Pushing off a surface too hard, which is the common mistake of all first-time free-floaters, results in you zinging around like a ping-pong ball. Nice and easy does the trick. Peter Pan never had it so good, and Michael Jordan only got a few seconds of hang time. In weightlessness, you have all the hang time you need.”

Given the rapid advances in reusable rocket technology, it’s fair to assume that space travel will eventually become as common as visiting the poles or climbing Mount Everest. Virgin Galactic plan to build a whole fleet of spacecraft for tourists. “There have been 560 or so people who have been into space to date,” Attenborough says. “I would expect that we would fly that number of people in a small number of years.” He refused, however, to be more precise than this on passenger numbers.

Space tourism, he believes, is far more important than simply an opportunity for multi-millionaires to boast about their holidays.

“We’re going to offer people an extraordinary, profound and life-changing experience. If you read the accounts of professional astronauts who have gone to space in the last 50 years, most of them came back talking about their experience for the rest of their lives. They come back with a clear perspective: there is only one [habitable] planet we know of. There isn’t an alternative home for us within reach at the moment. Earth is extremely beautiful; it looks very fragile from space. There is a sense we’re all in this together, and that there’s much more that unites us than divides us. By being able to give a lot more people a similar experience, we think spaceflight has a powerful, potential force for good in its own right.”

Until then, ticket prices remain at $250,000 a flight. Naturally, Richard Branson, the boss of Virgin Galactic, has a seat reserved on the inaugural commercial flight. And Attenborough, as the first employee hired by Virgin Galactic 13 years ago, won’t be far behind.