Dennis Tito is, while not the first non-astronaut in space, definitely the first space tourist. Self-funded with the capital he built up through his company Wilshire Associates (investment management since 1972), you wouldn’t exactly class him as the average neighbour living around the corner. With a Bachelor of Science in Astronautics and Aeronautics from NYU and a Master of Science in Engineering Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Tito was already well on his way to achieving his 40-year goal. On top of that, he is also a former scientist of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Being a pioneer is rarely easy, and often very expensive and the same goes for Tito. His milestone adventure set the New York born engineer and entrepreneur back $20 million. A small sum if you compare it to the value of the international clientele his company represents ($12.5 trillion) but definitely not even in the same ballpark as the flights Virgin Galactic, XCor Aerospace and others will offer in coming year (around the $100k-$250k mark seems to be the benchmark – given those flights won’t offer you to stay in orbit on board the ISS). Tito however did do it in 2001, over a decade before any of these companies would achieve flying humans into space on a commercial space flight. And he didn’t have an easy ride – NASA refused to take him up, or even train him on the grounds that he was not a trained astronaut… so the Russians trained him for 900 hours and facilitated the trip. Ten years before that, in 1991, he looked into going up into space on a trip to Moscow. Unfortunately his ticket became void in disastrous fashion, when the MIR space station fell uncontrollably from the sky that year.
It was space tourism company Space Adventures who brokered for Tito to join the Soyuz TM-32 mission in April 2001 and he ended up staying in orbit – most of that on board the International Space Station – for nearly 8 days. As we saw with later space tourists, he did several scientific experiments while doing his 128 orbits around the Earth. Not resting there, in January 2013 Tito founded the Inspiration Mars Foundation. Its mission: “launch a manned mission to flyby Mars in 2018“. That trip would take 501 days taking into account the shortest route possible with today’s technology – although it would probably take a considerable amount of training for the astronauts selected to withstand the psychological and physical rigors of that journey.
“I often thought that if I did spend my last penny, I could live on social security for the rest of my life and still be happy, because I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve. It was a sense of completeness – from then on, everything is a bonus. And the last 10 years, everything since then, has been just extra. And I think I am one of the happiest humans alive because of that.”
SpaceDev, a subsidiary of Sierra Nevada Corporation, is developing a very cool looking seven-seater spacecraft called Dream Chaser, designed to launch astronauts into space using the by now well-established Atlas 5 rocket. Think of the spacecraft as a mini-shuttle – it’s about four times smaller and based on designs that NASA and Russian engineers experimented with in the 80’s and 90’s, using on-board propulsion systems derived from SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid rocket motor technology – technology being designed and developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) for Scaled Composites. No word as of yet about cost for potential passengers, but the primary Dream Chaser Space System mission is to provide NASA with a safe, reliable commercially-operated transportation service for crew and cargo to the ISS and back to Earth and not just to carry out low Earth orbital flights.
Closer to reality, SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) will be happy to fly you into low Earth orbit in their Dragon capsule, launched on top of their Falcon 9 rocket as soon as 2015. But as if that isn’t exciting enough yet, Elon Musk announced that he will be looking to send people to Mars for a cool half a million dollars – not too bad when you put it in perspective. It will be a trip of months, not hours at only a few times the cost of a low orbit ride. Elon Musk might truly be the real Tony Stark – where is the suit though? SpaceX confirmed in 2012 that their target launch price for crewed Dragon flights is $140,000,000 which means a solid $20,000,000 per seat if the maximum crew of 7 is aboard – still about 3 times cheaper than Soyuz but cheap it is not!
If you are looking for the feeling of weightlessness without actually becoming an astronaut and losing a fortune doing so, then there’s an astronomically cheaper option out there. Zero Gravity Corporation (also known as ZERO-G) is an American company in Virginia that offers flights aboard a cargo plane that goes into a parabolic arc. This way, it actually simulates weightlessness for its passengers, at a mere $4,950, plus tax. A flight lasts 90 to 100 minutes, and consists of fifteen parabolas, each of which simulates about 30 seconds of reduced gravity: one that simulates Martian gravity (one third of Earth’s), two that simulate Lunar gravity (one sixth of Earth’s), and 12 that simulate weightlessness. That’s value for money if you ask us!
Next time, what is Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos up to, and more!
Well, there is XCOR Aerospace‘s Lynx which would get you into space for $95.000 and you can book (and check out the video) here. It would just be you and the pilot experiencing a half-hour suborbital flight to 100 km (330,000 feet) and then returning to a landing at the takeoff runway, but for less than half the price of a ticket aboard Virgin Galactic‘s SpaceShipTwo it sounds like value for money. With a fast turnaround time (they don’t use any separate launch vehicle – as it is basically a cutting edge plane that does the whole trip from the ground to suborbit by itself using only rocket engines), they are looking at launching four flights a day meaning you could still take the family out for a nice day out.
Starchaser Industries offers a seat to anyone able to cough up £98.000 (currently around $150.000), + VAT (slap another 20% on top of that basically) and seems to take things in two stages. Their first approach will consist of a 3 person reusable space capsule called Thunderstar which will be launched on top of their own Starchaser 5 rocket. Stage 2 of their plans will feature an 8-seater spaceplane that will take off vertically on a modified version of said rocket. You can check out more info here, but as their news is 2+ years outdated, perhaps this one bit the dust already.
Next time, we’ll look at SpaceX‘s Dragon capsule and many more. Stay tuned!