3, 2, 1... Liftoff! Could you score a ticket to space?
Richard Branson will make history on Sunday. His Virgin Galactic VSS Unity rocket will blast off into space, becoming the first private company to ferry two pilots and four mission specialists (including himself) to test space journeys for civilians. They’ll evaluate cabin environment, seat comfort, what it feels like to be weightless for several minutes, and the quality of the views of Earth from above. Branson will conduct two more test flights before he opens space tours to the public.
On Earth, the race to catapult tourists into orbit is on. Only eight civilians have travelled to space so far, all via Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos plans to head out aboard his firm Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule on July 20. He’ll take astronauts and regular folk with him. Tesla founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX will launch Inspiration4, a multiday low-Earth-orbit trip and the world’s first all-civilian space flight, on September 15. By January, another SpaceX mission, Axiom, will have taken three businessmen all the way to the International Space Station (ISS).
The ISS will host private visitors in October and December. The first few flights on Space Perspective’s hydrogen-fuelled football stadium-sized hot-air balloon-like vessel heading into orbit in early 2024 are already sold out. This ride won’t involve spacesuits and weightlessness, but the relaxed six-hour trip will offer plush reclining seats, and access to a bar and bathroom.
For longer stays, Voyager Station, a luxury space hotel designed like a Ferris wheel, opens in 2027. It will have a restaurant, gym, and Earth-viewing lounges and bars.
Meanwhile, here on Earth, weighed down by envy, can you score a seat on a departing craft? Here’s a look at what it takes to make the cut:
It helps to be an astronaut. Most space tourism ventures and civilian missions need experienced crew on board. Many are astronauts who trained with American, European or Russian space agencies but never blasted off. Aboard the Axiom craft is former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria. Alongside Jeff Bezos on the New Shepard is 82-year-old Mary Wallace Funk, a pilot who trained and qualified to travel to space 60 years ago, but was denied a seat because she was a woman. She’ll be the oldest person to go to space, courtesy Bezos.
It’s even better to be stratospherically rich. The world’s wealthiest people have rocket companies, but those tagging along aren’t short of a buck either. A three-and-a-half-day stay at the Voyager Station hotel is expected to cost $5 million (over ₹37.3 crore). A seat on the Space Perspective vessel will set you back $125,000 (over ₹93 lakh). Branson’s Unity trips cost $250,000 (over ₹1.8 crore) for a 90-minute space flight. Popstar Justin Bieber and actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher are among those who have bought tickets on future Unity flights. An anonymous bidder paid $28 million (over ₹200 crore) in July to strap in next to Bezos on his 11-minute spaceflight. That’s loose change compared to the $55 million (over ₹400 crore) per seat on the Axiom, especially considering that the passengers will be expected to help with research on the ISS.
You could star in a movie. Hundreds of young women answered Roscosmos’s casting call to headline Challenge, the first movie to be shot on the ISS. Actor Yulia Peresild, 36, landed the role last month. She’ll join director Klim Shipenko in standard cosmonaut training before heading to space in October. Not to be outdone, NASA and Tom Cruise are collaborating on an ISS film of their own. They haven’t set a date yet.
Or make a movie about the movie. Japanese fashion and retail mogul Yusaku Maezawa plans to follow the Russian film crew in December, along with a production assistant. They’ll document the filmmaking. Why does he sound familiar? Maezawa was in the news in 2018 when he booked a 2023 round trip to the moon on SpaceX’s massive Starship. He’s hoping to take eight artists along.
You could win a reality show. Auditions are on for Discovery Channel’s 2022 show Who Wants to Be an Astronaut? Contestants will take on extreme challenges. The grand prize is a ticket on a future Axiom trip, and eight days on board the ISS. Think you’ve got what it takes? Submit a one-minute video and fill in their questionnaire.
Or just win the genetic lottery. Mark who? The 53-year-old volunteer fireman and private-equity firm owner will be on the New Shepard on July 20. It all makes sense when you find out his last name is Bezos. He’s the Amazon billionaire’s younger brother.
TIED UP IN ’NAUTS
With so many tourists blasting off alongside aerospace experts with years of training and prep, there’s some debate on who should be called an astronaut. For the most part, the term is reserved for those who will complete research missions in space, regardless of whether they’ve paid for their journey. The word astronaut comes from the Greek words asteri (star) and naftis (sailor). Incidentally, the English-speaking world uses the word astronaut. Russians call their rocketmen cosmonauts, and those from China are called taikonauts, tàikōngrén being Mandarin for spaceman.
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