On April 28, 2001 an extremely determined Italian American engineer named Dennis Tito became the first person to privately fund his own trip into space. The notion of commercial space travel had been contemplated for decades, ever since the great Yuri Gagarin became the first human to venture into outer space in April 1961. From that moment, thousands of people dreamt of experiencing great leaps on the moon and great temperatures on Mars. Unfortunately, the road to cosmic tourism is far from smooth. Dennis Tito faced numerous obstacles on his quest to leave the earth’s atmosphere. Tito was accepted by the Russian Federation Space Agency as a candidate for a commercial spaceflight, but his offer of $20 million for the experience did not impress the administrators at NASA, particularly Head Administrator, Daniel Goldin, who was quoted as saying:
“The space station is a $24 billion to $25 billion investment. You could have five Dennis Titos, that ain’t going to make an impact,”
Regardless of this, Tito persisted with his dreams of space tourism. When Tito arrived at NASA with the intention of training for the American section of the International Space Station, he and his colleagues were turned away. The administrators at NASA were not willing to train Tito or anybody who was working with him at the time. Despite the abundance of adversity that had faced him, Tito did eventually make his journey into outer space. Ten years after his venture he gave an interview to the BBC, saying:
‘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.’
Since Tito’s pioneering mission, 6 more ‘space tourists’ have taken to orbit and it seems that the trend is growing. There are several companies, mainly based in the USA, that are competing for the pleasure of taking extraordinarily wealthy space fanatics into suborbital space and beyond. Prices range significantly depending on duration of flight and the distance travelled from Earth. If you happen to have nine-figures to burn, $150 million can buy you several weeks in space with Excalibar Almaz Limited, including a cheeky excursion to the “gravity neutral point” on the far side of the moon. Well, 38,000 miles further than the moon to be exact. If you are looking for a bit more of a budget getaway there is no need to worry, XCOR, a private American company, can offer you an economy option. For a mere £95,000 why not opt for a 35 minute trip into suborbital space, featuring an exquisite 4.5 minute stint of weightlessness. If you have the cash then they have the means to get you where you want to go.
Forbes magazine recently put together a selection of predictions for 2033. One of these is that the majority of people travelling to space will be space ‘tourists’ rather than government assigned astronauts. With the stringent reigning in of government space exploration budgets, this prospect sounds pretty accurate. In fact, President Obama’s persistent cancellation of many of NASA’s projects has spurred the private industry to develop and innovate at a higher rate than anybody could have expected. Many are now arguing that Obama should further privatise the space transportation industry. Governments do not control the development and manufacture of cars, ships or aeroplanes, and as people with aerospace engineering expertise become more common, why not extend this privatisation to space shuttles? Comparing government run schemes that produce new rockets to privately run projects, it seems that this is already happening. In the past thirty years NASA has not successfully produced a single new rocket, whereas the private sector has produced three. This is not to suggest that NASA’s work would become surplus, on the contrary, NASA could go on to concentrate on technologies that private companies couldn’t risk investing in, such as new propulsion technologies. Then there is the argument that it would save the American taxpayer tens of billions of dollars. Private companies have the means to develop and manufacture rockets at a much lower cost than a government department such as NASA could. A recent study by NASA itself found that private space transportation company, Space X, spent $443 million developing a rocket that NASA would have had to have spent $1.4 billion to produce.
The future is certainly uncertain. When it comes to space exploration, companies have always been reliably inaccurate with their time frames. Dennis Tito has stated that he would like to send a manned mission to Mars by 2018. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Ashton Kutcher are believed to have paid £125,000 in anticipation of flights with Virgin Galactic. Some experts believe that by the end of the 21st century, space travel will be as common, and almost as cheap, as air travel was at the end of the 20th century. The space transportation industry is travelling an unpredictable path, constantly being buffered by politics, funding and popular perception. Only time, careful budgeting and meticulous precision will bring about the full reality of many people’s cosmic-dreams.
Image by Matthew Simantov