While there was considerable interest in (and robust government funding for) space travel in the mid 20th century, technology has evolved so rapidly over the decades that in the dawn of the 21st century, we’re beginning to see the development of “space tourism” as an industry unto itself. As government support has largely waned over the years, there has been a recent surge of activity in the private sector.
For example, English business magnate Sir Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic airlines 2004, and the company currently offers commercial spaceflights. The flights last roughly an hour and takes individuals, and the flights go just high enough for the passenger to experience weightlessness – all for a meager $200,000. Experts have said that number is likely to decrease over time, and it’s perhaps safe to assume that as other companies develop the vessels, and the legal red tape is handled properly, the price could easily fall as more companies enter into competition with Virgin Galactic. There was even talk recently about Virgin Galactic teaming up with NBC to produce a reality show (tentatively entitled Space Race) that will feature contestants vying for space on one of these trips.
There are companies who have spoken about highly ambitious endeavors, such as the Golden Spike Company, who have been developing a program that could theoretically offer private spaceflights to the moon in a few years time. It’s anticipated that the cost for a two-person trip could be as much as $1.5 billion. More astonishing still: the Dutch non-profit-organization Mars One has been talking for years about developing a colony on Mars, with the first Settlers from earth slated for deployment sometime in the 2020’s. Mars One is currently collaborating with defense contractor Lockheed Martin different prototypes, and there is also talk of a reality television show that will document the process of the Mars colonists preparing for their trip.
But as it stands now, all commercial space flights will only take passengers to to the lower-earth orbit. No private industry has developed the technology just yet to make private flights to other planets.
John Zarrella, who serves as CNN’s Space Correspondent, explained that NASA got out of the low-earth orbital business in recent years to focus its resources on deep-space exploration (what NASA does best). The space shuttle program was effectively terminated in 2011, and NASA now relies on third-party commercial companies to transport astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Zarrella said that now, several companies are competing for contracts with NASA to transport cargo and astronauts to the ISS. There are new companies gaining traction in this burgeoning industry, and also more established defense contractors who are hard at work developing their own rockets and vehicles to essentially function as outer space taxicabs for NASA. Among these companies are United Launch Alliance, Boeing, Orbital, Space X, and Sierra Nevada.
Ironically in the context of the international space race, NASA now does most of it’s contracting with Russia. According to Zarrella, NASA is typically paying Russia $50-$60 million a seat for trips to the ISIS. According to Zarrella, Space X has claimed that it can offer NASA the same services for $20 million a trip.
Commercial spaceflight is ushering in a brand new industry, and some regions throughout the United States are interested in participating. It was announced in the news recently that Arizona governor Jan Brewer has signed a bill that gives private spaceflight companies liability protections similar to those offered to commercial airlines. It’s been said that Arizonans may be able to take spaceflights for $75 thousand as early as 2016.
Older generations may hearken back to Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the U.S. space program at the height of the cold war. The United States and the former U.S.S.R. were constantly trying to surpass each other. The Soviets set a few extraordinary precedents by launching the world’s first geosynchronous satellite (Sputnik-1) into orbit in 1957. Within a year of Sputnik’s launch, the United States Congress had formed NASA. The soviet’s made headlines by deploying the world’s first manned spaceflight (Vostok 1) in 1961 with astronaut Yuri Gagarin aboard, and the U.S. followed up that same year by sending Alan Shepard into outer space. NASA made its crowning achievement in 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. Who could have predicted in 1969 that commercial trips to outer space could be a feasibility within 60 years’ time?
Average citizens travelling in outer space (and perhaps one day reaching a distant planet) will be a monumental achievement in the commercialization of outer space. It will perhaps be the most significant achievement in that industry since the first transatlantic commercial television signal broadcast by the Telstar 1 satellite in 1962 — the experiment which, along with Arpanet, essentially set the foundation for how satellite internet works, among other things. Advancements beget advancements, and progress clearly fuels progress. , and who knows what the long-term social utility could be with all of these companies advancing the technology with vested economic interests. Consider Google’s Project Loon or Facebook’s newly proposed program that will employ satellites and drones to deliver internet to underserved communities throughout the world. While it was largely nationalism and governmental funding that enriched earlier stages of global space exploration initiatives, it is the efforts and innovations of private enterprise propelling these programs forward now.