The makers of Star Trek will have to think of new catchlines soon – what with space tourism, both orbital and suborbital, receiving investor and tourist interest alike.
A few years ago, tours into space were part of folklore and science fiction. But today, with visionary entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Paul Allen currently underwriting space tourism startups, a few thousand dollars could transform you into a space tourist in reality.
Space for more
Though space tourism does evoke visions of very rich people, paying huge sums of money to realise dreams, these entrepreneurs are leaving no stone unturned to make this happen. Until now, space tourism meant riding Russian rockets on relatively short trips to the International Space Station (ISS). The last man to take such a voyage was Guy Laliberté, Canadian founder of Cirque de Soleil, in September 2009.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is on track to begin commercial passenger spaceflights before the end of 2018. Amazon and Blue Origin founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced in April that passengers who buy a ticket on a New Shepard will travel above the Kármán line, 62 miles (100 km) above the surface of the planet. Kármán is considered the boundary between earth’s atmosphere and space.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has unveiled an ambitious plan in February to fly two private space tourists around the moon in 2018.
Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo is aiming for a suborbital hop, where passengers will be able to experience microgravity and see the earth against the blackness of space. New Shepard too promises passengers weightlessness, sights of the planet curve and the darkness of space. SpaceX is to launch two paying passengers around the moon.
Approximately 500 people have signed up to take a ride on SpaceShipTwo. Tickets are currently selling for $250,000. The cost of a trip aboard New Shepard and SpaceX has not yet been announced, but passengers will likely pay millions.
According to CNN, space tourists have paid the Russian government upwards of $20 million for a trip to the ISS and NASA has paid the Russians $80m a seat to send astronauts there.
Futuristic yet attainable
To many, the very idea of space tourism may seem too futuristic and unattainable. But as early as 1994, the American Society of Civil Engineers convened a meeting to discuss the technical and financial feasibility of space tourism – though it was still a hypothetical concept then.
Since then, a lot of research, time and money has been invested to further the cause. And the interest is growing in leaps and bounds!
As stated in an article by Joe Carlen in tech.com, in 2001, in conjunction with the Russian Space Agency, American entrepreneurs Peter Diamindis, Eric C. Anderson, and Mike McDowell charged a wealthy Californian $20m for eight days of space orbit.
The early 2000s was also when Musk, Branson and Bezos founded their own space tourism companies.
Regional space visions
Within the Middle East and North Africa region, the most ambitious space programme has been launched by the UAE government with the country’s first fully government-owned satellite –DubaiSat-1 – sent into space in 2009.
Since then, the UAE space sector has seen bold government initiatives that include the much lauded Emirates Mars Mission, where the UAE aims to send an unmanned probe to Mars. The mission is scheduled for launch in 2020, although it will not reach the Red Planet until the following year.
The UAE Space Agency, established in 2014, is in charge of national space programmes like the Genes in Space, which will see students compete for the opportunity to have their experiments launched into space and conducted by scientists on board the ISS and the Satellite Launch project.
The UAE’s Nayif-1 nanosatellite was among the 104 satellites launched from Sriharikota, India, in February. The nanosatellite was conceived and manufactured under the aegis of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in collaboration with Emirati students from the American University of Sharjah.
UAE’s Khalifa University has also opened the region’s first space lab. The government has announced the setting up of a research centre set to cost almost AED100m over five years, which will act as an incubator for space research and innovation.
A second DubaiSat blasted off in 2013; KhalifaSat, the first satellite fully manufactured by Emirati engineers in the UAE, is expected to enter orbit in 2018.
Elsewhere in the region, Saudi Arabia has shown interest in acquiring sophisticated, high-resolution reconnaissance satellites. Like the UAE, it is also setting up its own satellite manufacturing capabilities.
Qatar is also active in space through its Es’hailSat commercial communications satellite company. Iran’s space programme has attracted international attention. Egypt has recently announced the establishment of a space agency in order to coordinate myriad space activities.
In Kuwait, there are increasing calls for the creation of a Kuwaiti space agency. Bahrain and Oman are also exploring options on how to protect and advance their interests in space.
With all these developments, as of now less than 600 humans have broken the final frontier. But it seems that, before long, the sun, the moon and the stars will be in our neighbourhood.