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COLUMNS
Next Stop SPACE
Commercial space flight for space tourism might seem costly and far from an ordinary individual’s reach. However, over the past decade, the commercial space sector has been growing slowly but surely with private companies looking to launch its own commercial space flight with private passengers. Here we take a look at what has been done so far and what does the future look like for space tourism.
by Deborah Seah

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the seatbelt sign is now on please return to your seats as the shuttle is about to take off.” An air stewardess smiles and directs passengers in space suits to their seats, helping some stow away their bags in the over head compartment. Sounds familiar? Much like taking a commercial flight to another country or state, space travel is soon looking to be made available for space tourism – but in this case the destination is somewhere in outer space, beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

The concept has been depicted by many science-fiction books and movies, where space travel is accessible and convenient to the common individual, just like taking the train to work every day. Even in 1982, NASA has already been dabbling in the idea of making space flight available to the masses. The Washington Post reported on a memo by NASA from 1982, saying “Space flight belongs to the public; they pay for it.” Back then NASA believed that it would be able to provide space flight for many people, turning “ordinary citizens into astronauts”.

Currently, majority of space flight is unmanned, serving the purpose of transporting satellites to orbit the Earth. These satellites are essential in our lives on Earth, providing a macro view of the Earth from space, which is key in fields such as weather prediction and also providing a good view of Google Maps on our smart phones.

The prospect of living in space might still be far from practical or achievable now, but great strides have been made over the past decade to bring space tourism one step closer to reality. Private companies have been exploring the development of commercial space shuttle that could potentially make space tourism possible for the public. In 2008, NASA signed its first contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) series of flights to the International Space Station (ISS). This opened the doors to further developments in commercial space flight by private companies with Amazon’s Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX soon after individually present successful launches of their own shuttles that could ferry tourists to space.

China also recently announced that it would be promoting the development of its commercial space industry as part of a five-year plan (2021 to 2025). This was presented during the 6th China (International) commercial Aerospace Forum. Space infrastructure, enhancing capabilities of commercial space systems as well as the integration of these plans into major national development strategies were laid out in the plan. There are also plans to further develop the Kuaizhou series rockets for better reliability and shorter preparation period, adding on to more regular commercial launches. In the Xingyun project, China looks to develop the first space-based Internet of Things constellation and is projected to finish in 2023 and could be ready a lower cost for users across the world by 2025.

With private companies and some governments across the world putting their focus on research and development on commercial space flight, your next holiday destination might just be a trip to outer space.

The Cost

In early 2020, Ketty Maisonrouge has finally bought her ticket to space at a whooping US$ 250,000 from Virgin Galactic. The story reported on the BBC News told her story of her 15 year wait to purchase her ticket for travel to outer space. About 600 people have already expressed interest and bought tickets for the company’s first trip to space for tourists, some include celebrities like Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.

As part of the preparation for the flight, the passengers are required to undergo a three-day training for their trip. The tour would involve a 90-minute round trip with a few minutes in low-orbit. A quarter of a million dollars may seem like a heavy price tag to many to pay for a 90-minute trip, but Virgin Galactic is optimistic that the demand could soon exceed the supply and the price of tickets to space for tourist may rise even further.

The cost for a seat to space has been hefty even for space agencies such as NASA which used Soyuz spaceships in Russia to shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station – each seat costing US$ 86 million.

A ticket for a 10-day stay on the orbiting shuttle to the International Space Station could set you back US$ 55 million, on a SpaceX capsule.

Current Progress

In 2008, the Falcon 1 developed by private company, SpaceX was the first privately-developed liquid-fuel launch vehicle to orbit around the Earth. Following its fifth launch, it was then succeeded by Falcon 9 which was also developed and manufactured by SpaceX. As part of NASA’s CRS program, Orbital Sciences developed the Antares rocket together with Yuzhnoya Design Bureau to launch the Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. Engagement with private companies taking ownership of the development and manufacturing of recent space technologies, they are continuously looking for way to bring costs down and enhance the reusability of shuttles and spacecrafts.

In a presentation at the EmTech Asia 2020 conference, Pam Melroy spoke about the future of commercial space flight. She highlighted NASA’s CRS program demonstrated its trust on the advancement of the private space industry to allow private companies to provide resupply services to the International Space Station. SpaceX was the first to fly in the first operational resupply missions in 2012 with Orbital Science following in 2014.

“NASA hands over supplies, and equipment to go to the [International] Space Station and the private company is responsible for launching it and bringing that vehicle up to the Space Station.” Said Pam Melroy.

“This is a fantastically successful program because NASA realised that it they set out developing its own vehicle for delivering cargo to the Space Station, using their processes they understood it was going to take a long time and cost a lot of money. They gambled instead if they provided support and help as well as the promise of business to come, anchoring contracts [with private companies]. If they could build it, they (NASA) would buy the capability to travel to the Space Station.” She added.

“Low cost launch to space” was not the only factor making commercial space flight possible and more accessible, Moore’s Law also applies.

Moore’s Law refers to the perception by Moore that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years, even though the cost of computers is halved. This was highlighted by Pam Melroy to be applicable in space travel.

“What this means is that electronics are shrinking in size and weight. [These two] matter a lot when you’re going to space.” Said Pam Melroy at her presentation during the EmTech Asia 2020 conference. Pam Melroy is a former NASA Space Shuttle Commander and the director for Space Technology and Policy at Nova Systems.

Satellites are being built to be smaller and cheaper now as compared to its predecessors which were much larger and more expensive to launch into space. Several companies have seen much success in launching smaller satellites.

A combination of low-cost launch and development of “cube-sized” satellites has propelled universities, research institutions, and companies to start up their own commercial capabilities for space flight.

In the Future

On 30 May 2020, Falcon 9 by SpaceX launched Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, docking autonomously at the International Space Station the next day. This manned test flight took Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board the Dragon Spacecraft. This test flight was momentous as it was the final major test for SpaceX’s human spaceflight system to be certified by NASA for operational crew missions to and from the International Space Station.

In late 2018, Virgin Galactic successfully launched the first commercial US flight to the edge of space since 2011. The SpaceShipTwo took off in the morning from California’s Mojave air and space port. Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, launched the New Shepard in 2015 for its first unmanned flight. The New Shepard was developed to be a commercial system for the purpose of sub-orbital space tourism. This year, the reusable rocket took to the skies again in it seventh successful flight to the edge of space and back to Earth.

NASA has also begun efforts to collaborate with commercial and international partners to enhance sustainable exploration of space by the end of the decade. As part of its Artemis program, it aims to put the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. To do so, the space agency has selected Nokia to establish the first ever LTE/4G cellular network on the Moon to ensure communications on the lunar surface. Such efforts will go a long way as a small step towards increasing humanity’s presence in space.

References:

  1. Christian Davenport, The Washington Post. How much does a ticket to space cost? Meet the people ready to fly. (October 2, 2019). Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/10/02/how-much-does-ticket-space-cost-meet-people-ready-fly/

  2. Xinhua, China Focus: China’s commercial space industry forges ahead. (October 19, 2020). Retrieved from: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-10/19/c_139452314.htm

  3. Zoe Thomas, BBC News. The woman who paid $250,000 to go into space. (January 12, 2020). Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-50929064

  4. Kenneth Chang, The New York Times. There are 2 seats left for this trip to the international space station. (April 17, 2020). Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/05/science/axiom-space-station.html

  5. SpaceX, Crew DEMO-2 Launch and Docking. (May 30, 2020). Retrieved from: https://www.spacex.com/updates/crew-demo-2-mission-update-5-30-2020/

  6. Loren Grush, The Verge, Blue Origin launches and lands a New Shepard rocket on its seventh trip to space. (October 13, 2020). Retrieved from: https://www.theverge.com/2020/10/13/21509198/blue-origin-new-shepard-test-launch-nasa-payload-watch-live-time

  7. Erin Durkin, The Guardian. Virgin Galactic launches SpaceShipTwo to the edge of space. (December 13, 2018). Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/dec/13/virgin-galactic-spaceshiptwo-launch-california-edge-of-space

  8. Nokia, Nokia selected by NASA to build first ever cellular network on the Moon. (October 19, 2020). Retrieved from: https://www.nokia.com/about-us/news/releases/2020/10/19/nokia-selected-by-nasa-to-build-first-ever-cellular-network-on-the-moon/

  9. NASA, Artemis: Humanity’s return to the Moon. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis/

 

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