The space tourism race is moving ahead full force. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are all actively planning major launches into space in the near future. While each of these entrepreneurs has their own unique approach, their vision of space travel is quite similar—as is the boldness of their goals. (For more on the Bold Goals of Bezos, Musk and Branson, check out this Notes From Ed.) Each one aspires to make commercial space travel accessible to anyone, creating an entirely new definition of the modern astronaut. For them, the modern space traveler will involve a much more expansive definition. And it will likely completely change the way we envision space tourism of the future.
“[Space travel is] a thing I’ve wanted to do all my life. It’s an adventure. It’s a big deal for me.” – Jeff Bezos, CEO and Founder, Blue Origin
The Latest News in Space Tourism
In terms of space tourism, the three major companies involved include Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX. Each of these companies have big plans in the coming months. Making the news most recently is Bezos’ Blue Origin space rocket, the “New Shepard”. In early May, Bezos launched an online auction for one of the six seats available on the vessel. While the initial stages of the auction were shielded, subsequent rounds were not. Reportedly, bids have been as high as $3 million. The final determination of who gets to be an astronaut will occur via live auction in June. The lucky winner will not only enjoy traveling to the edge of space. They will also be seated next to Bezos and his brother on the trip.
Unlike Bezos, Branson has been accepting requests for space travel on his Virgin Galactic for some time. The going price to become a modern astronaut on Branson’s vessel ranges between $200,000 and $250,000. At the same time, Virgin Galactic has a waiting list of over 600 people currently. Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic plan to take space travelers on a weightless experience at the edge of space. In contrast, SpaceX has a more immersive vision of space tourism. (Read more about about the SpaceX plan to ferry tourists to the moon in this Bold story.) They plan to allow a modern astronaut to not only experience weightlessness. They also hope to provide them with an opportunity to orbit around the Earth. Thus, while trips to the edge of space only take minutes, such an orbit will likely take a few days.
“In the decades since, fewer than 600 astronauts have been to space above the Kármán Line to see the borderless Earth and the thin limb of our atmosphere. They all say this experience changes them.” – Blue Origin email communication
Modern Astronaut Training
In the 1960s, astronauts went through extensive training in order to be approved for space travel. It was not until the 1980s that mission specialists and payload specialists were included in space shuttle launches. However, even they had to go through fairly rigorous training before a launch. While the modern astronaut does not go through the same level of training, all space tourism companies do require some. However, training is now supervised privately rather than being overseen by NASA. For some, this raises questions about whether these space travelers should even be called astronauts at all.
In terms of the space tourism companies, Bezos’ Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have similar training requirements. Modern astronaut training for these companies involved three full days of assessment and the education. For Blue Origin specifically, all travelers must be 18 years of age and be between 5’0” and 6’4” in height. They must also be able to climb seven flights of stairs in 90 seconds and fasten/unfasten a harness in 15 seconds. Because SpaceX plans longer commercial space travel, their modern astronaut training is more rigorous. These include centrifuge tests for space travelers. Likewise, anyone traveling to the International Space Station must undergo research training by NASA. But even this level of training is substandard when compared to astronaut training of the past.
“I think that it’s a real vote of confidence that Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world, and presumably his insurer have allowed him to be on this first flight.” – Laura Forczyk, Owner of Astralytical, a space consulting firm
So Now Everyone Can Be an Astronaut?
In reflecting on the rapid changes in the space tourism sector, it is clear that new terms need to be considered. The title of astronaut has always carried a significant degree of respect and admiration. This is because historically only the most qualified and exceptional individuals could make the cut. In many ways, this is quite similar to airplane travel today. Pilots who fly commercial planes continue to garner such respect while passengers do not. It therefore seems that the label of modern astronaut should be best applied to those actively navigating the vessel. For everyone else on board, they are simply space travelers along for the ride.
Regardless of nomenclature, it is evident that commercial space tourism will become a reality in the near future. With private industry and billionaire entrepreneurs involved, space travel has advanced at record pace. No longer will physical and mental abilities determine who can and cannot become a modern astronaut or space traveler. At least for the time being, the size of one’s bank account is the more relevant determinant. This combined with some basic abilities currently define the commercial space traveler. And while they too deserve respect, it’s not quite the same as astronauts of the past.
UPDATE – 6.25.21: Branson’s Virgin Galactic has received approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to take passengers, and as a result, saw their stock value surge 22%. Virgin Galactic takes the lead!