Edge of Innovation

Space tourism: Thanks to Dennis Tito, we could all be astronauts

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

Fifteen years ago, American engineer Dennis Tito paid a reported $20 million to become the world’s first space tourist. It wasn’t just a joyride.

On April 28, 2001, Tito rode a Russian Soyuz TM-32 spacecraft to the International Space Station, spending almost eight full days in space. Not only was his ISS EP-1 mission the dawn of space tourism, it marked the dawn of commercial spaceflight and inspired others to follow.

To realise his life-long dream of going into space, Tito underwent eight months of intense training at Star City, home to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. But while the Russians were keen for him to fly to the ISS, NASA was less enthusiastic.

“The presence of a nonprofessional crewmember who is untrained on all critical station systems, is unable to respond and assist in any contingency situation which may arise, and who would require constant supervision, would add a significant burden to the Expedition and detract from the overall safety of the International Space Station,” warned a NASA press release from March 19, 2001.

Despite NASA’s initial misgivings, Tito enjoyed a successful stay aboard the ISS. “I could see the blackness of space, I could see Earth, and the curvature of Earth, and the sight of Earth from space was just spectacular,” he told the BBC. “I cannot ever duplicate that euphoric feeling that I had at that moment.”

Tito was the first of seven space tourists to buy a ticket into orbit, followed by the likes of Mark Shuttleworth (2002), video games legend Richard Garriott (2008) and Guy Laliberté (2009). Unfortunately, Laliberté was the last space tourist to fly. An increase in the ISS crew size brought a halt to fee-paying space travel in 2010.

No space tourist has flown since.

But there are plans to. Although delayed by the crash of its SpaceShipOne craft VSS Enterprise in 2014, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic plans sub-orbital space flights within two years. A mere $250,000 upfront payment will buy you a seat on the newly-constructed VSS Unity. Over 600 tickets have reportedly been sold.

VSS Unity Virgin Galactic
The Virgin Galactic VSS Unity will launch tourists into space. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, meanwhile, is prepping its seven-seater Dragon capsule for human space flights. SpaceX became the first private company to ferry supplies to the ISS in 2012, launched atop its Falcon 9 rocket. The first astronauts should fly aboard Dragon in 2017. Carrying space tourists is a natural next step.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will be used by NASA alongside Dragon. The craft, with a design reminiscent of the old Apollo capsules, will also seat up to seven astronauts making it ideal for future space tourism.

Elsewhere, Space Adventures (the company that originally brokered Dennis Tito’s trip to the ISS) is promising everything from zero-G flights to trips around the moon aboard “proven Russian space vehicles”. It just doesn’t say when.

Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is busy testing the rocket that will fire its New Shepard capsule into orbit. On April 2, 2016 (as shown in the video above), the booster reached a height of 103 kilometres and then spectacularly returned to Earth to make a near-perfect landing.

XCOR Space Expeditions is another space tourism company hoping to launch people into orbit. It’s currently taking bookings on its website for space travel flights in its two-seater reusable spaceplane, the XCOR Lynx. There’s no firm date for blast off, however.

Excitingly, Bigelow Aerospace recently celebrated tha launch of its inflatable BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) to the ISS. A successful two year test of the module could lead to the development of a six-person orbital space hotel, using the company’s proposed B330 space habitat.

We’re obviously still a few years away from true commercial space flight and the resumption of space tourism. But here’s something that puts Dennis Tito’s $20 million holiday into perspective.

As Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, told Space.com in 2011: “I think [Virgin Galactic’s] Richard Branson and [Blue Origin’s] Jeff Bezos, and even Elon [Musk of SpaceX] — they really wouldn’t be in this industry if it wasn’t for what Dennis originally did.”

Thanks to Dennis Tito, (one day) we might all become the unlikeliest of astronauts.

Main image copyright: Shutterstock/Yuganov Konstantin

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