Today on July 20th Jeff Bezos and 3 others completed their sub-orbital space hop. This voyage in conjunction with an earlier trip by Richard Branson ushered in a new era of sub-orbital tourism.
Whether these actions will have further effects on our burgeoning space age, only time will tell. As both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have demonstrated their technology is developed enough that their founders have placed their faith in their hardware. While both trips earned their participants their astronaut wings, their trips feel hollow in the comparison of the current status of the space flight landscape.
Blue Origin was the first of the two companies to be founded, it dates back to September 8, 2000. This company has been working in self-imposed secrecy until 2015. They only became publicly known when they began to buy land in 2003 in Texas for testing of rockets. Initially, they intended to launch a vertical-takeoff and landing rocket called New Shepard. The first timetable for this vehicle would have it launching unmanned in 2011 and crewed in 2012. This timeline slid away as the New Shepard only completed its first full flight by April 29th, 2015, with a follow-up on November of that year. In 2014 the company entered a partnership with United Launch Alliance, the formerly dominant joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space, and Boeing Defense, Space & Security, to build BE-4 Engines to power the newest rocket from the legacy aerospace company. This switch is intended to remove the United State’s reliance on Russian rocket engines. In 2016, the company announced its intent to build a 7-meter-diameter New Glenn rocket that would be the company’s first orbital rocket, and be powered by the BE-4 engines. Additionally, in 2019 the company partnered with other legacy aerospace companies to compete for the contract for the Artemis lunar lander contract with NASA. The launch on July 20, 2021, of the first New Shepard flight with the crew of Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen marks the first completion of this ambitious company.
The other entry into this competition for the sub-orbital flight was an early favorite. Virgin Galactic was founded in 2004 after the completion of Burt Rutan and Paul Allen’s Mojave Aerospace Ventures won the Ansari X Prize, a competition to have a fully private vehicle fly to the edge of space. The Richard Branson-led company sought to further develop the proven technology to provide space tourist flights. Using this technology the company would dominate the market and expand into small satellite launches. Unfortunately, this effort was dogged with problems. In 2007 a fuel tank exploded killing three workers and critically injuring three others. The White Knight Two mothership was unveiled in 2009, and testing commenced on the platform. Prototype issues plagued the development of mothership and the performance of SpaceShipTwo spaceplane lagged as the years dragged on into 2014. On October 312014 the fourth test of the SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Enterprise broke up mid-air. The ultimate cause of this disaster was an early deployment of the fluttering system for breaking. This killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot. Following an investigation, the replacement ship was built in 2016 and underwent testing. By February of 2020 this ship, VSS Unity was ready for final testing, and possibly the first commercial flight. Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the testing slowed down. Finally, the first flight of this company was conducted on July 11 2021 with two pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci and the four passengers were Richard Branson, Beth Moses, Colin Bennett, and Sirisha Bandla.
While both companies are going to the edge of space in different methods their experience is similar. The tourists ride a vehicle up and experience free fall for several minutes and enjoy spectacular views. Initially, this experience would be novel, now the world has changed and the time of suborbital flights might have passed.
However, there have been several space tourists that spent time in orbit at this point. Dennis Tito visited the International Space Station for a week in 2001 after paying 20 million dollars. A total of 7 people have visited the ISS as space tourists, with the major limit being the retirement of the Space Shuttle leaving the Soyuz the only spacecraft available to get people into orbit. This has changed with the certification of the SpaceX Dragon 2 capsule, and the potential certification of the Boeing Starliner.
As we have all seen, SpaceX has used the last 19 years to develop a fully functional space program. The Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy have allowed the company to have access to space with the ability to send objects interplanetary, such as a Tesla Roadster. With the advent of the crewed capsule, they can now offer true space tourism without the use of the International Space Station.
This new era of space tourism will begin the fall with a flight of a Dragon 2 capsule known as Inspiration4, which is planned to fly no earlier than September 15, 2021. This mission will take 4 civilians into orbit for 3 days as they attempt to raise money for charity. This mission will be followed up with a flight of 4 people to the International Space Station for 8 days using the Dragon 2 capsule in January of 2022. Once the Boeing Starliner becomes operational another vehicle will become available for use of true space tourism and we can expect more flights of tourists. These spacecraft will become irrelevant once SpaceX’s Starship becomes operational as it will be able to take 100 passengers into space.
When their projects began, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic had no competition except for each other. However, at the same time, their sub-orbital schemes were developed other companies looked higher and created systems to make their efforts futile. While we do not know how the future will pan out for space tourism, I am confident that given the option of 5 minutes of freefall versus multiple days in orbit, the latter will ultimately prevail.