As much of the world was getting in and out of lockdowns and having their outings rationed because of the pandemic, humanity made some giant strides in a whole new direction in 2021. Propelled by the personal ambition of some intrepid billionaires, it was the turn of the everyday traveller to head to space, or at least till its edge in some cases. On the whole, the year gave a glimpse of that day, not too far away, where you could go for a joyride into the inky unknown or plan a few days’ stay in the lap of the stars. And just like progress with commercial aviation brought down the cost of flying for everybody, the increasing footfall of tourists in space could serve to bring it within the reach of an ever wider number of people. Maybe it’s time to look up some of the brochures.
Why Was 2022 Significant For Space Travel?
Senior citizens, a teenager, a cancer survivor, and lay professionals have all made it there and back again in 2021, the year that saw unprecedented traffic to space, which included the usual mix of billionaires who have so far been the virtually been the entire customer base for space travel given the prohibitive costs involved. But not anymore, as the likes of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, serial entrepreneur Richard Branson and galactic maverick Elon Musk all backed missions to take common passengers to space.
The great flash of inspiration on which these billionaires have built their flight of space fancy is a reusable vessel that can be used for multiple trips, vastly bringing down the cost of travels beyond the stratosphere.
The New Shepard vessel that took Bezos and his fellow passengers to space is a reusable system that is designed to have the booster, or rocket, return to the launchpad from where it had taken off after delivering the pod carrying the space travellers to the line where Earth’s atmosphere officially ends and space begins. The pod then separately heads back — touching down with the help of thrusters and parachutes — after allowing the riders a taste of weightlessness and giving them a view of the Earth’s curvature against the inky black of space. The entire trip is completed in under 15 minutes.
The Virgin Galactic spacecraft is different in that, instead of a rocket and a pod, it has a spaceship that piggybacks on a mothership. The mothership takes off from a runway before climbing to a height of 50,000 feet. “Once past the thickest layers of atmosphere, our ships don’t require huge amounts of fuel to reach space," Virgin Galactic says, underlining the flight’s “energy-efficient" credentials.
Once at the desired elevation, the mothership releases the spaceship, whose rocket then ignites, “sending the craft up to space" at speed a little over Mach 3. The spaceship finally reaches a height of 300,000 feet, or roughly 90km, above Earth’s surface, which is when the passengers can experience weightlessness. The Virgin Galactic trip concludes with the pilot gliding the spaceship to a smooth landing back on the same runway.
For the Inspiration4 mission, the first civilian crew outing for the company, SpaceX used its giant Falcon 9 rocket to carry the passenger capsule to space. SpaceX describes Falcon 9 as the “first orbital class rocket capable of reflight", adding that it is designed to enable “reliable and safe transport of people and payloads into Earth orbit and beyond". “Reusability allows SpaceX to refly the most expensive parts of the rocket, which in turn drives down the cost of space access," the company says.
Where In Space Can One Go?
While the general region all are headed is upwards, there is a big difference between the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights and the SpaceX trip, the first two being suborbital flights whereas the third gave the people on board a taste of Lower Earth Orbit (LEO).
What Branson and Bezos did is basically touch the edge of space, both flights wrapping up in only a matter of minutes. The Inspiration4 crew on the other hand spent three days in orbit, returning to Earth in a “splash down" at a landing site in the sea off the US coast.
Since the SpaceX Resilience crew module was designed to stay in orbit, it had to move fast enough to beat Earth’s gravity, failing which it would fall back on to the planet. US space agency Nasa says that the spacecraft’s “momentum and the force of gravity have to be balanced for an orbit to happen".
“When these forces are balanced, the object is always falling towards the planet, but because it’s moving sideways fast enough, it never hits the planet," it says. The Resilience capsule will thus be moving at what is known as orbital velocity to circle the Earth. At the elevation it will be placed at, that implies a speed of more than 27,000kmph, which means the four-member crew will complete a full rotation around the Earth every 90 minutes. The Branson and Bezos flights attained only a fraction of such speeds.
How Thick Was The Space Traffic In 2021?
If what had been a trickle for so long does really turn into a tide then 2021 will definitely go down in history as the year when ordinary humans made a beeline for space with little more than basic training.
Reports say that the year, at one point, saw a record 19 people in space at the same time, eight of whom were lay travellers. In all, more than 20 civilians made the journey to space in the last year, and that’s without counting the Virgin Galactic crew of Branson and his fellow flyers as they were deemed not to have crossed the Karman line, the notional point where space is said to begin.
A report said that there were a total of six tourist flights to space in 2021, which witnessed more than 134 orbital missions, making it the year with the most number of space launches ever since Yuri Gagarin became the first human to foray into the great unknown in 1961 aboard a Russian rocket. Russia clocked an unusual first, too, in 2021 when two members of the country’s film industry made the trip to the International Space Station (ISS) to shoot the first full-length movie in space.
However, all that traffic comes with the risk of crowding, which is a matter of concern given that there are really no rules governing movement and right of way up there. The potential for rapid growth of space tourism points to the need for regulations and rules that would govern everything from how and when civilians can travel there and what protocols to follow in the case of emergencies or untoward events.
What Will Be The Ticket Prices Like?
Despite the big strides towards space keeping the ordinary passenger in mind, you would mostly still be correct to think that a space trip should be planned only if you have a few millions of dollars to spare. But the costs are likely to come down with every successful trip. While a ticket on the Bezos flight — it was auctioned — had gone for upwards of USD 28 million, a spin on the Branson flight costs only a fraction of that price.
In fact, reports say that Virgin Galactic has 600-700 reservations lined up already at about USD 450,000 for a ticket. It is not clear so far what will be the normal cost for a ride aboard a Blue Origin rocket. These trips are, of course, only minutes long. For a longer duration stay, there is the ISS, but that remains quite an expensive option. Reports said that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa paid about USD 80 million for a 12-day journey to space in late 2021 on which he had invited a guest.
It is reported that in January 2022, Musk’s SpaceX is taking some private passengers to the ISS at a cost of USD 55 million per head. If the accommodation in ISS seems cramped, there might be a solution for that too with Bezos’s company announcing in 2021 that it was developing a “business park" in space, that is, a private space station that will allow options for everything from enjoying a stay to organising film shoots in space.
One report said that the cheapest way to get to space might be the package that another company, Space Perspective, is working on putting together, which will see passengers being launched aboard a pressurised capsule propelled by a space balloon with the six-hour flight to cost around USD 125,000 per person. But it might not be before 2024 that the company rolls out its service to its first passengers.