It’s the ultimate niche travel experience: A trip to the fringes of outer space. It will cost a cool quarter of a million dollars for a 90-minute ride. And space tourism proponents say that there are thousands of prospective clients waiting to climb aboard.
After a decade of on-again-off-again launch plans, Virgin Galactic says it expects to make its first commercial space tourism flight later this year, with founder Sir Richard Branson as the first person on the six-passenger spaceship called Unity.
In a recent speech at the Wings Club in New York, Virgin Galactic’s CEO George Whitesides said that the company has made progress towards this goal in recent months; among other things, it has obtained 20 of the 29 approvals it needs from the Federal Aviation Administration in order to carry paying passengers into space. It has also built a “spaceport” in New Mexico to function as a terminal and launch pad for the extraterrestrial jaunts. While there have been setbacks, including the fatal crash of a test plane in 2014, Whitesides pointed to the success of a slew of recent test flights.
“We believe 2020 is shaping up to be the most important year” for the nascent space tourism industry, he said. And several rivals are also working to get thrill-seeking tourists into space, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin venture hopes to launch its own six-seat rocket, New Shepard, this year; like Galactic, it will offer flyers a few minutes of weightlessness at an altitude of roughly 50 miles above earth. Fares on both will start at $250,000 per ticket. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also angling to send private citizens into orbit around the Earth, but that’s part of a longer-range space transportation deal with NASA.
As a sign that it’s getting serious, Virgin Galactic recently took steps to resume taking bookings for future space trips. Already, the company has taken deposits from 600 customers, many of whom have been waiting for years for plans to firm up. More recently, the company said it would open online registration for interested travelers for a refundable $1,000, after it received more than 8,000 requests for bookings following its public offering last fall.
Whitesides said that he foresees the “democratization of space flight” in the coming years, noting that the company’s current bookings already exceed the total number of people who have been to space in the entire 50-year history of human space flight. “We are living in a time of great promise for space,” he added, hinting that if the venture takes off, the ticket costs will drop.
For now, though, the market is mainly the adventure-seeking, high-net-worth individual as well as those who specialize in selling to this audience. Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch, for example, was an early booster of the potential of Virgin’s space ambitions and is a “founder astronaut,” meaning that he expects to be among the first 84 passengers on the spaceship (the order will be determined by lottery.) His partnership with Virgin Galactic dates back to 2007, and he and his agency are listed as “accredited space agents” who can accept bookings.
“Early on, we recognized space tourism as something extraordinary, not only for the thrill of traveling to outer space, but for what it could mean for travel in general,” Upchurch said in an interview with Globetrender.com.