Richard Branson, American entrepreneur and founder of Virgin Galactic, has pioneered space sightseeing trips. Using the ultra-high-tech aerospace beauties of the company's VSS Unity, the crew of two pilots and four other passengers took off in flight from a larger aircraft to reach 85 kilometers above the ground. A distance enough to see the curvature of the Earth and to free themselves from the constraints of gravity, at least for a few minutes.
A road followed also by the now former head of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and that does nothing but make much more concrete the space tourism, a growing phenomenon for the moment reserved only for millionaires or lucky winners of lotteries specially organized by the companies involved in the enterprise. In the future, however, the exploration among the stars could be open to many, with the same Virgin to have set the goal of making 400 flights per year from Spaceport America, in the U.S. state of New Mexico, by the end of 2022.
Space tourism: what is it and history of the phenomenon
It seems that very soon more people will be able to live the incredible experience of floating in space. Space travel, although with a start physiologically slow and driven by caution, are increasingly at the center of ambitious and innovative projects, with a futuristic vision that is becoming more and more real. And that, to be better understood, needs a precise definition, as well as an analysis that looks not only at the economic aspect, but also at the exquisitely social one.
Space tourism, therefore, means a recent form of tourism that takes place in space. Even if it is a phenomenon still in its infancy, as we have already mentioned, there have already been isolated cases of space travel for entertainment purposes, financed by private individuals themselves at a cost of several million dollars. However, it is not only recent history: the dream of going into space is inherent in mankind since always and space exploration studded the last century of attempts, launches and travels of rockets and men in zero gravity. Wanting now to "travel" back in time, it is not a coincidence that since the dawn of space exploration, we are at the end of the fifties, the possibility of exploring the cosmos had not only appeared as a chimera, but rather as a concrete opportunity and within reach.
Moreover, that was the golden age for science fiction, with the collective imagination heavily influenced by the achievements and politics of the United States, and with the genre literature to treat the subject with a descriptive approach much more accurate. In 1957, Robert A. Heinlein, with the story "Menace from Earth", put forward for the first time the hypothesis of a future where space travel would be used as a real form of tourism, with its own industry and structures specially built and developed. An idea that was enthusiastically welcomed by insiders and ordinary citizens, and that contributed between the '60s and '70s to make a common idea that at the end of the second millennium there would be space hotels.
Not only, many futurologists of the '70s hypothesized that, in the 21st century, the Moon would be one of the many destinations that families could choose to spend their vacations.The conclusion of the space race with the Apollo 11 lunar landing, however, diminished attention to space exploration, and only the release and relative success of Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 revived the dream of space travel. Up to the ambitions that characterize our days. From Sputnik, launched in 1957, to the flight of Jurij Gagarin in 1961, the first man in space, the step has been short and space exploration has undergone a vertiginous acceleration.
If it is true that the era of the space conquest and the post-Soviet one have opened the travels among the stars to other professional figures besides astronauts, in the same way we must make a leap forward in 2001 to talk about space tourism in the strict sense. That year, MirCorp, a private agency that was managing the MIR orbiting station, made an offer to sell a seat on a flight to a private payer to cover the management costs. Seizing the opportunity was American businessman Dennis Tito, who paid $20 million. During his training, Mir was condemned to be dismantled and Tito decided to move the trip from Mir to the International Space Station.
The new trip, organized by U.S. Space Adventures, made Tito the first private paying space tourist. He stayed on the ISS for seven days beginning April 28, 2001. In 2002, South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu, reached the ISS as a tourist, followed in 2005 by Gregory Olsen. Following the disaster of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, all tourist programs were suspended and then resumed in 2006: to reach space were Anousheh Ansari, first female tourist, first Muslim and first Iranian in space, and the Hungarian Charles Simonyi. All these five tourists received from NASA the classification of Spaceflight Participant, the administrative designation for space tourists.
Space tourism: a market "to the stars"
"Space tourism is already a reality even if limited to very few people. There have been 5 people, 5 very rich, very wealthy people who have been on the International Space Station, but this is very limited", said Umberto Guidoni, the first Italian astronaut to go into space in 1996, aboard the Space Shuttle. The same Guidoni who, in a recent interview, hoped for the creation of an international body as it happens for airlines, which would guarantee a safety standard that would be valid for all, both for the vehicles of international space agencies that bring professionals into orbit, and for tourists.
At the same time, apart from its emotional appeal, space tourism is today considered a particularly attractive commercial sector by several companies, with a potential pool of over 10 billion dollars. In addition to the aforementioned Virgin Galactic, numerous other companies have been founded over time that think of the cosmos as an expanding source of income. Among them, it is impossible not to mention Space Adventures, Starchaser, Blue Origin, Armadillo Aerospace, XCOR Aerospace, and Rocketplane Limited, without underestimating the all-European project Project Enterprise.
For the moment, the offer includes mainly suborbital flights with maximum heights of 100-160 kilometers. A type of flight, this one, that allows to stay between three and a maximum of six minutes in a condition of weightlessness, to observe the stellar panorama and to look at the curved horizon of planet Earth. And that is the one on which companies are investing more and with the most encouraging results. All for an expected cost of about $200,000 per passenger. In order to organize a launch with paying passengers from the U.S. territory, the companies must necessarily be in possession of a special license by the Federal Aviation Administration, issued by the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST).
Not only, it is of fundamental importance for tourist travel in space that there is a very high degree of safety for non-experts, absolutely not accustomed to these particular conditions of physical stress. In some cases, in fact, the same tourists can follow before the flight the same training usually used by cosmonauts. This training is carried out mainly within the Russian Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, and includes several types of experiences.
These include neutral buoyancy, which is the simulation of weightlessness in a swimming pool, where you can experience the so-called "spacewalk", the centrifuge, where you can touch the forces of acceleration up to 10 g, in a facility capable of 30 g, the simulator, which thanks to new technologies is able to imitate an entire space flight including docking with the International Space Station, as well as flight training and instrumentation, so as to provide a preparation as comprehensive as possible. Participation in the program, needless to say, is reserved only for the most fortunate, with a price that fluctuates around the tens of thousands of dollars.
Aside the objectives designed for ordinary people of SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Boeing, remains in any case a strong scientific interest, which will continue to strongly push the evolution and research for space exploration. To us it remains only to look at the stars and dream big: who knows that, in a few years, our and your name will not appear among those tourists who wanted to observe the cosmos more closely, and with the exploratory spirit that has always characterized humanity. The same that Rachel Lyons, executive director of Space for Humanity, has well described with her words: "Space gives a new perspective on Earth that we all share. We need to take care of the Earth and us. By giving people around the world access to this experience we create a relationship between all the people on our planet."