Last week SpaceX founder and entrepreneur Elon Musk decreed the need to send one million people to live on Mars. Alongside this Skyscanner wrote about their predictions for potential holidays in space by 2024. These bold statements highlight the desire of some to colonise other planets in our solar system. While permanent Mars colonies are still a long way off, holidays in space may be a little more feasible.
Ten years ago a fellow entrepreneur, Richard Branson, founded Virgin Galactic. The purpose of this company was to give people the opportunity to experience, albeit briefly, weightlessness and a quick trip to space.
Virgin Galactic’s model revolves around a three-day experience. This begins with training with your fellow crew before your launch. Your launch is a roughly three-hour experience that culminates with six minutes of weightlessness as SpaceShipTwo performs its suborbital flight. The flight path is such that the spacecraft achieves a height greater than 100km making the passengers fully fledged astronauts, an accolade held by less than 500 people. For the privilege of being involved in this incredible endeavour you will be asked to part with $250,000 each, certainly more than the average holiday.
Virgin Galactic isn’t yet flying these experiences, though Branson has said they are 'on the verge'. And they aren't the only organisation offering short breaks into space. Space tourism actually began in 2001 when American engineer Dennis Tito paid $20 million to spend a week aboard the International Space Station. This trip was organised by Space Adventures Ltd. who have facilitated trips for six other clients.
The future of space tourism is also rapidly changing. Bigelow Aerospace was set up by an American motel mogul. The company is investigating inflatable space hotels suitable for weekend breaks in orbit. Golden Spike is a company looking into selling trips to walk on the Moon. As we can see all sorts of expeditions are being planned but they all have one thing in common, they are all very expensive.
As it currently stands private space travel is still incredibly expensive and remains the pursuit of the super-rich. Projects like Virgin Galactic are going some way to reduce prices but still feature eye-watering prices. This is simply due to the difficulty associated with getting into space.
Where to explore in the solar system
Where to explore in the solar system
1/10 Mars - Olympus Mons
Olympus Mons is the largest volcano in the Solar System. At 22km high Olympus Mons is nearly three times as high as Mt Everest
2/10 Mars - Mount Sharp
Mount Sharp is the current focus point of the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover. Sitting at the forefront of Martian research this location will hopefully unlock the secrets of Mars’s past.
3/10 Ida and Dactyl
Nestled deep within the asteroid belt is the asteroid 243 Ida. During a fly by of the Galileo space probe it was discovered that Ida had a companion. Orbiting around Ida was a tiny moon that was named Dactyl.
4/10 Jupiter - The Red Spot
Getting tired of leisurely cruises through the Caribbean? Why not float a dirigible through one of the oldest known storms in the Solar System. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is large enough to contain three Earths and has been present for over 300 years.
5/10 Moon - Sea of Tranquility
As the landing site of the first ever humans to set foot on the Moon who wouldn’t want to walk in the footsteps on Neil Armstrong on the Sea of Tranquility?
6/10 Europa - Underwater seas
Europa’s underwater seas are one of the strongest candidates for potential life outside Earth. Scientists are waiting the day we can probe their icy depths.
7/10 Titan - Methane Lakes
Saturn’s Moon Titan is home to a nice thick atmosphere. Similar to the Earth it supports a full weather cycle. Unlike the Earth, rather than using water, Titan’s cycle is based on methane, often found in gas cookers here on Earth.
8/10 Mimas, the Death Moon
What better location for a holiday snap. The large Herschel crater on Mimas gives this moon an appearance of a certain dark lords ultimate weapon. When viewed from the right angle it appears that the Death Star is in orbit around Saturn.
The thick clouds of Venus make it an extremely mysterious place. It also has some of the most extreme weather we can find. Runaway greenhouse gases have shrouded the planet in a thick layer of cloud, heating it to nearly 600°C. It is also home to sulphuric acid rain and crushing atmospheric pressure. Make sure you pack a sturdy umbrella!
10/10 Oceans of Earth
One of the most unexplored places in the Solar System is our own oceans. 70% of the Earth is covered in ocean and as of yet we have only explored around 10% of them. With so much water to explore who knows what we may find lurking in the depths.
The destination is actually much closer than many of us travel when going on holiday. Space is only 100km away, a point called the Karman Line. This imaginary line marks the division between traveler and astronaut. Space travel for humans is not only expensive due to the difficulty in reaching orbit, but costs are increased by the equipment required to survive once we are there.
Places like the International Space Station contain highly sophisticated, specialised equipment. This equipment provides breathable air, drinking water, waste disposal, a suitable thermal environment and much more. All this equipment not only has to function accurately and consistently but it has to deal with the difficult microgravity environment of Earth orbit. It is complications such as this that have raised the cost of such a facility to over $100 billion over the last 20 years.
The above graphic, produced for The Independent by Statista, shows how much different space agencies spend on space exploration.
It isn’t however all doom and gloom. In the last 50 years space travel has gone from the stuff of dreams and fantasy to an almost daily occurrence. There has been a permanent crew aboard the ISS for well over 10 years; barely a month goes by without news of a new satellite or mission going into orbit around the Earth or another celestial object.
With each launch and each mission we further develop our knowledge and ability to enter and operate within the environment of space. As we continue to innovate and refine our technology we get a step closer to making space travel an everyday occurrence. As mentioned earlier more and more companies are trying to place themselves in a position to help the public fulfil their dreams of spaceflight. As this happens there will be a drive to make things cheaper. The private sector is already tussling with each other to provide the cheapest orbital system.
Video: Are we really any closer to space tourism?
As more companies offer similar packages to Virgin there will be an impetus for them to lower prices, or offer a more comprehensive package. If we look at the history of air travel we can get perspective of what may be in front of us. The first commercial flight came in 1914. Mr Abram Pheil paid the equivalent of $5000 to fly just 21 miles over Tampa bay from St. Petersburg to Tampa. In 100 years this has transformed into more than eight million airplane passengers per day.
As we are all aware, space travel is a little trickier than flying through the air, but they could both share a similar story. There is a growing public interest in leaving the world behind, even if it is just for a quick break. Private companies are turning their attention to opportunities beyond our own atmosphere and we are getting to a stage where we could support these activities.
If there is sufficient drive, there is no doubt that we will leave our planet behind and begin to stretch ourselves further into the universe around us. It probably won’t be within the next 10 years, it is doubtful that it will be commonplace within the next 50. That being said, just as our ancestors ventured beyond their caves, and crossed the seas, space is the current boundary to our next great adventure.
Josh Barker works for the Space Communications Team, National Space Centre, Leicester
Selection of places to visit in space by Josh Barker and Zoe Baily, members of the National Space Centre’s Space Communication TeamReuse content