A modern-day space race is heating up to send humans into deep space. But this time it’s about more than dueling governments, as private companies jostle to launch a new era of space tourism.
Some companies are developing spacecraft to pop humans into near-Earth orbits for thrill rides in space. Others have grander dreams, declaring intentions to develop heavy-lift rockets capable of sending tourists to Mars for vacations on the small, dusty planet.
Want more space? Sign up for The Portalist's newsletter, and get the best in science and space news delivered straight to your inbox.
Joyriding into Orbit
Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and XCOR Aerospace are running independent test flights, angling to eventually sell flights in a Space Age distraction from daily life. Despite hiccups along the road, both companies are making substantial progress towards launching joyrides for a price.
Virgin Galactic built the spaceplane SpaceShipTwo, a craft carried by a launch vehicle to high altitudes where it is released. The plane will fire its engines for just over a minute, then shut off so it glides back to Earth for a landing. When operational, it will be capable of carrying a half-dozen passengers under the control of two pilots.
Originally targeting 2015 for private flights, Virgin Galactic hit a high-profile setback in October 2014 when pilot-error led to early release of the spacecraft’s reentry system. The crash killed one pilot, injured the other, and led founder Richard Branson to reconsider the project entirely.
But a few months later, Branson rededicated himself to Virgin Galactic, writing, “From the designers, the builders, the engineers, the pilots and the whole community who passionately believed — and still believe—that truly opening space and making it accessible and safe is of vital importance to all our futures.”
Virgin Galactic rebuilt a new prototype and restarted test flights in September 2016, although it’s still unclear how long it will take them to feel confident enough to open up commercial service into space.
Blue Origin took a more high-octane approach, developing the New Shepard reusable rocket and capsule. The company has been doing suborbital tests, quick pops ducking across the Kármán line, the invisible boundary 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth’s surface that defines the end of the atmosphere and the beginning of space. Passengers will feel about four minutes of weightlessness during the 11-minute flights.
Blue Origin’s prototype rocket completed its first successful vertical landing in November 2015, and the company successfully re-launched and landed the same rocket five times in the following year. The final test flight also successfully tested an in-flight passenger abort system, a last-ditch escape to save passengers if something goes wrong with the automated rocket.
Blue Origin is aiming to start human test flights in 2017, with the objective of opening up to commercial tourism in 2018.
XCor Aerospace is the final entry to suborbital space tourism, with their Lynx spaceplane in the earliest stages of testing. The objective for the jet-powered spacecraft is to make an hour-long flight with about four or five minutes of weightlessness for the single pilot and passenger duo.
Test flights for Lynx were intended to start in 2016, but in May, the company announced extensive layoffs, indefinitely delaying Lynx development.
Casual near-Earth space tourism and more ambitious deep-space travel on private vehicles present radically different timelines. While suborbital tourism is on the horizon, Mars presents a more substantial challenge.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon–both low-orbiting spacecraft–are planning to carry astronauts into space and deliver them to the International Space Station, which orbits close to Earth. Human test flights are expected to start in 2017, with regular flights in 2018.
But going to Mars will take a lot more work. If humans are going to explore further away from our lone planet, we’re going to need more advanced technology.
The first problem is power. Leaving Earth’s gravitational field will take a rocket even more powerful than the long-retired Saturn V used during the Apollo missions to the Moon.
NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, is finally nearing its first test fire. But this test will assess only the core stage of the rocket, a single cylinder with four engines–not the additional engines and boosters needed to provide the power for interplanetary travel. The Space Launch System is still a long way from its final vision, with plenty of opportunities for insurmountable engineering problems to spring up during development.
SpaceX is famous for the Falcon 9, the first reusable rocket, and the first rocket to land on a barge. SpaceX is also working on a more powerful sibling, the Falcon Heavy. Development has been delayed by the usual gambit of engineering problems, stumbles and delays constantly shuffling initial test flights back on the calendar. The first test flight is currently scheduled for early 2017.
Other companies are developing their own heavy-lift rockets: United Launch Alliance wants to run a test launch of their Vulcan in 2019, and Blue Origin recently announced they’re aiming to start test flights of the New Glenn by 2020. The Chinese and European Space Agencies are also developing heavy lifters: ESA wants to start test launches of Ariane 6 in 2020, and China wants to launch Long March 9 by 2025.
Leaving Earth is just the first obstacle for civilian’s deep-space exploration. Once these heavy-lift rockets with the power to break big payloads free of Earth’s gravity well become a reality, we’ll still be faced with the engineering challenges of keeping fragile humans alive in the unforgiving hostility of deep space.
Earth is swathed in invisible bands of protection: a magnetic field and radiation belts that shelter its inhabitants from the most vicious of space weather. Even a jaunt to the Moon takes humans beyond this protection, leaving them exposed to the potential of intense radiation storms from solar outbursts. If humans walk under alien skies, it will only be if they have nearby caves to shelter within any time the Sun sheds plasma.
Risk of radiation is a concern for future astronauts and space tourists en route to their destinations. Unless scientists develop a more elegant mode of radiation shielding, the first explorers will likely live in ships, where protective compartments lined with water will shelter them from solar storms. (The element hydrogen, found in water, blocks radiation well.) Even more importantly, they’ll be travelling on the quickest possible path, minimizing time they’re exposed to the risk of solar storms, while decreasing how long they’re reliant on their ship’s stores to survive.
No other place in our solar system is as well suited for human life as Earth. If we go somewhere like Mars, we’ll need to pack all the supplies we need to survive–or create those items on location. We’ll also have to get those materials out of Earth’s gravity well and safely land them on the red planet, among the various other significant challenges that will arise in attempting to live on Mars.
Elon Musk recently declared that SpaceX would be establishing a rapid cadence of missions to Mars, sending payloads to Mars every few months. This will deliver supplies to the planet in advance of human arrival, while also incrementally building up experience and capacity. This is exactly the right strategy to build and maintain expertise, although, one that requires long-term commitment.
NASA’s yet-unnamed 2020 Mars rover will test out converting the thin Martian atmosphere into consumable oxygen and rocket propellants. If it works, it’ll be the first stage in making it so not only can humans survive on Mars once they get there, but that they can get a return trip home again after exploring.
Interplanetary space tourism will require collaboration on an unprecedented scale, bringing together humanity for a common objective. Reaching deep space will require reusable, multi-use, and evolvable structures, with every mission building on the ones that came before and leaving behind something for the subsequent adventure.
We’re a long way off from this shiny, optimistic vision of the future. Suborbital space tourism is coming fast, but will we see humans going on spaceflight vacations to other planets within our lifetimes? It will take a lot of work, focus, energy, and commitment, but the future is looking bright.
Featured image via NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory