A nearby moon glows an ethereal gold. The plane landing is uncharacteristically smooth, like gliding. Beyond the runway, miles of rustic crimson undulate. Dust suspends in the ether like butterscotch ashes. The pilot’s voice clicks on over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Mars.” A vacation in the cosmos sounds like a far-off fairy tale, but is packing our bags for the final frontier closer than we think?
Naturally, humans are fascinated with space. Pop culture phenomena like Star Wars, Star Trek and Avatar promise us intergalactic opportunity, boasting seemingly limitless possibilities and a vastness that suspends beyond disbelief. On the astrology front, we’ve long been obsessed with how the stars can explain our state of being and help us control our destiny. In the fifties, humankind raced to the moon, proving our obsession with exploration. At one point, Earth’s oceans and mountains were the final frontiers; now, we’re ready to explore the galaxy like we once sailed the Atlantic.
“We’ve got an enormous waiting list of people who want to go to space,” says entrepreneur Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic is developing commercial spacecraft. “I think 20 years from now, a spaceship will have reached Mars and that we may be involved in a moon project. I think that some kind of living habitat will have been formed on the moon and that companies like Boeing will be involved in it. I think one day there will be a hotel just off the moon, with pods, where you can see back to Earth, and little two-seat spaceships, where you can travel around the moon and come back to the hotel at night.”
Branson is among the many believers. In recent years, our infatuation with space has skyrocketed. To wit: Last April, tech magnate Elon Musk launched four civilians into orbit on SpaceX’s first private mission. Actor William Shatner recently reflected on his 2021 trip aboard Blue Origin, the spacecraft owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The experience moved Shatner to tears. “I discovered that the beauty isn’t out there; it’s down here, with all of us,” he writes in his new memoir. “Leaving that behind made my connection to our tiny planet even more profound.”
The Star Trek star isn’t the only one making his way into the Milky Way. In fact, there’s a modern-day space race afoot: In 2021, Russia announced its mission to make the first movie in space right after NASA revealed plans to film Tom Cruise aboard the International Space Station. Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, helped bring The Challenge to life, sending cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, actress Yulia Peresild and film director Klim Shipenko to the ISS. (The movie is set to release this spring.)
Which begs the question: Is space tourism only for billionaires and celebrities? What about the regular globetrotter? Right now, a ticket to space will set you back $450,000 on Branson’s Virgin Galactic. To date, fewer than 10 civilians have gone to space, but some 600 people have reserved tickets from the company’s first round of sales, despite travel delays. Even for the most affluent of jet-setters, launching into the stratosphere can seem out of reach.
But engineer Mehak Sarang, who works for Japanese aerospace company Ispace, sees a future where space tourism becomes so popular it’s affordable for the average consumer. “There is something to be said about the way technology is progressing,” she says. “It’s likely that space travel is the next boundary. Look at the history of commercial aviation. In the beginning, who could afford that? Only the rich. Now, there are flights for five euros in Europe. It’s really a matter of volume.”
Well, volume and capital. In aviation’s beginning days in the early 1900s, only government officials and wealthy individuals could afford to fly. In other words, innovation is bankrolled by private dollars. “These kinds of tourists are funding this early technology development; they’re necessary to prove out technology and volume,” Sarang adds. “Multiple flights are going within a year’s time now; I don’t think anyone foresaw that happening so quickly after the first commercial space flight in 2020. I know it seems like the mega-rich way, but these expensive flights are the start.”
Even in the interstellar, business is business. It remains to be seen if growing appeal among travelers can turn these proof-of-concept initiatives into a booming industry. But Sarang is optimistic: “Even in the past 20 years, space tourism has gone from a governmental endeavor to a commercial one — that’s a huge breakthrough,” she notes. “What once cost $300 million now costs $70 million. This provides some hope that we’ll continue to develop better technology and more efficient processes.” It’s true; a lot can change in 20 years. In 2001, a ride on the Soyuz spacecraft cost $20 million a seat. So the more trips to Mars, the merrier? Maybe.
How can travelers scratch their space itch right now? Start with a six-hour float some 100,000 feet in the air aboard Space Perspective’s Neptune spaceship, buoyed by a giant balloon. Flights for 2024 are already sold out, but for $125,000 a seat, you can reserve your spot for 2025. Want a cut-rate option? Take a buzz in the World View Explorer capsule; it’s a mere $50,000 for 12 hours attached to a helium-filled balloon. (The kicker: Both Space Perspective and World View are still awaiting Federal Aviation Administration approval to take flight.) If stopovers are more your thing, Orbital Assembly is aiming for an ambitious opening day as early as 2025 for the first space hotels, Pioneer Station and Voyager Station. The bill slipped under your door after a three-night stay? An estimated $5 million.
All of this talk raises an important moral inquiry: Is commercial space tourism something we should even be exploring as a society? Think about, for example, the environmental impact. A singular rocket launch has an immense carbon footprint, akin to 25 long-haul plane flights. Even smaller-scale options, like World View’s balloons, are powered by thousands of cubic meters of helium, the only completely nonrenewable element on the planet.
And let’s not forget the fragility of the human species. Space flight poses multiple health risks, from radiation sickness to possible brain functionality impairment. According to NASA experts, ongoing space flight for 30+ days can shift the brain upward and alter motor and cognitive skills. After all, launching into space is no magic carpet ride.
It tracks then that commercial space travel has plenty of skeptics. “Despite extensive projections, space tourism is likely to remain a tiny fraction of commercial space exploration,” says UCLA Environmental Law Professor Ted Parson. “It reminds me of tourism on Mt. Everest. It’s the indulgence of very rich people seeking a transcendent experience, and the local environmental burden is intense.”
Alas, it seems space travel isn’t as clear as the blue sky. But, as believers point out, blue skies aren’t the limit. For his part, Richard Branson sees an opportunity in sharing space with all. “I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars,” he waxed poetic during his first space flight in 2021. “Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers: If we can do this, just imagine what you can do.”
Whether you’re team dreamer or doubter, we may not be that far off from a future where anyone can travel to space. Consider how mobile we’ve become in recent generations. “Space tourism is almost plausible from that view,” explains Sarang. “Our descendants will be traveling by even more magnitudes. And where is there left to go?” Space. So will we be spring breaking on the red planet in 20 years? For now, the answer is in the stars — or maybe, in our horoscope.