Like most of us, you probably want to know what it would be like to travel to space. Maybe not to live, but just to visit. You want to be a space tourist. Good news, there are a bunch of companies working hard to give you the opportunity to fly to space. How long until you can buy a ticket?
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Fraser: Astronomy Cast Episode 451: When Can I Buy A Ticket To Space?
Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know.
My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the director of CosmoQuest.
Hey, Pamela. How are you doin’?
Pamela: I’m doin’ well, Fraser. How are you doing?
Fraser: Great. Summer – yay!
Fraser: It’s warm and sunny and man, that winter was so awful. But it’s almost out of my head now, so we’re good.
Pamela: It happens. And now we are both dealing with the penalty of spring, which is loud birds!
Fraser: I’ve got this poor sparrow who set up shop in one of our birdhouses and is looking for a girlfriend. And so, all day long, he just goes, “Chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp-chirp, chirp, chirp.” And we think that yesterday – He was making, like, a different sound and we think yesterday he’d found a – There were, like, two ladybirds who were on the fence beside him and he was jumping around and doing this little dance in front of them. It was really adorable. Yeah, it was pretty funny. So, that is the sound. You know, there’s birds everywhere.
Pamela: So, this episode of Astronomy Cast may be brought to you by loud sparrows.
Fraser: Loud sparrows, exactly. Yeah. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sparrows by Pamela’s house.
Alright. Let’s get on with the show.
Like most of us, you probably want to know what it would be like to travel to space. Well, maybe not to live, but just to visit. You want to be a space tourist. Good news! There are a bunch of companies working hard to give you the opportunity to fly to space. How long until you can buy a ticket?
So, let’s just get this out of the way. Would you go to space?
Pamela: Eventually – but it’s the kind of thing I think I’d want to do when I’m, like, well-retired and, if things go wrong, I’m cool with that because I’m not leaving behind a company that needs me to provide funding.
Fraser: Right – because it’s dangerous.
Fraser: Yeah. It’s funny. Like, a lot of people – like, “Yeah, I totally want to go to space! I want to travel to space.” But all the astronauts I’ve talked to, they’re deeply aware of the possibility that they’re gonna die; that their good friends have died. And when you fly to space, it is a very risky endeavor. You know, two of the space shuttles were destroyed as part of the missions. There was the Apollo 1 fire. There have been deaths in the Soviet system. And then, just recently – and it sort of leads into what we’re talking about today – the SpaceShipTwo had a crash with a death.
So, you know, it’s a dangerous place to go. And yet, to see the Earth from space, to be able to get up to that inky blackness and to be able to appreciate that overview effect, that would be pretty amazing.
Pamela: And to be an old person with less gravity.
Fraser: Yes. Absolutely.
Pamela: I’m very practical about this.
Fraser: Right. But not, so much, less gravity that your bones melt and, you know – You want to have that sort of perfect point.
So then, let’s talk about sort of the current state of how and where you can buy a trip to space.
Pamela: So, there’s a lot of companies that you hear about the potential but the only place that is, like, actively, right on their site, “go do this”, is Virgin Galactic. The one that’s right behind it is Space Adventures, which is – kind of think of them as a travel agent to space. They’re the ones behind the Zero Gravity flights. And their website actually advertises, like, cislunar orbits and all of these other crazy, radical things like space walks, that – I don’t think anyone is authorizing normal people, who aren’t astronauts, to do yet but you can call them for pricing.
Fraser: And so, how much does it cost?
Pamela: I didn’t call them for pricing.
So, there’ve been a couple of space tourists that have actually gone up to the International Space Station: Dennis Tito –
Fraser: Yeah. And I think they’ve spent $20 million?
Pamela: It was actually Space Adventures that facilitated all of those trips, which are currently on Russian rockets. But my understanding is that they’re trying to prevent tourists from going to the International Space Station right now.
Fraser: Although, you know, the Russians – they’ll take your money.
Pamela: It’s true.
Pamela: It is true.
Fraser: So, right now, if you want to fly to space – I guess there’s two kinds of space trips that you can take, right? There is suborbital and orbital.
And so, who is offering the trips to space right now?
Pamela: So, for suborbital, the long-time, “been there, working on pushing their technology forward” company is, of course, Virgin Galactic. We have Virgin Airlines, Virgin American and Virgin Galactic – it’s a multi-tiered system to get you anywhere you want to go, in comfort, in style, with beautiful paint jobs, and they’ve been taking people’s money to do this since the early 2000s.
So, people in 2009, 2010, were actively talking about, “I have bought my ticket.” And we’ve been three to five years away from these commercial flights since 2008 or ’09.
Fraser: Yeah. So, some people have bought their ticket to go on Virgin Galactic. Almost ten years ago, they put down their money.
How much does it cost? I think it’s, like, about $250,000.00 for –
Pamela: Yeah, it started as $200,000.00; it’s now $250,000.00. And it’s a pretty penny. And one of the interesting things I saw on their website was it actually says on it, “Rights to refunds and other terms will be sent to your consideration when you fill out the application.”
So, there is, at least, somewhere in there, something having to do with a refund process. But, at the end of the day –
So, have you ever backed something on Kickstarter that –
Pamela: You’re like, “I just want this technology to exist and I’m not sure if I’m gonna get this anytime soon but take my money.”
Fraser: No. I have – No. I really want the thing to exist. I’m very leery and very skeptical and so, I tend to only put my money on Kickstarters that I feel pretty confident that I’m going to get the final product.
Pamela: So, let me give you an example because I apparently do things you don’t do – which is fine.
Fraser: Yeah, you’ve got a whole pile of Kickstarters that will never arrive.
Pamela: Well, no – only one that’s questionable and they’ve sent me things along the way and they’re keeping me updated. And it was Kite. It was a program to develop and do FDA testing in Uganda – because there’s mosquitoes there in large numbers – of mosquito patches. So, these were just like happy, little, tiny patches that you slap on your arm; you don’t have to spray yourself down and you don’t have to worry that you missed that square inch on the back of your ankle that’s going to get the bejesus bit out of it now.
And the idea was to have a simple, effective, cost-effective mosquito repellant that – it needed FDA testing. And so, I think I threw $50.00 at the project or something like that. It was enough that, when they get FDA approval, I will get myself a box of mosquito patches. And I will look like I’m trying to give up cigarettes. But I won’t be getting bit.
And I knew it – knowing it may never get mosquito testing but because I want this product to exist.
Fraser: That is your analogy? That people are paying their money – their $250,000.00 – because they want space tourism to exist?
Fraser: But they aren’t sure they’ll ever get their money?
Pamela: Yes. Because, like with the thing I funded – Kite, they needed FDA approval. Well, to fly commercial humans into space – departing from New Mexico, departing from Mojave, departing from the United States – you have to have the FAA association involved. And the FAA has not yet flight-certified for tourists anything and we don’t have a commercial rocket that is human certified yet – which is what we were talking about with the inflatables last week.
Fraser: Right. And so, right now, even – like, there is no way for Americans to fly on American rockets to get into space that – Well, for anyone to fly on American rockets; that there’s lots – There’s SpaceX, there’s – you know, there’s a bunch of people working towards being able to provide human-rated missions but, right now, the only game in town is the Russians.
So, you know, we talked about sort of the different companies that are intending to offer right now. If all goes well – I mean, the title of this episode is, “When Can I Buy A Ticket To Space”. When can I buy a ticket to space?
Pamela: So, you can, right now –
Fraser: I can buy right now. I can give them my money, yeah.
Pamela: Yes, yes. You can give your money right now to Virgin Galactic for the potential for a suborbital flight on their happy, little glider, which is a super-pretty little one – completely new technology. I kind of actually feel this will be the last one to actually get certified. This is me, stating an opinion. I’m hoping I’ll be wrong.
The new mission in town is actually – XCOR is looking to have people go up on a capsule that really looks like it’s the ultimate place to do LAN gaming parties. That’s my best description of their capsule. And this is, again, new technology. But XCOR has something going for it that Virgin Galactic doesn’t and that’s that it’s part of various space act agreements that are getting it developing and space certifying rockets in coordination with NASA. So, there’s a potential to go buy things there.
And I found references to being able to buy things on some of the other companies’ sites. So, I’m, here, having mixed emotions because – So, XCOR is the one I just mentioned and, in theory, I should be able to go reserve a flight for $95,000.00. But I couldn’t actually find a web page to let me do that. So, I’m not sure if, with their space act agreements, this fairly straight-forward looking project isn’t actually going to take tourists. So, that’s kind of frustrating.
Fraser: Well, I mean, I’d say the newest game in town is what’s being offered from Blue Origin. They’ve got their New Shepard rocket, which we’ve seen now. The same rocket has lifted off and landed – I think we’re at five times now.
Fraser: And the plan is by 2018 – so, a year from now – they’re gonna put a capsule on the top that humans are going to be able to go in and they’re going to do a suborbital launch. They’re going to go up, cross the space line and come back down.
Pamela: And these are all hyper-exciting missions. And it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens.
One of the stories that has me most fascinated is I saw an article several weeks ago that there’s the idea of – on that first commercial capsule to go around the moon – to have that capsule filled with human beings on its first trip around the moon.
Pamela: And so, you covered that one for Universe Today and I’m going to let you blather on this one.
Fraser: So, this was announced a couple of months ago. And SpaceX announced that they were going to send a crew of three people on a trans-lunar orbit; so, it would go out, around the moon and come back. And the calculations that I saw was that it was about $150 million for that and that they were going to have three paying customers do this trip. And that was sort of, like, the length of time of, say, the Apollo 8 mission. So, you’re looking at a week in space, going out around the moon, coming back and them being paying customers.
And the purpose of that is to test the capability – of the Dragon capsule’s ability to keep human beings alive. So, to just sort of show that the Dragon is ready for not only delivering human astronauts up to the International Space Station, but to actually go out into deep space and return.
So, it’s like you’ve got these ranges: You’ve got these suborbital flights you can pay a couple hundred thousand dollars; you’ve got the orbital flights that go up to the International Space Station and you’re paying in the tens of millions; and then, this moon shot that will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Pamela: And this is where it starts to really be fascinating to see what space travel agencies, like Space Adventures, are listing as potential options because you start to see stuff like “Space Walk” is something that they advertise; “Space Training” is something they advertise. And, for the most part, all of these things have the happy little “call us to get the pricing” because there currently isn’t anything certified to do this. And all of the ads have the little caveat of “exact pricing will depend on mission and rocket that’s available” because we’re still in the “getting something certified” stage, which is the frustration.
So, we’re still at the “it’s Kickstarter” and you don’t know if you’re going to get what you paid for.
Fraser: Kickstarter for really rich people.
Pamela: But there are certain things that you can get and you can schedule the date and you can experience zero-G for yourself. So, there are ways to play.
Fraser: Where can I experience zero-gravity today?
Pamela: So, today – what’s today’s date? New York City on May 27th, they have a flight flying. Tickets are only $4,950.00 plus 5 percent tax. They have flights on Space Adventures on their 747, where you can do 15 parabolic, “up, down, don’t die” zero-G research flights. And it’s kind of awesome and kind of pukey – so, be prepared. And they even offer, like, adventure travel. So, they have – On August 4th, they have a flight that you can take out of Las Vegas to fly with William Shatner. That one’s $9,950.00 plus 5 percent tax.
And so, here they are – they fly their planes out of a whole bunch of different places and it’s really their way of giving you a taste; giving you a tiny bit of experience. And they put you through educational programs. Their 727 – They say that you get about 30 seconds of zero-G at a go. So, you’re in this emptied-out – If you’ve ever flown on one of the 3-2 planes, I’m pretty sure this is the seating arrangement that gets used in the 727s. So, it’s a pretty good-sized aircraft and you get to fly. And there’s going to be other people on board who might be doing science.
They have educational opportunities. They have science opportunities. And they have spacesuits that you can keep, that are just the jumpsuit ones.
Pamela: It’s not like you’re protected from vacuum. But, hey – who doesn’t want to have a space jumpsuit?
Fraser: Right. And I think, you know, one of the things that I guess you’ll probably learn pretty quickly is that being in space is falling, right?
Fraser: And so, you know when you’re on an elevator and the elevator goes down really quickly and you feel kind of sick for a second there?
Fraser: That feeling – but it just goes on and on and on and on. And you’re, like – Or a roller coaster, right?
And so, when you go on those parabolic flights, you are – you know, the airplane is falling, essentially, at the same speed as you are falling. I mean, on the way up, you’ve got some momentum and then, on the way down – and the airplane just sort of is a bottle of air surrounding you as you follow this parabolic curve. And, for future orbital flights – some orbital flights, they go up and then they fall and then you’re weightless. You know?
It’s kind of a trick, when you think about it. You’re not actually – I mean, you are in space, in that you’re at the altitude of space. And the microgravity you’re feeling is that your spacecraft is falling back to Earth.
Pamela: And the thing is – about the International Space Station – it’s just falling too. It’s just falling on an orbit that doesn’t hit the Earth, which is really what we want.
Fraser: Yeah, you’re falling at the ground and you’re missing.
So, it’s one of those awesome things where this is a way to experience zero-gravity; find out just how sensitive to pukiness you are. And this is actually something that, before anyone ever considers dishing out – whether it be $92-, $95,000.00, $250,000.00; whatever the price tag is – try one of these first.
Because I know we had great plans with Astronomy Cast where we really wanted to go to Hawaii and see Mauna Kea and all of the telescopes and everything. And I learned I’m horrifically allergic to sulfur when it’s in the air. And so, this is not a trip that Fraser and I should do. This is a trip Fraser should do with other humans.
And you don’t want to waste all sorts of money on a grand vacation, only to spend the entire time wanting to die.
So, I actually had a chance to talk with the folks from Blue Origin about – I was down in Seattle for Twitch. We actually got to hang out briefly and I got a chance to talk to the folks at Blue Origin, who were on a panel with me, about their mission. And I – You know, of all of the ones that are happening right now in the works – be it, you know, Virgin Galactic – it feels to me like Blue Origin is going to be one that’s going to be first out of the gate. You know, their rocket works; it lands. They’ve built the crew compartment. They’ve shown kind of demos of what it’s going to look like.
And, just to sort of give you a sense of what’s going to happen, it’s going to take about 40 to 41 minutes and – So, you’re going to have four minutes of weightlessness as part of that flight. So, the way it works is it goes up to 100 kilometers – you get your astronaut wings – and then it just falls back down. And you’ve got the time that it falls until the time that it kicks on the thrusters and goes to a powered landing. And you, as the cargo, will then have four minutes. You will unclip from your chair and then everybody’s going to be floating around in the cabin of this capsule, looking out the window.
And so, they’ve actually written rules for how to not get in each others’ way; how to be a good suborbital passenger in zero-gravity. And one of the things that we really wanted to know was, like, “What about the vomit?” Right? Like –
Fraser: You know? Like, are you going to be, like, blowing chunks in the middle of this capsule? And the thing is, is that they are going to make the capsule not – Because this one thing, and it’s this four minutes of weightlessness, that’s not long enough for you to really get sick; that, while the Vomit Comet – you know, it’s doing 15 of those parabolic things. After you’ve gone through two or three or four or five cycles, you just get sicker and sicker. Like, when you go to the amusement park all day and the kids just are enjoying the ride and you’re like, “Ohh, God. I can’t do any more.”
But they don’t think it’s going to have any effect. There’s no bathroom facilities on this thing. You just – You get it, you go to space, you come back down.
Pamela: The lack of bathroom facilities is actually one of the things that super-disturbs me because we all have those people in our lives that are the small-bladder people. And we often love them and want to kill them because they’re the ones that are like, ‘Nope.” Have to get off the subway on this long cross-city go to go find a public restroom.
Fraser: Stop the car.
Pamela: Now, this implies that we’re probably going to have folks in diapers.
Pamela: I’m thinking we’re probably going to need to have the night-before-surgery protocols on not eating and things like that. And so, there’s – the biology of this still needs to be worked out.
And there was a story on the news the other day that, as someone who flies all the time, just kind of struck me as, well – all the expletives. There was a woman flying, who – the plane was undergoing severe turbulence and, of course, this was after they’d loaded her up with soda – and she had to pee. And the stewardess was like, “You are not standing up” and gave this woman a plastic cup and made her pee in her seat.
Pamela: And so, this is not good. And how do you deal with this when you’re strapped in for take-off? And so, the way you have to deal with it is diapers and that is a no-go for me at the moment; that needs solved.
Fraser: That needs solved. You want to be able to have a little bathroom in the cockpit that you can go to while you’re on your way up, experiencing multiple Gs of flight or, perhaps, when you’re falling – when you’re in weightlessness. Alright.
Pamela: Yes. I do not want to sit in my own wet.
Fraser: Alright. Well, then, that’ll be the question.
So, place your bets. When do you think that first suborbital tourist flight will take off? Like, I’m gonna spend a couple hundred thousand dollars and fly to space and enjoy weightlessness.
Pamela: I think it will be three years after the first astronaut-filled commercial space launch. So, whenever Dragon, XCOR, Blue Origins get allowed to launch astronauts – and everything goes fine and we get the space certification for humans – three years from that date.
So, personally – don’t buy anything until that happens.
Fraser: Yeah. So, that’s the take-away. Don’t buy anything. Don’t put your money down until NASA astronauts have flown to space on some of the space hardware that’s out there because – I mean, is that just because of the legalities of the regulations of those kinds of concerns?
Pamela: They’re going to have to come up with entirely new procedures, at a certain level. And the FAA has been thinking about this, especially as they’ve been allowing various different space ports to begin and have advanced construction all over the United States.
But how do you handle TSA and things like that? There’s going to be so many new, crazy things. You know there’s going to be international tourists who want to go up on these flights and so – What is the security procedure? What is the vetting procedure? What is the background checks? Homeland Security is inevitably going to be involved, so unless one of these companies starts launching out of French Guinea, I’m thinking it’s at least three years.
Fraser: And I think that somebody’s going to fly suborbital on a Blue Origin New Shepard before the end of 2018 – so, next year. I think we’re 18 months away.
Pamela: I hope you’re right. I want to be wrong. I really want to be wrong.
Fraser: Alright. We’ve placed our bets. Let’s see what happens.
Pamela: My pleasure.
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Male Speaker: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at email@example.com. Tweet us @astronomycast. Like us on Facebook or circle us on Google Plus.
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Duration: 27 minutes