While the aviation industry cools its jets due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, the aerospace sector is heating up, meeting multiple milestones this year and aiming to put some wealthy travelers into orbit. Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic are all gaining major momentum towards the long-awaited goal of commercial space travel.
NASA meanwhile has strategically partnered with private companies to bolster America’s efforts at increasing our footprint in the final frontier. The agency’s Commercial Crew Program awarded SpaceX a multi-billion dollar contract in 2014 to get its space shuttles ready to transport NASA crew to the International Space Station.
In the half-century since the Apollo 11 Moon landing, humans have made significant progress in space exploration. As the trans-humanist age promises evolution beyond earth-bound decay—the era of neural augmentation and artificial intelligence space exploration—may once again dramatically unify and lead us culturally forward in defining what our species can become. With peak terrestrial drama unfolding at home, the next giant leap forward for human spaceflight can’t come soon enough.
The 21st-century private sector space race is being led by a trifecta of bullish billionaires. Intense rivalry between space entrepreneurs Elon Musk of SpaceX, Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin, and Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic is fueling a rather glorious acceleration in aeronautical engineering as teams race to ignition.
Each company includes space tourism as part of its mission, launching passenger rockets into the ionosphere. While the big picture play for SpaceX lies in a project to colonize Mars, Blue Origin is more keen on establishing a true industrial base in space. If Bezos has his way, his various companies will boast a robust workforce in space. Talk about corporate travel incentives; the 2030 Amazon SVP offsite retreat may quite literally be on another planet. Richard Branson looks toward cultivating a futurist creative class, the kind of explorer led by a desire to contribute to the narrative of the universe itself. And Virgin Galactic has come a long way in branding the company as a haven for thinkers, trailblazers, and space junkies.
What is leaving all your earthly cares behind going to cost? In case you’re weighing options for a brag-worthy 50th birthday present-to-self, a 2020 McLaren 720S Spider will run you $317,500, while a Bugatti Centodieci chimes in at a cool $9.3 million. In comparison, the $250,000 Virgin Galactic ticket price screams less “midlife crisis” splurge, and more like a bold declaration of independence. Seats have been pre-sold to more than 600 would-be space tourists in 60 countries who have put deposits down on future flights aboard SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Galactic accomplished two crewed suborbital missions with VSS Unity, its newest SpaceShipTwo. These piloted flights in December 2018 and February 2019 set the stage; we’re on the very cusp of commercializing low-Earth orbit leisure travel.
As for SpaceX, ticket pricing has not been announced but is expected to cost millions of dollars. They have announced plans to launch up to four tourists into a super-high orbit, possibly by the end of 2021. For this trip, passengers will skip the space station, orbiting two to three times higher, or roughly 500 miles to 750 miles, above the Earth. On such an excursion, the first civilian tourists will experience weightlessness, and the emotional high of watching weather patterns from above, a far cry from hiding under an umbrella on earth.
The prestige of being among the first civilian tourists to orbit earth knows no bounds. In May 2013, bidders competed for bragging rights at the amfAR charity gala at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes. The prize? A ticket to space aboard Virgin Galactic with none other than Leonardo DiCaprio, which sold for $1.5 million that night. Adding to the revelry in the air, DiCaprio celebrated the Cannes Film Festival premiere of The Great Gatsby the week before.
A spectacle worthy of Fellini, witnessing this intoxicating convergence of money, power, and hedonistic wish fulfillment up close proved a revelation. I recall DiCaprio popping a magnum of Moët & Chandon to toast future seatmate Vasily Klyukin, a Russian businessman living in Monaco, as dinner turned over to dancing. Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz, and Jessica Chastain filled out a glittering guest list as Dame Shirley Bassey took the stage to serenade the gilded party.
DiCaprio won’t be the only A-List early adopter; rumor has it Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt, Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber, and Katy Perry have bought seats on SpaceShipTwo. This new generation of spaceliner is designed to carry six passengers and two pilots, launching from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Located on 28 square miles of desert landscape, Spaceport America is Virgin Galactic’s human spaceflight headquarters and the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport.
Virgin Galactic recently revealed of SpaceShipTwo’s cabin interior design, which looks like it looks like an especially well-appointed luxury charter flight, with 3D knit seats from Under Armour that can recline while astronauts are under heavy G-forces. The celebration of this milestone was publicly streamed live via YouTube on July 28. The company is driven to provide stellar user experience, devoted to servicing the leisure traveler in style while in orbit.
While Branson fixates on the quality of experience in orbit, Musk has his sights set on Mars. SpaceX teams are working overtime on the colossal Starship vehicle, which will eventually be deployed to take humans to the Red Planet. Currently, the firm expects it will send its first cargo mission to Mars in 2022, with a human mission following by 2024.
To this end, Musk colonized the tiny town of Boca Chica, Texas as a rocket facility, with plans to turn the region into a private campus complete with recreational activities. The “work hard, play hard” CEO wheeled in RVs, taco trucks, fire pits, kayaks, and other amenities to render the remote site more appealing to staffers accustomed to Palo Alto perks. Let’s face it. It is going to take achievement of the highest order to get us off this rock. As Bezos, Branson, and Musk vie for pole position to plant the next proverbial flag, exploring the galaxy is just the start. One small step for space tourists, one giant leap for life in orbit.