After winning the X Prize, Burt Rutan joined up with Sir Richard Branson, the flamboyant founder-CEO of the Virgin Empire. Branson asked Rutan to remodel SpaceShipOne to carry tourists into space. The new venture, Virgin Galactic, begun months after Rutan won the X Prize, has already signed on 700 tourists—including such celebrities as Leonardo DiCaprio and Lady Gaga—each paying $250,000 a ticket. For that price, SpaceShipTwo will take them on a two-hour flight up to 100 kilometers, with the queasy passengers given a total of six minutes of weightlessness. Virgin Galactic had hoped for its first paid flight by 2007; but, like most private space programs, the timing has proven more difficult than the optimistic entrepreneurs anticipated. A SpaceShipTwo pilot was killed in 2014 when a safety design error allowed the co-pilot to prematurely unlock a braking mechanism. The company is now looking to test a new system in 2017, with no date set for tourists buckling in.
The first tourists have already gone up, just like the man who took that original flight to St. Petersburg. Space Adventures was founded in 1998 by aerospace engineer and website entrepreneur Eric Anderson, with help from “his mentor, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis. Space Adventures partnered with the Russian space agency to send tourists up in Soyuz capsules to the International Space Station, for a price tag of up to $30 million. Since 2001, seven people have taken the tour, including Anousheh Ansari. Actually, it’s unfair to call all of the passengers tourists. Ansari, for one, conducted four scientific experiments for the European Space Agency during her eight days on the space station.
Another competitor, XCOR, is designing a rocketplane to take tourists on a half-hour flight to 100 kilometers and back again, for the low-low price of $100,000 to $150,000. The company has some serious engineering chops, having designed the first successful rocket-powered plane, the EZ-Rocket, back in 2001. Still, the company has suffered the delays endemic to space. It had hoped to have its Lynx rocketplane fully operational by 2010. While its website has an alluring Book Your Flight button, the company recently laid off half its workforce, with signs that the Lynx will suffer further delays.
Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin website has no booking button. Like XCOR, Blue Origin plans to take tourists on suborbital flights. But the company has not announced a ticket price, instead taking a more systematic, less splashy approach.
On the other hand, hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, founder of Las Vegas-based Budget Suites of America, is focusing on building rooms in space. He started Bigelow Aerospace with the purpose of building inflatable modules for rent by pharmaceutical companies, universities, and others—including, potentially, tourists. He hopes eventually to park a huge space colony, with a capacity for thousands of people, on Lagrangian point L5, using materials mined from the Moon. For starters, the company sent two inflatables into orbit in 2006 and 2007, inspiring NASA to order one as an expansion wing for the International Space Station. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, went up in a SpaceX Dragon module to the International Space Station in 2016. The BEAM boasts an interior space of 514 square feet, about the size of a deluxe hotel room. While Bigelow envisions tourists eventually occupying his stations, the estimated price is clearly intended for corporations: $25 million for an extended stay of two months, transportation not included.
The LEO economy is within sight. Private investors are now demonstrating launchers, re-entry spacecraft for humans, and orbital outposts, hotels, and laboratories.