How Space Tourism Works

By: Kevin Bonsor
A commercial space traveler laughing with friends on a spaceship.
The space tourism industry has become a lucrative industry with companies investing millions. Soshi Yamada / Getty Images

Make your reservations now. The space tourism industry is officially open for business, and tickets are going for a mere $20 million for a one-week stay in space. Despite reluctance from NASA, Russia made American businessman Dennis Tito the world's first space tourist. Tito flew into space aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket that arrived at the International Space Station on April 30, 2001. The second space tourist, South African businessman Mark Shuttleworth, took off aboard the Russian Soyuz on April 25, 2002, also bound for the ISS. Greg Olsen, an American businessman, became tourist number three to the ISS on October 1, 2005.

On September 18, 2006, Anousheh Ansari, a telecommunications entrepreneur, became the first female space tourist and the fourth space tourist overall. She was also the first person of Iranian descent to make it into space. Charles Simonyi, a software architect, became the fifth space tourist on April 7, 2007.


These trips are the beginning of what could be a lucrative 21st century industry. There are already several space tourism companies planning to build suborbital vehicles and orbital cities within the next two decades. These companies have invested millions, believing that the space tourism industry is on the verge of taking off.

Space hotels might be popular vacation spots in 20 years.
Photo courtesy Space Island Group

In 1997, NASA published a report concluding that selling trips to space to private citizens could be worth billions of dollars. A Japanese report supports these findings, and projects that space tourism could be a $10 billion per year industry within the two decades. The only obstacles to opening up space to tourists are the space agencies, who are concerned with safety and the development of a reliable, reusable launch vehicle.

If you've ever dreamed of going to space and doing what only a few hundred people have done, then read on. In this article, you'll learn about the spacecraft being designed as destinations for space tourists, and how you may one day have a chance to cruise through the solar system.


Commercial Space Travel

Mir was to become a tourist attraction before it was deorbited in March 2001.
Photo courtesy NASA

Russia's Mir space station was supposed to be the first destination for space tourists. But in March 2001, the Russian Aerospace Agency brought Mir down into the Pacific Ocean. As it turned out, bringing down Mir only temporarily delayed the first tourist trip into space.

The Mir crash did cancel plans for a new reality-based game show from NBC, which was going to be called Destination Mir. The Survivor-like TV show was scheduled to air in fall 2001. Participants on the show were to go through training at Russia's cosmonaut training center, Star City. Each week, one of the participants would be eliminated from the show, with the winner receiving a trip to the Mir space station. Mir's demise rules out NBC's space plans for now. NASA is against beginning space tourism until the International Space Station is completed in 2006.


Russia is not alone in its interest in space tourism. There are several projects underway to commercialize space travel. Here are a few of the groups that might take you to space:

  • Bigelow Aerospace, formed by Budget Suites of America hotels owner Robert Bigelow, hopes to make "habitable space stations affordable for corporate communities."
  • Space Island Group is going to build a ring-shaped, rotating "commercial space infrastructure" that will resemble the Discovery spacecraft in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." Space Island says it will build its space city out of empty NASA space-shuttle fuel tanks (to start, it should take around 12 or so), and place it about 400 miles (644 km) above Earth. The space city will rotate once per minute to create a gravitational pull one-third as strong as Earth's.
  • The X Prize is a national contest that offered $10 million to the first private company to develop a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) capable of carrying the general public into space. In October 2004, Scaled Composites, a California based company, won the prize with SpaceShipOne. See How SpaceShipOne Works to learn more.
  • According to their vision statement, Space Adventures plans to "fly tens of thousands of people in space over the next 10-15 years and beyond, both orbital and suborbital, around the moon, and back, from spaceports both on Earth and in space, to and from private space stations, and aboard dozens of different vehicles ..."
  • Even Hilton Hotels has shown interest in the space tourism industry and the possibility of building or co-funding a space hotel. However, the company did say that it believes such a space hotel is 15 to 20 years away.


Space Accommodations

This space hotel could be one of many commercial ventures located within Space Island's space city.
Photo courtesy Space Island

Initially, space tourism will offer meager accommodations at best. For instance, if the International Space Station is used as a tourist attraction, guests won't find the posh surroundings of a hotel room on Earth. It has been designed for conducting research, not entertainment. However, the first generation of space hotels should offer tourists a much more comfortable experience.

In regard to a concept for a space hotel initially planned by Space Island, such a hotel could offer guests every perk they might find at a hotel on Earth, and some they might not. The small gravitational pull created by the rotating space city would allow space-tourists and residents to walk around and function normally within the structure. Everything from running water to a recycling plant to medical facilities would be possible. Additionally, space tourists would even be able to take space walks.


Many of these companies believe that they have to offer an extremely enjoyable experience in order for passengers to pay thousands, if not millions of dollars to ride into space. So will space create another separation between the haves and have-nots? In the next section, you'll find out if you'll be able to go to space even if you don't have a million dollars to spend on a vacation.

Who Gets To Go?

The CEV could provide a new means for space travel.
Photo courtesy NASA

Will space be an exotic retreat reserved for only the wealthy? Or will middle-class folks have a chance to take their families to space? Make no mistake about it, going to space will be the most expensive vacation you ever take. Prices right now are in the tens of millions of dollars. Currently, the only vehicles that can take you into space are the space shuttle and the Russian Soyuz, both of which are terribly inefficient. Each spacecraft requires millions of pounds of propellant to take off into space, which makes them expensive to launch. One pound of payload costs about $10,000 to put into Earth orbit.

NASA and Lockheed Martin worked on a single-stage-to-orbit launch space plane, called the VentureStar, that supposedly would've been launched for about a tenth of what the space shuttle costs to launch. However, the program was canceled in late 2001 after a prototype suffered problems during testing as well as scheduling issues and cost overruns. Perhaps NASA's latest spacecraft project, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, will replace the shuttle as a means to transport tourists to space. Check out How the Orion CEV Will Work to learn more.


In 1998, a joint report from NASA and the Space Transportation Association stated that improvements in technology could push fares for space travel as low as $50,000, and possibly down to $20,000 or $10,000 a decade later. The report concluded that at a ticket price of $50,000, there could be 500,000 passengers flying into space each year. While still omitting many people, these prices would open up space to a tremendous amount of traffic.

If you don't want to wait for space hotels and cruise ships, Space Adventures offers passengers an array of options, such as:

  • Zero-gravity flight program
  • MiG-25 Edge of space program
  • MiG-21 High-G flight program
  • Spacewalk adventure program

Although most of these programs also include a two- or three-night stay in Moscow, prices start at close to $10,000 and go higher. Still too much money for your budget? Some, including Apollo 11 astronaut and ShareSpace Foundation chairman Buzz Aldrin, have proposed a space-trip lottery system to give everyone a chance to go.

Since the beginning of the space race, the general public has said, "Isn't that great -- when do I get to go?" Well, our chance might be closer than ever. Within the next 20 years, space planes could be taking off for the Moon at the same frequency as airplanes flying between New York and Los Angeles.

For more information on space tourism and related topics, check out the links on the next page.