Space tourism is becoming an increasing reality, and it won’t be too long before taking a gap year into space may become not just possible, but actually feasible. Until then, the spirit and determination of explorers and travellers will be needed to forge ahead into the next frontier of space travel.
Can tourists actually go into space? That is the big question many travellers are starting to ask as they look for new destinations beyond our own planet, and it is a question that some private companies are starting to answer as they are bringing a whole new level of innovation and determination to NASAs accomplishments.
The momentum of the space race has largely gone now. The halcyon years of space exploration spearheaded by NASA in the 1960s and 70s with the Apollo programme has now largely been replaced by political apathy far more motivated by budget worries and tiny earthly concerns, and space exploration and understanding has struggled to regain that pace since then.
The scientific and engineering innovations that have led to the International Space Station and countless satellites and probes over the last 40 year can never be understated, but it has been almost 50 years since man last set foot on the moon, and manned exploration has not ventured out much further since then.
It never fails to completely shock me that despite what science fiction promised me as a wide eyed child, we have actually done very little in moving the original pioneering spirit of space travel along.
We were supposed to be living in moon cities and zipping around the solar system by now damnit!
Well that never happened did it? Even despite the fact technology has burgeoned exponentially, the idea of going to space is no longer surprising and we now routinely rely on satellite technology, we haven’t really gotten much further than we were 50 years ago and it seems like humankind has at the very least stalled, if not moved backward, in what we can achieve as a species.
But now that spirit is being renewed and reinvigorated like never before.
A new spirit and hunger for space travel.
2019 is the 50 year anniversary of one of mankind’s greatest achievements, the Apollo 11 mission. On the 16th of July, 1969, at 0932 hours to be exact, NASA’s Saturn V rocket fired its engines and launched Apollo 11s historic mission to the moon, allowing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to step foot on the moons surface.
This year, NASA is celebrating that anniversary with a series of events at the US Space and Rocket Centre in Huntsville as it gears up to it’s greatest mission yet, a mission to Mars with the Space Launch System, the worlds most powerful rocket to date.
And much more than that, with a renewed spirit of adventure and determination, this humble travellers fantasy of not just exploring the Earth’s wonders but actually going into space may soon be a reality for the masses too.
So as NASA continues to look even further outward beyond our galaxy, it is perhaps fitting that it is now that the private sector is stepping in to supplement those achievements and make orbital and sub orbital space exploration available to the masses, and dream that one day soon travellers can head into deep space as easily as they step onto a flight to Australia or Europe today.
I mean just imagine it, a gap year to explore Mars or the moon just as feasible as taking the traditional banana pancake route through south east Asia!
With a modern day revival of the same pioneering, adventurous spirit that led to the Apollo Missions all those decades ago, space tourism is now tantalisingly close, and I can now see a time where a permanently manned Lunar base is not only possible but feasible, and a not unrealistic reality where that base will at some point expand to include hotels and hostels for civilian travellers, and then of course the inevitable tour guides offering hikes up the Shackleton Crater.
Space tourism is now a feasible reality.
Paying tourists have been going into orbit now since the early 2000s when the Russian Space Agency sent paying civilians into orbit. But it is the privately funded space exploration programmes Virgin Galactic, Space X and the strangely titled Blue Origin that are really pushing the boundaries of what is possible. These are all private companies set up with a mission statement of sending paying passengers into space for tourism purposes.
They have already made huge innovations in rocketry and payload efficiency and economic feasibility, they have already sent craft into space and even berthed at the International Space Station, are working alongside NASA and are gearing up for routine manned orbital flights from the United Launch Centre, and are working toward sending paying civilian tourists into space on a regular basis.
Virgin Galactic has recently taken that next step by putting a test passenger on the spacecraft Unity, ready for fee paying tourists and commercial operations in the near future, a flight that also had NASA funded experiments and payloads on board showing the partnership between the space agency and commercial interests.
But this is not space tourism in the same way that package tourists are carted off en-masse to an all inclusive resort in the Med. At least not quite yet.
Of course there is the money issue. At the moment these ‘test flights’ are for all intent and purpose available only to the super rich. But as has been proven time and again that will change. As the programmes develop and become more routine and economically viable, prices will drop and become more open to the masses.
Even Elon Musk himself has developed a lot of the Space X programme on the principle that more frequent and reliable launches would bring down the cost of exploration.
A dream that is fast becoming reality as the Space X ‘Dragon’ is ready to fly to the international space station, making commercial interests in an area NASA has had to devote precious innovation time to a useful practicality.
It is about much more than money and cost though. It is about spirit.
Until space tourism is so routine that it is time to break the next frontier and for NASA to travel to distant galaxies, until tourists are relaxing on pleasure moons and orbiting space station hotels, until we can all sit back and enjoy mass package tourism to space, it is time for the interstellar gap year, or at least an orbital one.
The gap year in space.
Until space tourism becomes the norm, travellers have to approach space tourism in the same was intrepid travellers have approached exploring our own world in recent history, with a spirit of adventure and wanderlust, with a spirit of indomitable curiosity. And it is that exact spirit that independent travellers exude in abundance.
The same people who jump at the chance to hike to the top of a volcano in Indonesia just to see what peering over the edge is like are the same people who will get excited about strapping themselves into a rocket. The same people who hike to Everest base camp just for the adventure will be the first to book those tours leading hikes across the moons crater.
Because it won’t be the tourists who want to sit by a pool with a good view of the Earth above them that will drive innovation, it will be the gap year travellers, the independent travellers, the intrepid explorers and adventurers that push demand and innovation.
It will be those who crave the excitement and adventure of the very thought of going somewhere new, somewhere unexplored that will take us all to the next level of space tourism. Those who dream of seeing what is beyond the moon, who want to step foot on Mars just because it is there and no one has done it yet, who want the experience of feeling weightless on board a vessel that isn’t even on our planet.
It is those little boys and girls who are dreaming of daring escapades and adventurous exploits while staring out of the classroom window now that will be planning their gap year trip to the moon and beyond in the future.
Because the same spirit of travel and adventure that has opened up the world to mass travel is what opens up space to the next generation of travellers, and it is then that space tourism will be cemented in or collective consciences as being normal and routine.
The next frontier, but not the final one.
We still have a way to go before we reach this point of course, but we will, and I believe we will do it in my lifetime.
I will get to space before I am dragged to my deathbed.
We are all at the absolute pioneering frontier in the next stage of space exploration. In our lifetimes we will not only be able to dream of travelling to explore the wonders of our own planet but we can dream of travelling to explore what is beyond it too, and how can you not be filled with wonder and excitement at that prospect?
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This article was written in partnership with the Huntsville and Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Space Camp and NASA. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.