The 135th and very last space shuttle flight before NASA retires the 30-year program launched today, July 8. Today's flight will be Atlantis' 33rd and final mission before it is retired, along with the rest of the agency's orbiter fleet, Endeavour and Discovery. The shuttle's retirement will make way for a new space exploration program aimed at sending astronauts on deep space missions with the hopes of reaching Mars.
But while the engineers, scientists and technicians are sequestered on the ground away from space, who will fill the void?
Enter space tourism.
Space travel for recreational, leisure or business purposes has been around for more than a decade, but new technological discoveries and increased funding have made this once idyllic fantasy a (somewhat) plausible reality.
The public first became obsessed with booking a ride on a rocket in the frenzy of the space race, but once Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, the race was won and over. This led to a decreased emphasis on space exploration by both governments and the general public.
Interest didn't pique again until April 28, 2001, when American Businessman Dennis Tito became the first fee-paying space tourist. He visited the International Space Station (ISS) for seven days at a pricetag of $20 million. Since his pioneer voyage, only six other civilians have made the journey into space.
The most recent space tourist took off in September 2009.
All seven flights were conducted through Space Adventures Ltd. Participants flew with Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station and to this day, Space Adventures remains the only company to have successfully launched tourists into outer space. They plan to resume the high-society spaceflights in 2013 (after a five-year lull) by offering three seats on Soyuz.
For the next few years, Soyuz remains the only viable way of reaching earth's orbit. From the beginning of the International Space Station expeditions, NASA has said it wasn't interested in space guests. So even if, and when, NASA resumes space travel, it's safe to say they won't be bringing any stowaways.
SpaceX is another private space company which is developing their own rocket family called Falcon and a capsule named Dragon, capable of sending up to 7 people to any space station. Falcon 1 undertook test flights and successfully completed its first commercial flight on July 14, 2009.
While the mega-rich can now head directly for the ISS, what about the everyday space tourists? Sub-orbital jaunts are in production stages, with some companies set to launch by 2012.
No suborbital space tourism has occurred as of yet, but since it's projected to be more affordable, it's viewed as a money-making proposition by several companies, including RocketShip Tours, Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic, Starchaser, Blue Origin, Armadillo Aerospace, XCOR Aerospace and others. These companies aim to bring space travel to ordinary people as well as scientists and those looking to preform non-invasive experiments.
A sub-orbital space flight is when the spacecraft reaches space, but does not complete one orbital revolution. Passengers would experience three to six minutes of weightlessness, see the curvature of the Earth, and stare into the blackness of space. Flights can last a few hours, but this all needs to be weighed against the $200,000 average cost, with a required down-payment of $20,000.
Virgin Galactic, one of the leading potential space tourism groups has received over 400 down payments on bookings. Another 600 people have signed up to buy tickets after flights begin. The company hopes to be the first private space tourism company to regularly send civilians into space.
A citizen astronaut will only require three days of training before spaceflight.
The Space Tourism Society, founded in 1996, wholeheartedly agrees with and supports space exploration as the next 'hot spot.' The society is the first organization specifically focused on the space tourism industry and hopes to help further expand and educate people about what's beyond our atmosphere.
For those of us who don't have millions of dollars lying around, dozens of companies are offering sub-orbital flights as grand prizes in sweepstakes and promotional contests.
Or, if you don't have the cash while you're alive - or perhaps want to float around up there for the rest of eternity - there is another option: space burial. For around $5,000, the company Celestis gives people the opportunity to have their ashes launched into space after they die. The ashes can be launched on a one-way trip into Earth's orbit, or sent into space and then returned for burial.
While price tags are out of this world (pun intended), experts hope they will soon drop to a more reasonable level. 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. While this this still means that most of us will have to do some major saving if we want to buy a ticket, these prices would open up space to a tremendous amount of traffic.
So, great! We're in space. That should be enough right? Wrong. Space has become our next wild west, our new outlet for manifest destiny. Not wanting to remain strapped into our seats for long periods of time in a small cramped spaceship (because going to outer space is such an inconvenience), space tourists will eventually demand somewhere to go to enjoy extended stays in space.
Talks were in progress to privatize and convert the Russian space station Mir to an intergalactic hotel. There was even a reality TV show about it, but multiple technical difficulties on the station forced them to scrap the project.
Shortly after that, American hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow began his Bigelow Aerospace company. He intends to create orbital habitats using inflatable structure technology developed by NASA. So far, the company has successfully orbited two prototypes and is working on a crew-capable spacecraft for launch later this year.
Talk about a room with a view.
Space Adventures also announced that they are working on circumlunar missions to the moon, with the price per passenger being $100,000,000. But this, of course, won't be for some time.
These trips are the beginning of what could be a lucrative 21st century industry. However, some space veterans worry that these new companies have not had enough experience to be in a position to offer the public seats into space. NASA has been around for 30 years and has weathered setbacks, deaths and crashes, and some doubt if these private companies know what they're in for.
Would you sign up to be a space tourist? Share your thoughts in the comments below.