2021 in review: Space tourism begins – for billionaires, anyway

A flurry of short flights aboard privately funded craft saw space tourism begin with a bang for billionaires in 2021. Perhaps by the end of the decade, mere millionaires will be able to join them

Space 15 December 2021

VAN HORN, TEXAS - JULY 20: Blue Origin???s New Shepard crew (L-R) Oliver Daemen, Mark Bezos, Jeff Bezos, and Wally Funk hold a press conference on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas. Mr. Bezos and the crew that flew with him were the first human spaceflight for the company. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

New Shepard’s first crew and capsule

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

THIS year, the extraordinarily wealthy flocked to space. After decades of deferred promises, the space tourism industry got going in earnest, beginning with short flights aboard privately funded craft.

Three different commercial ventures carried ultra-rich passengers into space in 2021. It began with Richard Branson, who took a 90-minute suborbital flight aboard his Virgin Galactic space plane, SpaceShipTwo, on 11 July. Whether or not the flight counts as having gone to space, though, remains a contentious subject – the US government defines space as beginning 50 miles (or just over 80 kilometres) up, which was the altitude of Branson’s flight, but the internationally held definition of space, the Kármán line, is 100 kilometres above Earth.

Following the US government definition, Branson was the first person to visit space on a spacecraft made by his own company. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos came a close second on 20 July, when he rode his firm Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket on a suborbital flight past the Kármán line. While he reached a higher altitude than Branson at 107 km, the flight was shorter at 11 minutes, including 3 minutes of weightlessness. New Shepard flew again on 12 October with new passengers, including Star Trek actor William Shatner.

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Meanwhile, in September, SpaceX pulled off the feat of sending a spacecraft into actual orbit without any government-trained astronauts aboard. Paid for and commanded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, this Crew Dragon flight, titled Inspiration4, was much longer than the other private flights, with the four passengers circling Earth for three days.

Richard Branson Welcomes VSS Unity Home from Second Supersonic Flight. May 29th 2018

Virgin Galactic’s craft

Virgin Galactic

These trips show that norms in space flight are changing. They aren’t the first examples of space tourism: non-government astronauts flew in the early 1980s and several wealthy thrill seekers have visited the International Space Station since then. However, the 2021 passengers are the first on private craft instead of rockets built by government agencies. If the pledges made by space flight firms are to be believed, there are many more of these flights to come.

“These billionaire space tourists are the first to fly aboard private spacecraft”

While the per-person costs of most of these journeys weren’t revealed, there is a reason that each of them has been bankrolled by a billionaire. As of August, Virgin Galactic was charging $450,000 per ticket for trips on SpaceShipTwo, and the going rate for a flight to orbit is around $50 million. But many in the industry expect competition to start bringing these costs down.

Still, the average person won’t be able to afford to look down on our world from space in the next decade, but maybe mere millionaires will.

2021 in review

This was a year of tackling great challenges, from the covid-19 pandemic to climate change. But 2021 was also rich in scientific discoveries and major advances.

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