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Space tourism: How private operators are opening up the space travel industry

Space tourism: How private operators are opening up the space travel industry

With private operators entering the space travel arena, the rich and famous have found a new way to experience the universe

With private operators entering the space travel arena, the rich and famous have found a new way to experience the universe With private operators entering the space travel arena, the rich and famous have found a new way to experience the universe

At the fag end of 2021, a momentous event took place in the history of humans’ tryst with space travel. Nearly a decade after the US space agency NASA retired its space shuttle programme in 2011, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa took off from the earth on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a 12-day self-funded round trip to the International Space Station (ISS). Accompanying him were veteran Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, who led the mission, and Maezawa’s production assistant and videographer, Yozo Hirano. Before embarking on that trip, Maezawa said, “I’m so curious, ‘what’s life like in space’? So, I am planning to find out on my own and share with the world...” And share he did.

But that trip was just a trial run for Maezawa’s bigger ambition. His bigger dream is to travel around the moon on an upcoming mission that he calls dearMoon, for which he has already booked all the tickets. Fashion e-commerce mogul Maezawa, who also vlogs regularly on his YouTube channel, has chosen eight other people who will accompany him on that trip aboard SpaceX’s Starship that is under development.

Maezawa isn’t alone in this luxurious pursuit. Many high-flying wealthy individuals have made the trip either to the low-earth orbit or the ISS, beginning with American businessman Dennis Tito’s journey to the space station in 2001, for which he reportedly forked out a cool $20 million.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. Space travel used to be the exclusive preserve of a select few astronauts and scientists, who were required to go through a rigorous selection and training process before they were allowed to leave the earth for scientific reasons only after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel to space in April 1961. Since that giant leap for mankind, more than 500 professionals have travelled to space on different scientific missions, while 12 have landed on the moon.

A similar sea change has occurred for non-professionals since Tito’s pioneering trip. In the intervening years, many self-funded non-professionals have followed in Tito’s footsteps, and that trend is only just gathering steam now with multiple companies looking to offer space tours for those wealthy enough to afford a seat on a space shuttle.

To the moon and beyond

With the technological advances required to make a space trip progressing rapidly, humans have maintained a continuous presence in space since the commissioning of the ISS at the turn of the millennium, and sporadically before that in other space programmes. While government-backed space programmes have progressed at a brisk pace, the entry of private operators into the business of taking people—either astronauts and scientists for a government research programme or self-funded individuals for a pleasure trip—to space has dramatically opened up the space, so to speak.

Now, private operators such as those from billionaires Elon Musk (SpaceX), Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic), and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) offer a range of space-related services—from satellite launches and cargo delivery to ferrying crew members to the ISS. These advances have also enabled private operators to let wealthy people either book a seat on a spaceship or even book the whole spaceship and build the itinerary per their choice, like with Maezawa and the dearMoon mission.

These firms that are at the frontier of taking civilians—who can pay the eye-watering sums required for a ticket (as high as $50 million)—to space have already completed several such missions in the past few years. And more are in the pipeline with far more ambitious plans. For instance, SpaceX’s Founder and CEO Elon Musk has talked about his company’s plans to land people not just on the moon but also on Mars by 2026.

So, what is fuelling this new space race to the moon, Mars, and beyond? Industry operators say it is the irresistible thrill of doing something out of the ordinary—like leaving the surface of the flying ball of rock we call home and watching it spin from a vantage point only available to a select few—that is spurring demand. “The experience offers 10-12 minutes of space exploration, featuring weightlessness, the sensation of being an astronaut, and an awe-inspiring view of our planet from a vantage point reaching approximately 360,000 feet (110 km) above the Earth’s surface,” says Raaghav Belavadi, Founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based luxury services platform Hype Luxury.

Packing for the Trip

Preparing for a trip to space is not as gruelling for non-professionals as it is for a professional astronaut. But the training required to make you space travel-ready does put you through the wringer, literally. Belavadi, whose firm has tied up with Branson’s Virgin Galactic to offer people luxury trips to space, says, “Preparing for this journey necessitates adopting a mindset focussed on envisioning and accomplishing the seemingly impossible. It requires embracing a willingness to take calculated risks, an unwavering commitment to a ‘can-do’ attitude, and above all, maintaining robust physical and mental well-being.”

Sample this: a trip to the ISS would require you to go through several medical tests before your physical training starts to make sure that nothing can go wrong while you’re up in space or on your way there. This hurdle passed, and travellers are expected to go through a high-G (high levels of acceleration) centrifuge run that goes up to 8Gs, which acclimatises them to the sensation of accelerating to massive speeds when the spaceship lifts off.

Another interesting aspect of the training is the simulated effect of high altitudes in a hypobaric chamber (altitude chamber). This prepares a passenger for the loss of pressure that occurs in a spacecraft in motion.

“Achieving this dream involves a combination of ambition, good health, risk-taking, and financial resources. While these elements may seem straightforward individually, finding them in a single person can be quite challenging. Yet, that’s the essence of it all,” says Belavadi. Separately, the training required for spaceflights that take you into low-earth orbit can be a little less daunting but no less exciting, as the prize is literally a trip to space. The training also includes preparations like zero-gravity acclimatisation and normal weight training, among other things.

While the thrill of going to space is surely unmatched, it does require material affluence here on earth to fund such a sojourn. As for aspiring passengers here in India, Belavadi says the cost could work out to anywhere between $500,000 and $4 million, depending on the provider, specific opportunities, considerations, and additional associated expenses. But he does say that a trip to space would become as easy and economical as booking a long-haul first-class air ticket within the next five to 10 years. So, who should hitch a ride to space?

An Exclusive Experience

With three of the biggest global entrepreneurs pushing the cause of civilian space travel, industry observers say the time is not far when we will see people casually booking a space ride for a unique date or a thrilling adventure, much like they currently

do with private jets. “Space travel, much like the early days of commercial air travel, is likely to remain exclusive to a select few initially, gradually becoming a prominent facet of experiential journeys,” says Belavadi.

He adds that those people with greater purchasing power or disposable income who value exclusive experiential travel will undoubtedly seize this opportunity. “This will likely represent sustained social validation for a considerable duration, aligning with the characteristic attributes of the luxury world.”

But cost is only one aspect of a journey that promises to be unmatchable in its entirety. How many people can really say that they’ve seen all of earth and that too in one go? Combine that with the feeling of leaving the tether of earth and floating in space, even for just a few moments, and the experience promises to give you an epiphany of sorts. That brings us back to Tito, who said of his trip to space, “It was the greatest moment of my life.”

@pliticalyincrkt, @sakshibatra18

Published on: Nov 21, 2023, 7:28 PM IST
Posted by: Priya Raghuvanshi, Nov 21, 2023, 7:05 PM IST