Richard Branson won the space race, and the exciting era of space tourism begins

Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, made a heartwarming announcement on July 1st. Just 20 days later, he would take 82-year old Wally Funk to space. Funk was part of the “Mercury 13” Woman in Space Program in 1961, but she never got on board after all. Now, she will join the New Shepard spacecraft’s first astronaut crew and travel to space alongside Bezos and his brother. After years of development in billionaire’s company Blue Origin, this flight was about to kick start the future of commercial space tourism. 

Shortly after the announcement, Richard Branson had something to say: Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 mission would launch on July 11th. Competition? Branson says not really. “I know nobody will believe me when I say it, but honestly, there isn’t,” he laughed in an interview with Today.

It took 17 years to reach a point where technology is finally reliable enough. In 2014, it sure wasn’t. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot. But on July 11th, 2021, 70-year old Branson was confident enough to get on board his own spacecraft and fulfill his life-long dream. “I have dreamt of this moment since I was a kid, but honestly nothing can prepare you for the view of Earth from space,” he said after the whole crew successfully returned to Earth. “The whole thing was just magical,” he added.

The future of commercial space tourism

Space tourism is emerging as a very real future form of entertainment for the masses. Needless to say, the first journeys to space are reserved for the wealthy. The first space travelers paid Virgin Galactic around 250k USD. Unsurprisingly, a lot of wealthy people want to be among those who see the Earth from afar. Celebrities like Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Justin Bieber are rumored to be among the first 600 customers. Another 1,000 people have made deposits to get on a waitlist. 

The first person to fly with Blue Origin on the trip with Jeff Bezos paid a bit more: a whopping $28 million. And if you’d like to fly in Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station (ISS), the price tag is much heftier. Each of the three crew members paid 55 million USD and went through a 15-week training program. Well, that’s the price to pay if you want to be on the first private flight to the ISS. However, SpaceX is luring buyers with more than just a brief trip there and back: their space tourists will be able to spend a couple of days aboard. 

So has the future of commercial space tourism just started? Branson’s flight suggests that years of preparation are coming to fruition. CTV quotes Yale University astronomy and physics Prof. Priyamvada Natarajan, who called Branson’s journey “a real milestone for human exploration.”

“The instinct for exploring and to go beyond is so deeply human that this was nevertheless going to be the next frontier, and (Branson) must be really, really thrilled, I can imagine,” she concluded.

Cover image Virgin Galactic Press Assets. 2021 © Virgin Galactic

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