Is civilian space travel just a fad? Or will traveling through space soon be the fastest, best way to get from one earthly destination to another?
In 1961, the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to enter outer space when he traveled beyond our atmosphere on the Vostok 1 spacecraft. On July 20, 1969, people around the world sat glued to their television sets as Neil Armstrong of the United States became the first human to set foot on the moon. Fast forward several decades, and it’s no longer government-sponsored cosmonauts and astronauts who are rocketing toward the stars. It’s our very own Captain Kirk, AKA William Shatner, transcending sci-fi television to live news coverage of actual space travel. In the 21st century, civilian space travel has taken center stage.
November is Aviation History Month. As we remember famed aviators like Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Chuck Yeager, Gagarin and Armstrong, let’s also look ahead at the future of civilian space travel.
The Space Race for Non-Astronauts
In September 2021, the first all-civilian crew flew into outer space as part of a SpaceX-sponsored mission. This mission marked “the latest step in the commercialization of space,” occurring just weeks after Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos traveled into space as part of a private mission by Blue Origin. In October, Star Trek star William Shatner also traveled into space as part of a subsequent Blue Origin mission. The actor, 90, became the oldest human being to travel in space.
The lines between private and government-sponsored space travel have always been blurred. After all, the government relies on private contractors to supply much of the equipment, materials and spacecraft used on official missions. And private satellites have launched into space for decades — to the point that satellites are now clogging the night sky.
But it’s new that private companies are now putting real people on crafts they are sending into space. What does NASA think of all this? NASA is nothing more than a bystander as private citizens launch into space on privately funded missions. But there are indications that NASA welcomes the influx of private dollars in space exploration, as private money will help lead to new developments, innovations and efficiencies that NASA could not create on its own.
But that doesn’t mean passengers on private space flights will be “astronauts.” Only the Federal Aviation Administration, Nasa or the United States military can grant astronaut wings. There are specific requirements, and there’s little indication that any of these private space flights will soon meet them.
Civilian Space Travel for Everyday People
So far, we only hear about celebrities and billionaires visiting space. And that’s unlikely to change soon. If you’re hoping to orbit earth, don’t get too excited. There’s little chance of the masses getting to travel into space in the 2020s. If you want to visit space in the next decade or so, you’ll likely need a six-figure sum. For a trip on Virin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard, seats typically cost between $250,000 and $500,000.
It’s more likely that you may visit the “edge of space” someday via a suborbital flight. These flights would be able to travel much faster than today’s commercial airliners, giving commercial airlines the chance to carry passengers from London to Sydney in less than one hour. This would be transformative for global businesses, of course, but the reality of suborbital flights at a price that delivers ROI is still years away.
In the meantime, look for the return of supersonic flights. Since British Airways and Air France stopped using the Concorde, traditional jetliners have sufficed for commercial air travel. But United has recently added Boom Supersonic jets to its fleet — with plans to carry passengers on them by 2029. Boom Supersonic jets would give passengers the ability to travel from New York City to London in 3.5 hours rather than 6.5. Not only do Boom Supersonic jets shorten the flying times between destinations, they do so sustainably by using 100% sustainable aviation fuel.
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