After NASA announced the astronauts who will be taking off on its commercial crew flights with the launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, you might be wondering whether someday, instead of a getaway to somewhere with white sand beaches and swaying palm trees, you might be booking a flight to space.
"I think it's an exciting time for the industry, and today's announcement makes it even closer," Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told Space.com. "It's really setting in, the reality of it all. I think, as we see more NASA astronauts—American and international—going up on American vehicles, it shows the possibility and the desire that we have to have regular citizens going into space."
Boeing and SpaceX initially collaborated with NASA so it could rely less on the Russian Soyuz flights it had been previously using to get astronauts to the ISS. What started as a mission to let go of our dependence on Russia has attracted space tourism companies that want to use Starliners, Crew Dragons, and future commercial spacecraft to fly tourists somewhere way more exciting than a resort hotel.
So when do you call your travel agent? Probably not for a while. The first tourist to go into orbit boarded with a $20 million ticket (and that was in 2001). Virgin Galactic’s ambition to send paying customers into space was just about vaporized after the co-pilot of its SpaceShipTwo crashed to Earth, killing its co-pilot, seriously injuring its pilot, and igniting skepticism among anyone who had been dreaming of a future when vacationers can blast off. Even after that, Virgin Galactic still has a wait list.
Though Boeing probably didn’t have leisure in mind when designing its Starliner, the concept opened the eyes of Bigelow Aerospace, which had already tested two inflatable space station prototypes of its own, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, before it launched its BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) on the ISS in 2016. Bigelow could be launching an inflatable space station for real in a few years.
SpaceX is anxious to send tourists to Mars sooner than anyone else if it can get the first human bootprints on the Red Planet by 2024, but visionary founder and CEO Elon Musk is always imagining new concepts in the realm of spaceflight. The BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) will be his ultimate vehicle if Martian tourism ever becomes a thing. Before that happens, he might be flying passengers around the moon.
"It's the whole ecosystem [of commercial space] that we are focusing on," Stallmer said. "and there's so much going on in all different aspects of the commercial marketplace."
While people were expecting regular flights to space after the Apollo 11 moon landing, technology has made some giant leaps since then, and it may not be too long before we aren’t just reaching for the stars but actually among them.