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So you want to go to Space?

December 20, 2016

Good news. You can! 


And no, you won't need to be a top-rated space scientist/astronaut or hotshot fighter pilot to do it. You won't have to pay US$35 million like Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberte did for his 12-day stay on the International Space Station. And it won't be a one-way trip to Mars. 


Thanks to a few good billionaires, and a few other private companies, space will soon become accessible to the 'masses'. 


Of course, you'd still have to fork out a couple hundred thousand dollars for just a few minutes of space time (pun intended); and you might have to wait a year or two for it to happen. 


But for all of us civilian space enthusiasts who ever dreamed of going to space, here are 3 ways to become a space tourist. 




This option replicates some of the cool features of going to space, without you actually getting there. 


There are a couple of ways to do this. You could go to Russia today and hitch a ride on a fighter plane to the edge of space, up to about 70,000 feet (21 Km). 


What you get: A supersonic ride to the stratosphere; a glimpse of the curvature of the Earth against the darkness of space. 


How much: Roughly US$20,000 for a 45 minute flight (with some aerobatics thrown in along the way). 


If you want more time aloft, a lot less G forces, and don't mind waiting another year or so, then a few companies are working on helium-filled balloons that would take a pressurised capsule up to around 100,000 feet (30 Km). 


What you get: This trip would take several hours with a slow parachute down, and you'd be able to see the blue sky below you as if you were in space. 


How much: The price tag would be 4 times more than the jet, at US$75,000-125,000. But what a view!




Of course, if you really want to be in space, experiencing the weightlessness of zero gravity (zero G), then go for the suborbital space flights.


The flight itself goes straight up - to around 110 Km in altitude (above what most agencies consider the official start of 'space' at 100 Km) - and straight down again. 


What you get: This is the real deal. You are officially in space, the Earth is way beneath you, and you'd get to experience about 5-6 minutes of zero G flight. 


How much: Private space companies like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin are working on suborbital passenger vehicles (a space plane and a reusable rocket with space capsule, respectively) that should start bringing space tourists up in the next two years. 


Virgin Galactic's price is out at US$250,000; but we are not sure yet with Blue Origin. 


Whatever it is, it would be much cheaper than the orbital option (next), as the velocity required to shoot up and down is six times less than that required for an orbital insertion. 




Which bring us to the ultimate space experience: orbital human space flights. 


What you get: Most likely a trip to Low Earth Orbit, which starts at around 160 Km. (The ISS maintains an orbit of between 400 to 410 Km.)


Unfortunately, this option is still only for government agencies (and billionaires), and it's not cheap. Russia currently charges US astronauts US$80 million per seat on its Soyuz rocket (the only ride in town right now) to get to and from the ISS. 


Meanwhile, NASA has provided generous grants to three US companies: SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada, to develop two capsules and a orbital space plane, respectively.


How much: I have spoken off the record to one of these companies, which claimed to be looking at US$20 million a flight. They didn't provide any details on how long you'd be in space, but I'd guess at least 1-3 days. 


And what about a space hotel while you're up there? Bigelow Aerospace is developing an expandable space habitat that might cost US$15 million for a two-week stay (if so, then your total travel bill could rack up to $35 million). 


Pretty much out of the price range of most people on Earth. 




SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, recently indicated that a trip to Mars in his new spaceship (slated to leave in about 10 years) could be around US$250,000, which is not much more than the propellant cost of going there. 




Is that a realistic price for space travel? How low could prices go?


Perhaps a good method would be to apply the airplane model. Airliners tend to operate at very low margins, with about a third of their cost being fuel. The rest of the ticket cost is basically a tiny profit, with maintenance and labour costs, etc, thrown in.  


With this method, assuming we used a reusable spacecraft for orbital flights, the fuel required (for say 20 people) would be around US$600,000 to $800,000. Multiply that to solve for the other 70% of costs, and you'd be looking at US$2.6 million or US$133,000 per person. 


That would be the absolute floor price for orbital flights, based on the airliners' high efficiency and low margins. However, a more realistic minimum price could be around US$300,000 to $500,000, which is still be quite costly for the average person.


Using the same methodology for suborbital flights, assuming you used about 5-10% of the fuel of an orbital flight, you might get a floor price of about $45,000 to $50,000. This more affordable pricing could potentially open 'space' up to more intrepid travelers, and to a new era of space travel and exploration. 


More good news for companies, like ours, that are looking to develop lower-cost space vehicles for a truly out of this world experience.

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About this Blog

Adam Gilmour is the CEO & Founder of Gilmour Space Corporation, which owns Spaceflight Academy Gold Coast; and Gilmour Space Technologies, which recently launched its first successful suborbital test rocket in Australia.

He loves space and is deeply inspired by humankind's efforts to explore it. 

@ [email protected]

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