As of 2008, orbital space tourism opportunities are limited and expensive, with only the Russian Space Agency providing transport. The price for a flight brokered by Space Adventures to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft is now $20 million. Flights are fully booked until 2009.
Among the primary attractions of space tourism are the uniqueness of the experience, the thrill and awe of looking at Earth from space, the experience's notion as an exclusive status symbol, and various advantages of weightlessness. The space tourism industry is being targeted by spaceports in numerous locations, including California, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Alaska, Wisconsin, Esrange in Sweden as well as the United Arab Emirates. Some use the term "personal spaceflight" as in the case of the Personal Spaceflight Federation.
The end of the Space Race, however, signified by the Moon landing, decreased the emphasis placed on space exploration by national governments and therefore led to decreased demands for public funding of manned space flights.
The U.S. Space Shuttle program included payload specialist positions which were usually filled by representatives of companies or institutions managing a specific payload on that mission. These payload specialists did not receive the same training as professional NASA astronauts and were not employed by NASA, so they were essentially private astronauts. NASA was also eager to prove its capability to Congressional sponsors, and Senator Jake Garn and (then-Representative, now Senator) Bill Nelson were both given opportunities to fly on board a shuttle. As the Shuttle program expanded, the Teacher in Space program was developed as a way to expand publicity and educational opportunities for NASA. Christa McAuliffe would have been the first Teacher in Space, but was killed in the Challenger disaster and the program was canceled. During the same period a Journalist in Space program was frequently discussed, with individuals such as Walter Cronkite and Miles O'Brien considered front-runners, but no formal program was ever developed. McAuliffe's backup in the Teacher in Space Program, Barbara Morgan, trained and flew aboard STS-118 as a fully trained NASA payload specialist and spoke to many students as an educator during the trip.
With the realities of the post-Perestroika economy in Russia, its space industry was especially starved for cash. The Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) offered to pay for one of its reporters to fly on a mission. For $28 million, Toyohiro Akiyama was flown in 1990 to Mir with the eighth crew and returned a week later with the seventh crew. Akiyama gave a daily TV broadcast from orbit and also performed scientific experiments for Russian and Japanese companies. However, since the cost of the flight was paid by his employer, Akiyama could be considered a business traveler rather than a tourist.
In 1991, British chemist Helen Sharman was selected from a pool of public applicants to be the first Briton in space. As the United Kingdom had no human space program, the arrangement was by a consortium of private companies who contracted with the Russian space program. Sharman was also in a sense a private space traveler, but she was a working cosmonaut with a full training regimen.
In conjunction with the Federal Space Agency of the Russian Federation and Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, Space Adventures facilitated the flights for the world's first private space explorers: Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, Gregory Olsen, Anousheh Ansari and Charles Simonyi. The first three participants paid in excess of $20 million (USD) each for their 10-day visit to the ISS.
On April 28, 2001, Dennis Tito became the first "fee-paying" space tourist when he visited the International Space Station (ISS) for seven days. He was followed in 2002 by South African computer millionaire Mark Shuttleworth. The third was Gregory Olsen in 2005, who was trained as a scientist and whose company produced specialist high-sensitivity cameras. Olsen planned to use his time on the ISS to conduct a number of experiments, in part to test his company's products. Olsen had planned an earlier flight, but had to cancel for health reasons.
After the Columbia disaster, space tourism on the Russian Soyuz program was temporarily put on hold, because Soyuz vehicles became the only available transport to the ISS. However, in 2006, space tourism was resumed. On September 18, 2006, Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian American (Soyuz TMA-9), became the fourth space tourist (she prefers spaceflight participant). On April 7, 2007, Charles Simonyi, an American billionaire of Hungarian descent, joined their ranks (Soyuz TMA-10).
In 2003, NASA and the Russian Space Agency agreed to use the term 'Spaceflight Participant' to distinguish those space travelers from astronauts on missions coordinated by those two agencies. Tito, Shuttleworth, Olsen, Ansari, and Simonyi were designated as such during their respective space flights. NASA also lists Christa McAuliffe as a "Space Flight Participant" (although she did not pay a fee), apparently due to her non-technical duties aboard the STS-51-L flight.
Additionally, as of November 2007 Virgin Galactic had pre-sold nearly 200 seats for their suborbital space tourism flights, according to the company's president.
More affordable suborbital space tourism is viewed as a money-making proposition by several other companies, including Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic, Starchaser, Blue Origin, Armadillo Aerospace, XCOR Aerospace, Rocketplane Limited, the European "Project Enterprise", and others. Most are proposing vehicles that make suborbital flights peaking at an altitude of 100-160 kilometres. Passengers would experience three to six minutes of weightlessness, a view of a twinkle-free starfield, and a vista of the curved Earth below. Projected costs are expected to be about $200,000 per passenger.
On October 4, 2004, the SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites and funded by Virgin Galactic, won the $10,000,000 X Prize, which was designed to be won by the first private company who could reach and surpass an altitude of 62 miles (100km) twice within two weeks. The altitude is beyond the Kármán Line, the arbitrarily defined boundary of space. The first flight was flown by Michael Melvill on June 21, 2004 to a height of 62 miles, making him the first commercial astronaut. The prize-winning flight was flown by Brian Binnie, which reached a height of 69.6 miles, breaking the X-15 record.
Virgin Galactic, one of the leading potential space tourism groups, is planning to have passenger service on its first spaceship, the VSS Enterprise (Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo), with the inaugural launch in 2008 and main flights beginning in 2009. The price is initially set at $200,000. Headed by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, Virgin Galactic will be the first private space tourism company to regularly send civilians into space, by training them for 3 days before their launch. The SpaceShipTwo spaceship was built as a result of the Ansari X Prize (which was won by SpaceShipOne); both SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo were designed by Burt Rutan. Launches will first occur at the Mojave Spaceport in California, and will then be moved to the permanent spaceport in Upham, New Mexico, near Truth or Consequences. The spaceships used will go 360,000 feet (109.73 km, or 68.18 miles) high; this goes beyond the height of 100 km, which is the internationally defined boundary between Earth and space. Space flights will last 2.5 hours, carry 6 passengers, and reach a speed of Mach 3. SpaceShipTwo will not require a space shuttle-like heat shield for atmospheric reentry as it will not experience the extreme aerodynamic heating experienced during reentry at orbital velocities (approximately Mach 22.5 at a typical shuttle altitude of 300 km, or 185 miles). The glider will employ a "feathering" technique to manage drag during the unpowered descent and landing. SpaceShipTwo will use a single hybrid rocket motor to launch from mid-air after detaching from a mother ship at 50,000 feet, instead of NASA's Space Shuttle's ground-based launch.
Since 2004, the TALIS Institute has gained many industrial partners, including XtremeAir , who will manufacture the airframe, and Swiss Propulsion Laboratory SPL , who will deliver the propulsion components. XtremeAir is well known for their acrobatic airplanes and SPL has designed and tested liquid propellant rocket engines since 1998.
Current work is focusing on the first prototype, the "Black Sky": An existing acrobatic airplane will be fitted with a single rocket engine and a new wing. The rocket engine will deliver a thrust of 10 kN. The test program for this engine started in 2007 at SPL.
Under current US law, any company proposing to launch paying passengers from American soil on a suborbital rocket must receive a license from the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST). The licensing process focuses on public safety and safety of property, and the details can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 14, Chapter III. This is in accordance with the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act passed by Congress in 2004.
Several plans have been proposed for using a space station as a hotel. American motel tycoon Robert Bigelow has acquired the designs for inflatable space habitats from the Transhab program abandoned by NASA. His company, Bigelow Aerospace already launched the first inflatable habitat module named Genesis I in 12 July 2006. The second test module, Genesis II was launched 28 June 2007. It is also currently planning to launch a prototype space station module by late 2008, and plans to officially launch the first commercial space station by 2010 (tagged Nautilus) which will have 330 cubic meters (almost as big as the ISS's 425 cubic meters of usable volume)..
Bigelow Aerospace is currently offering the America's Space Prize, a $50 million prize to the first US company to create a reusable spacecraft capable of carrying passengers to a Nautilus space station.
Other companies have also expressed interest in constructing "space hotels". For example, Excalibur Almaz plans to modernize and launch its Soviet-era Almaz space stations, which will feature the largest windows ever on spacecraft. Virgin's Richard Branson has expressed his hope for the construction of a space hotel within his lifetime. He expects that beginning a space tourism program will cost $100 million. Hilton International announced the Space Islands Project, a plan to connect together used Space Shuttle fuel tanks, each the diameter of a Boeing 747 aircraft. A separate organization, Space Island Group announced their distinct Space Island Project (note the singular "Island"), and plans on having 20,000 people on their "space island" by 2020, with the number of people doubling for each decade. British Airways has expressed interest in the venture. If and when Space Hotels develop, it would initially cost a passenger $60,000, with prices lowering over time.
Fashion designer Eri Matsui has designed clothing, including a wedding gown, intended to look best in weightless environments.
A web-based survey suggested that over 70% of those surveyed wanted less than or equal to 2 weeks in space; in addition, 88% wanted to spacewalk (only 74% of these would do it for a 50% premium), and 21% wanted a hotel or space station.
The concept has met with some criticism from social commentators and politicians, notably Guenter Verheugen, vice-president of the European Commission, who said of the EADS Astrium Space Tourism Project "It's only for the super rich, which is against my social convictions.
Although many space enthusiasts subscribe to the notion of space tourism as a potential burgeoning industry that could further the development and settlement of space, some of these same enthusiasts object to the use of the term "space tourist". Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation, for example, has said
"I hate the word tourist, and I always will .... 'Tourist' is somebody in a flowered shirt with three cameras around his neck.Others with perhaps less enthusiasm for space development seem to agree. Alex Tabarrok has categorized it as a kind of "adventure travel". The mere fact of people paying for a travel experience does not, in his view, make that activity "tourism".
At best and for the foreseeable future space travel will remain akin to climbing Everest, dangerous and uncommon. Yes, we might see 100 flights a year but that's not space tourism - tourism is fat guys with cameras.