Recreational space travel is a bit like the flying car. It's a promise that was made to us by so many people we trusted -- scientists, futurists, The Jetsons. "Surely, in the far future, in the year 2018, we'll be able to take a jaunt to the moon for lunch and be back before our bosses even notice we've left our desks."
There's no question we have the means to put human beings in space; we do it so regularly that it no longer even makes the news. So why oh why can't you or I go? What's the status of space tourism today? Will it be affordable in the foreseeable future? When will Homo Sapiens become Homo Cosmicus?
Buckle up and prepare for lift-off: the day when almost anyone can slip the surly bonds of Earth may be closer than you imagine.
In 1984, President Reagan gave NASA a peculiar assignment: send a teacher into space.
The late Cold War began as an era of optimism for manned space flight in America, and a desire to include civilians, non-astronauts, and non-scientists had taken root. In 1983, aerospace contractors proposed a detachable module for the space shuttle that could have supported more than 70 passengers in orbit for up to three days. In 1985, experts predicted that there would be 30,000 space tourists by the year 2000, paying only about $25,000 per ticket.
In retrospect, of course, that prognosis was laughably rosy.
For NASA, civilian spaceflight was doubtless a nifty way to capture the public imagination and impress Congress. For Reagan, the Teacher in Space Project was a way to honor educators and encourage a new generation to take up the mantle of space exploration, which had brought the U.S. much glory in the twilight struggle against the Soviet Union.
Over 11,000 teachers applied for the mission. The successful applicant would get a year's sabbatical to undergo astronaut training (their salary paid by NASA) and the chance to deliver lessons live from the Space Shuttle.
Out of a deluge of hopefuls, NASA narrowed the candidates down to 10. These chosen few were subjected to a battery of physical and psychological tests to assess their viability. Finally, New Hampshire social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe emerged victorious: she would be the first teacher in space.
Or she would have been. Tragically, the shuttle meant to launch her into orbit was Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after takeoff on January 28, 1986, killing all aboard.
The disaster cast a pall over plans to send more non-astronauts into space; NASA scaled back or cancelled its civilian programs. The United States may have won the space race, but it had not conquered the inherent dangers of spaceflight.
Still, the dream of off-world tourism was not dead. Merely deferred.
Strictly speaking, it's inaccurate to discuss space tourism as though it's a hypothetical. It has happened. In fact, seven individuals have paid money to leave the atmosphere. But the amounts they've had to fork over are, well, astronomical.
The world's first official space tourist was Dennis Tito, a 60-year-old investment manager who had worked as an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in his younger days.
Tito had always dreamt of visiting outer space, and he knew the day was fast approaching when he would no longer be physically capable of the feat.
Russian aerospace companies had come to the conclusion that charging wealthy individuals outrageous prices for seats on their shuttles would be an excellent way to subsidize their work. So, in June 2000, Tito struck a deal with the Russians to travel to their Mir Space Station in orbit round the earth.
But the deal was nearly scuppered when the obsolete Mir was taken out of operation, disintegrating in Earth's outer atmosphere in March 2001.
Fortunately for Tito, the Russians were able to transfer him to a shuttle bound for the International Space Station (ISS), then in its infancy. They did this over the vociferous objections of partner nations, who opined that Tito would burden the mission since he was basically incompetent to respond to any emergency and would require babysitting.
(To Tito's credit, he did spend 8 months training at the Star City complex near Moscow, the traditional proving ground for cosmonauts since Yuri Gagarin.)
Despite all the delays and controversies -- and a bill reported at $20,000,000 -- Dennis Tito officially became the world's first space tourist on April 28, 2001.
Over the next eight years, he was followed to the ISS by seven other enthusiastic amateurs with deep pockets, including Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté (who reportedly paid $40,000,000 for his trip) and Microsoft Office creator Charles Simonyi (who paid $60,000,000 for two trips).
All of these journeys were taken aboard Russian rockets, but no such trips have been possible since 2009 due to the need to send larger professional crews to the space station.
Tito and company have definitively proven that it's possible to make astronauts out of ordinary people -- albeit at tremendous cost. But when, if ever, will it be doable for us ordinary folk who don't have tens of millions of dollars to blow on a lark?
Jeff Bezos: owner of Amazon and The Washington Post.
Sir Richard Branson: billionaire investor of Virgin fame.
Elon Musk: founder of Tesla and SpaceX.
All of these men, titans of business and visionaries, for good or ill, have committed to making space travel more accessible. And they're putting their money where their mouths are.
In 2000, Bezos founded Blue Origin LLC, with the goal of making space tourism a reality. In the past 18 years, they've charted considerable progress.
Blue Origin are in the final stages of testing a reusable sub-orbital rocket called New Shepard, which is capable of taking off and landing vertically! All that remains is for the system to undergo a test flight with a human crew aboard, which Blue Origin claims it will accomplish by the end of 2018. (As of this writing, they have yet to set a date.)
The trip on New Shepard will last a grand total of 11 minutes from launch to landing. In that time, the rocket -- and the affixed capsule carrying six passengers -- will ascend more than 100 kilometres, beyond the Karman Line that divides Earth's tenuous outer atmosphere from the vacuum of space.
Those aboard will experience a few minutes of weightlessness as they peer out the windows at the azure curve of the Earth contrasted against the endless abyss. As for cost, Blue Origin has yet to list one, but it's a safe bet a ticket will set you back somewhere in the neighbourhood of $200,000.
Not exactly a bargain, but if you're a multi-millionaire it's peanuts to join the exclusive ranks of the 536 humans who have made it to outer space so far. The rest of us will just have to wait for the prices to drop.
But Blue Origin has some competition.
Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has plans to use a fleet of rocket-propelled planes to reach outer space. Known as SpaceShipTwo, these unusual crafts launch midair from a mothership, ascend to about the same height as New Shepard, then glide back down to Earth, landing on runways like any other plane.
Plans hit a snag in 2014, however, when the first prototype of SpaceShipTwo broke up mid-flight, killing one of the pilots. But considerable progress has been made since, with Virgin Galactic hoping to begin commercial flights by the end of 2018.
Branson's predictions are notoriously bullish, but on the other hand he has plenty of investors who are bound to be getting impatient; more than 500 people have already booked flights on SpaceShipTwo at a cost of $250,000 a head.
As for the ever-ambitious Elon Musk, his plans remain the most far-fetched. Apart from expressing a desire to colonize Mars, Musk also laid plans to send two well-heeled space tourists on a circum-lunar trip at a cost of approximately $70,000,000. (Apparently these two unnamed would-be astronauts approached SpaceX with the cash.)
Unfortunately for them, Musk has since announced that his new rocket system, which was intended to power the voyage, probably won't be suitable for manned spaceflight. That leaves SpaceX's plans, though intriguing, as the most long-term and inaccessible of the three for the time being.
Then again, even with all the optimism we can muster, every option looks pretty inaccessible from here. The number of people who can realistically afford to plop down a quarter-million dollars to spend a few magical moments off-world is minuscule. While it seems certain that space tourism will come into its own in the next ten or twenty years, the prospect of a trip to space being comparable to a trip to Hawaii remains illusive.
But it's only human nature to keep dreaming per aspera ad astra - "through difficulties to the stars."