Despite its recent visibility in the United States with the efforts of Virgin Galactic to build a suborbital vehicle, space tourism is hardly a recent concept. Mention of the idea goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century, and with the development of workable rockets in the late 1950s the concept gained a foothold. Perhaps the most exciting early idea emerged when Pan American World Airways announced in 1968 that it would take reservations in anticipation of future space tourism as a promotion for the Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Reportedly Pan Am received over 93,000 reservation requests for a service it had no prospect of beginning for several decades.
In 1969 Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, director of the NASA Apollo program, predicted that commercial space tourism would be available to healthy adventurers who could afford it by 1987. A year earlier, Barron Hilton began talking about building a hotel on the Moon and proposed a “space shuttle service” that would ferry passengers for a round-trip price of $1,500 (about $15,000 today), in addition to another $1,000 for two-week stays at the Lunar Hilton. The hotel was not a small beach bungalow either. One account had it with 5,000 rooms and its own private “ocean,” although details of its design were never publicized. The idea did not die easily and as late as 1999, Hilton was reportedly considering a $25 billion space hotel in collaboration with 16 other groups. A two-week trip would initially cost $2 million per person, dropping to $415,000 by the fifth year.
Other proposals were forthcoming from Dietrich Koelle, who presented a plan for space tourism using a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle at the annual International Astronautical Federation (IAF) meeting in 1971. This would be the first of several presentations over the next decade by Koelle. In 1984, David M. Ashford presented a series of papers on new vehicles specifically designed to support the space tourism industry. Ashford would go on to publish a large number of articles and one book on space tourism, as well as becoming heavily involved in several web sites on the subject.
As planning for the Space Shuttle proceeded in 1976, several people emerged to suggest that it might well be the first vehicle that could be used for space tourism. “Today, people willingly pay $2,000 to fly supersonically roundtrip from France to South America and pay $10,000 for an all-expense cruise around the world,” commented John H. Disher, NASA’s director of advanced programs. He predicted that of the 60 flights per year then foreseen for the shuttle, several of them might be for tourism purposes.
Disher added, “Certainly, commercial operations at levels of hundreds of millions of dollars per year can be anticipated over the next two decades.” Disher believed that the shuttle would be the transforming technology that would open the space frontier for all manner of activities, including tourism. Instead it turned out to be an experimental test vehicle that failed to achieve expectations. The anticipation of these technologies has been a longstanding element of the advocated for space tourism thereafter.
Like many things in spaceflight, however, tourism always seems to be ten years away. In 1985, Gary Hudson advocated for a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle named Phoenix and formed Pacific American Launch Systems to build it. In partnership with T.C. Swartz, owner of Society Expeditions, a Seattle travel agency, Hudson promised by the latter 1990s short trips to low-Earth orbit for $50,000. The company reportedly collected several hundred $5,000 deposits from prospective tourists in Europe, Japan, and the United States, but Hudson failed to raise enough money to develop the Phoenix and the idea collapsed.
Society Expeditions then proposed developing a special passenger module to be flown inside the Space Shuttle’s payload bay during the mid-1980s. It called for each flight to carry between 24 and 32 tourists at a cost of about $1 million per person. Society Expeditions expected flights to begin in the mid-1990s “to include a three-day low earth orbit and possible rendezvous with a U.S. Space Station” and reportedly attracted $10,000 deposits from more than 250 people. NASA spokesperson Frank Johnson accepted the soundness of the concept, but the Challenger accident ended any thought of flying civilians on the Space Shuttle, and the company subsequently returned the deposits.
Society Expeditions was not just a company started to market space tourism. Founded in 1974, it offered high-end vacations ranging from cruising in the Antarctic Islands to visiting Siberia and Cape Horn, and catered to passengers with a taste for luxury and the money to pay for it. During 1985, the company offered “endless horizon” vacations aboard private jets for $30,000 per passenger. However, the company never got to send a tourist into space, and finally folded in 2004, a victim of the changing world after 9/11.
Nevertheless, the dream of space tourism would not die. The SPACE94 conference in Albuquerque during March 1994, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the annual International Astronautical Federation conference in October 1994 both saw the release of several papers that played important roles in space tourism discussions. One of these detailed the results of the first market survey on space tourism, conducted on 3,030 people in Japan during late 1993. Another detailed the Kankoh-maru (roughly translated as the “tourism ship”) concept for a launch vehicle aimed at the tourist market that is still being advocated in various forms.
Even the U.S. government noticed and six major aerospace companies—Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, McDonnell Douglas, and Rockwell—conducted the Commercial Space Transportation study under NASA contract during 1994. This study concluded, “A new space transportation system would provide tangible and intangible benefits to the general public. The development of new market areas would create new opportunities and capabilities, for example, space tourism.” Seemingly, little came of this study.
The first mainstream aerospace journal to run an article on space tourism was probably Aerospace America in November 1996. Aviation Week and Space Technology followed on April 7, 1997. The Kankoh-maru project appeared on Japanese national television on April 11, 1997, marking the first mass-market presentation of a space tourism concept. By 1998 articles had appeared in Business Week, Fortune, and Popular Science, and many trade publications have followed suit since that time. A variety of start-up, entrepreneurial launch vehicle companies have also marketed services to the space tourism market. For a variety of technical and economic reasons, however, no one has yet demonstrated the feasibility of the concept with a flight.
That may change soon as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is undertaking test flights and may have paying passengers within the next couple of years. Let’s hope it is successful and will lead to orbital space tourism in the next decade.