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Vacation this year comes with a few challenges – especially when it comes to going into space. There is the question of the necessary change: Tour operators charge a six-figure amount, or more, for excursions into space. There is the question of technology, which is by no means fully developed. And there is a third, a fundamental question: Where does space actually begin, this ominous place of longing?

If the flights are to take off now after many setbacks and consolations, you have to be aware that there will never be a satisfactory answer to the last of the three questions. There is no fixed boundary to space that could be crossed – unlike on a vacation trip to neighboring countries. The earth’s atmosphere simply gets thinner and thinner the further away from the ground. But even at an altitude of 400 kilometers, where the International Space Station (ISS) is making its rounds, there are still some air molecules to be found.

Three competing airlines

“Welcome to space,” tweeted Virgin Galactic, the space airline owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, on the company’s third test flight at the end of May. By then, the VSS Unity, the Virgin Galactic spaceplane, had only reached 89 kilometers. Blue Origin, the space start-up of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, on the other hand, wants to orient itself on the Kármán line when the first wealthy tourists take off for space on July 20, as planned. However, only to fall straight back to earth. Competitor SpaceX is planning even bigger: On September 15, it should go up to 540 kilometers, including four days in space.

The beginning of a beautiful new vacation world? Not exactly. More like the temporary end of a more than bumpy road. Because space tourism, should it finally take off, has a long, so far not very glorious history behind it – branded as a toy of the rich, marked by many setbacks and several deaths.

It was supposed to start 17 years ago. On June 21, 2004, high above the California Mojave Desert, the experimental “SpaceShipOne” accelerated to three times the speed of sound and reached an altitude of 100.124 kilometers – the first private space flight with a person on board. Three months later, the rocket plane repeated its feat. “SpaceShipOne” won the Ansari X Prize, a competition that was supposed to stimulate space tourism.

There was a gold rush atmosphere. A space airport, the Spaceport America, was built in New Mexico. Scheduled to start operations: 2009. Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic. The first buyers of his tickets, including the German Sonja Rohde, were celebrated by the media as pioneers who could not be stopped in life.

But it turned out differently.

In July 2007, a fuel tank exploded during tests in the Mojave Desert, killing three people. In October 2014, the successor model, the “SpaceShipTwo”, broke apart during a test flight and co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed. In February 2019, severe structural damage occurred in flight. In December 2020, the rocket motor did not even ignite. Time and again, Virgin Galactic had to postpone the planned tourist flights.


Virgin Galactic does not sell tickets for the time being

And now everything should suddenly be fine? After all: The test flight in New Mexico at the end of May, during which no journalists were allowed on site, went “almost perfectly”, Virgin Galactic manager Mike Moses said. Another test with four employees in the passenger seats will now follow, perhaps even with Richard Branson himself. The company boss definitely wants to get on the next flight. And finally, the commercial maiden flight on behalf of the Italian Air Force is pending.

If everything works out that is by no means safe, the first tourists could also come to the train. Virgin Galactic once charged its hopeful would-be passengers $ 250,000 per ticket. The company does not reveal how much is due now. Even on the exact start date, Branson is keeping a low profile. Too often Virgin Galactic, which had to report a loss of $ 130 million in the first quarter of this year alone, got a bloody nose with missed launch dates.

Bezos’ Blue Origin will take off in July

Competitor Blue Origin is more specific. It should start on July 20th. Then “New Shepard”, an 18 meter long rocket in the form of a dildo, could bring passengers into space. Also on board: the company founder Bezos himself. As he recently let his fans know on Instagram, he wants to make a dream come true with his brother, which he has had since his fifth birthday. Blue Origin is also currently auctioning the first ticket publicly. The current bid is $ 3.8 million. Much more interesting for the company, however, was the already completed first phase of the auction: every prospective buyer could secretly state how much such a trip is worth to him – important clues as to where the future market price for tourist flights could be.


Because there’s a lot going on for Blue Origin. The company has so far lagged far behind its claims: It is planning a rocket for launches into Earth orbit that has only existed on paper for years. It developed engines for America’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Vulcan, but did not come to Potte. It wanted to build the lunar module for the next US astronauts and was outperformed by SpaceX, which had made a significantly better offer.

Expensive hops just over the border to space

That leaves the suborbital flights: once briefly over the Kármán line and back again. After all, Blue Origin – unlike Virgin Galactic – can look back on a successful test program. “New Shepard” has already taken off and landed 15 times largely without any problems, but without people on board. The technology also differs fundamentally: the »SpaceShipTwo« needs a parent aircraft that can initially bring it to an altitude of 15 kilometers. There the spaceship disengages, ignites its rocket engine, reaches space or – depending on the definition – also not, and finally heads for the runway of Spaceport America like an airplane. In the much more simply designed “New Shepard”, on the other hand, a rocket accelerates a space capsule that disengages, flies on and then lands under parachutes in the desert of West Texas.


The experience for the six passengers on board is hardly different. Both excursions promise several minutes of weightlessness, exclusively window seats and a view of the curved earth against the black of space – only once from a height of a good 100 kilometers and once from almost 90 kilometers.

SpaceX is planning the multi-day orbital trip

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has nothing to do with such short-haul flights. “Can’t get anyone up (into orbit),” Musk etched on Twitter at the end of April in the direction of his competitor Bezos. That is why SpaceX’s first purely private astronaut mission should not only briefly extend over the Kármán Line, but last for several days and lead around the globe. Billionaire Jared Isaacman bought the orbital flight, which is due to take off in September with four people in a Crew Dragon capsule, at an unspecified price.

Such missions are also an important additional source of income for SpaceX. With the reusable »Falcon 9«, the company has turned the rocket market inside out and reduced launch costs, but the hoped-for boom in demand has not yet materialized. This is where tourists come in handy, especially when they don’t have to look at every penny. At the beginning of 2022, SpaceX, together with the US company Axiom, plans to head for the International Space Station ISS for the first time and deliver a wealthy private crew there – an adventure that was previously only possible with Russian Soyuz capsules. And it shouldn’t stop there: the partners signed a contract for three more ISS flights up to 2023 a few days ago.

But only for very few people should such charter flights represent an alternative to a summer vacation on Mallorca. According to information from the Washington Post, Axiom is asking a steep price for the ISS flight: $ 55 million per ticket.

This article was originally published by spektrum.de

Article source: spektrum.de

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