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NGSS: Core Idea: ETS2.B, ESS1.B

CCSS: Speaking and Listening: 3.

TEKS: Science: 3.2F, 4.3C, 5.3C, 6.3D

Next Stop, Space!

Private companies are sending tourists to space. Would you want to take the trip?

SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

This drawing shows the SpaceX spacecraft that recently orbited Earth carrying four tourists.

As you read, think about whether it’s important for average citizens to go to space.

On September 16, 2021, a spacecraft called the Crew Dragon Resilience blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Unlike all space missions before it, not one of the crew members on board was an astronaut! Resilience took a 72-hour trip orbiting Earth before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

The mission, known as Inspiration4, was operated by the company SpaceX. It’s one of several recent missions that sent civilians, people who aren’t trained astronauts, to space. The mission’s commander, business owner Jared Isaacman, spent millions of dollars to fund the flight. The crew also included a physician assistant, a geologist, and a software engineer.

A rocket launched on September 16, 2021. It took off from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. The rocket carried a spacecraft called the Crew Dragon Resilience. This space mission was different from others. None of the crew members on board were astronauts! The craft took a 72-hour trip orbiting Earth. Then it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean.  

The mission was called Inspiration4. The company SpaceX ran it. It was just one of several recent missions that sent civilians to space. A civilian is someone without astronaut training. Business owner Jared Isaacman led the mission. He spent millions of dollars to fund the flight. Three others were part of the crew. One was a physician assistant. Another was a geologist. The third member was a software engineer.

SPACEX

Inspiration4 crew member Hayley Arcenaux (left) and pilot Sian Proctor (right) one hour before takeoff

Inspiration4 sparked excitement about the future of space tourism. “Seeing ‘regular people’ go to space makes space more relatable,” says Wendy Whitman Cobb. She’s a space and security expert at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.

So when will average people get to travel to space? Experts say the chance to take a trip to space is several decades away for most people. But researchers and business leaders are taking major steps toward making space travel for all a possibility.

The mission got people talking about space tourism. “Seeing ‘regular people’ go to space makes space more relatable,” says Wendy Whitman Cobb. She’s a space and security expert at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. 

So when will average people get to travel to space? Experts say the chance for a trip is decades away for most people. But companies are moving toward making space travel for all possible.  

Journey to Space

The first humans blasted off to space in 1961. Since then, people have gone to space hundreds of times to explore and run experiments. In the U.S., the space agency NASA has operated these missions. NASA hires just 5-12 astronauts out of thousands of applicants every few years. They typically train for four years before blasting off.

But in recent decades, several wealthy business leaders have built private space programs. They are working with NASA to create new space technology. They are also making plans to take tourists to space for fun.

In 2021, three U.S. companies took big steps toward that goal. In July, two companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, launched rocket-powered crafts carrying civilians to space. The civilians on each mission trained for several days before taking off. These missions traveled above the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere (see Where in the Atmosphere?). After just a few minutes, Earth’s gravity pulled the spacecrafts down to the ground.

The first humans blasted off to space in 1961. People have gone to space hundreds of times since then. NASA ran these missions in the U.S. Thousands of people apply to the space agency every few years. They want to be astronauts. NASA hires just 5 to 12 of them. They train for about four years.

But recently, private space programs have taken off. They’re run by wealthy business leaders. These business leaders are working with NASA to create new space technology. They’re also making plans to take tourists to space for fun. 

In 2021, three U.S. companies took steps toward that goal. The companies Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin launched civilians into space in July. Each crew trained for several days before taking off. They traveled above the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere (see Where in the Atmosphere?). Then Earth’s gravity pulled the spacecrafts down to the ground. The trips lasted just a few minutes.

SPACEX

The Inspiration4 crew members on a plane that simulates the low gravity of space

In September, SpaceX’s Inspiration4 carried four civilians into low Earth orbit. That means the spacecraft traveled high and fast enough to orbit Earth like a satellite. To prepare for this 72-hour mission, its crew members had to train for several months.

Passengers on these recent missions were able to experience microgravity. Many passengers also said that seeing the planet from space made them realize how small Earth is.

SpaceX’s Inspiration4 carried four civilians. They traveled into low Earth orbit in September. The spacecraft flew high and fast enough to orbit Earth like a satellite. Its crew members had to train for several months to prepare for this 72-hour mission.

People on these missions experienced microgravity, or weightlessness. They also saw Earth from space. Many said that made them realize how small our planet is. 

Challenges Ahead

What stands in the way of making space tourism available for more people? “The biggest challenge is lowering the cost,” says Stanley Borowski, a former NASA engineer. Today, space travel is so expensive that only the very rich can afford to go. Tourists have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to spend time in space. Others received special invitations.

Another challenge for longer trips is finding a place to go. Right now, the one place with breathable air is the International Space Station (ISS). That’s a research station run by several countries, including the U.S. Tourists may also head to the moon. NASA is planning to return to the moon in 2025. “If NASA is successful, tourist trips there may follow,” Whitman Cobb says.

A third challenge is safety. There are very few laws about space tourism and the training and preparation that must be done for it. Governments are working to pass laws to keep space tourists as safe as possible.

What’s stopping more tourists from going to space? “The biggest challenge is lowering the cost,” says Stanley Borowski. He’s a former NASA engineer. Today, space travel is very expensive. Only the very rich can afford to go. Some tourists have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to visit space. Others got special invites.

Another challenge for longer trips is where to go. There’s only one place with air right now: the International Space Station (ISS). That’s a research lab run by several countries, including the U.S. Tourists may also head to the moon. NASA is planning to return there in 2025. “If NASA is successful, tourist trips there may follow,” Whitman Cobb says.

A third challenge is safety. There are few laws about space tourism flights. And there are few rules for how space tourists should train and prepare. Governments are working to pass laws to keep space tourists as safe as possible. 

VIRGIN GALACTIC

Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane takes off from a jet that carried it 14 kilometers high.

Space Debate

Not everyone thinks space tourism is a good idea. Eloise Marais studies air pollution at the University College London. She argues that the wealthy companies coordinating space missions should instead focus on solving problems on Earth. “There are many environmental problems that need money to solve,” she says. Scientists also worry that rockets could create dangerous amounts of air pollution.

Those in favor of space tourism hope it allows more people to experience the wonder of space. They are also excited for the new technology that companies will design as they plan trips to the ISS, the moon, and even planets like Mars. If those options were open to you, would you want to go?

Not everyone thinks space tourism is a good idea. Eloise Marais studies air pollution at the University College London. She argues that wealthy space companies should instead focus on problems on Earth. “There are many environmental problems that need money to solve,” she says. Scientists also worry that rockets could create a lot of air pollution.

But many are in favor of space tourism. They hope it allows more people to see the wonder of space. They are also excited for the new technology companies will design. New technology is needed to plan trips to the ISS, the moon, and even planets like Mars. Would you want to be a space tourist if the option was open to you?

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