The Past, Present, and Future of Space Tourism

It’s been more than 20 years since the first space tourist took flight, but there’s a lot more to come in the emerging industry of space tourism.


Are space vacations in our near future?

Illustration by Delcan & Co.

When Austrian journalist Gerhard Pistor requested to book a trip to the moon in 1964, his travel agency forwarded his query to Pan American World Airways—Pan Am. The now-defunct airline accepted the reservation and noted that the first flights to the moon would take off in the year 2000. So began a years-long space-tourism marketing stunt in which some 93,000 people joined Pan Am’s First Moon Flights Club, a waiting list for the first civilian trips to the moon.

That, of course, never happened. But as the Space Age advanced, space tourism did, too. In 2001, American entrepreneur Dennis Tito became the first true space tourist, launching aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and spending more than a week aboard the International Space Station (ISS)—reportedly spending $20 million to do so.

Today, we’re in a new era of space tourism, with growing numbers of civilians leaving Earth for brief moments through private enterprises focusing on such endeavors. And in the coming decades, we may even see the dawn of regular long-duration space vacations.

The Birth of Space Tourism

After the Apollo era, companies investigated opportunities to send civilians rather than government professionals—that is, NASA astronauts—into space. In the 1970s, manufacturing conglomerate Rockwell International, a contractor for NASA’s Space Shuttle program, researched the possibility of passenger modules that could fit into the payload bay of the Space Shuttle, with similar concepts developed by other companies over the subsequent decade. None came to fruition.

NASA did open up its spaceflights to nongovernment professionals, though, primarily as payload specialists, who were tasked to complete specific in-flight projects by companies outside of NASA. NASA also developed the Teacher in Space and Journalist in Space programs to open up spaceflight to several civilians annually. But the programs were ended after the Challenger disaster in 1986, which killed the first Teacher in Space participant, Christa McAuliffe, along with her six crew members. The program was considered for a revival, but that, too, was ended after a Space Shuttle failure—this one, the fatal Columbia disaster in 2003.

Space tourism finally became successful in 2001 with Tito’s launch to the ISS. That trip was organized by a company called Space Adventures, which ultimately saw eight other space tourists take trips to the ISS through 2009, each launched on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. But these tourist flights ended after the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in 2011. Because the only spacecraft capable of human spaceflight at that time was the Soyuz, every seat on every launch was needed for professional astronauts from around the world, and tourism was put on the back burner.

Space Tourism Today

For the past decade, private space tourism companies have been developing spacecraft to take passengers on suborbital flights, which bring them to the edge of space and back down to Earth in relatively short “hops” lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. By comparison, the first nine Space Adventure clients flew orbital missions that encircled the planet for days.

The method of flight varies by company. Blue Origin, for instance, launches vertically like most rockets, whereas Virgin Galactic flies a rocket-powered space plane that is launched from the belly of a carrier aircraft. While these two companies are the only suborbital companies cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for launches—both have already carried passengers to space—other companies are preparing for liftoff. That includes space-balloon companies Space Perspective and World View, which offer a far more leisurely journey than rocket-powered ascents, gently lifting passengers to high altitudes in a high-tech version of a hot air balloon. Across all suborbital space tourism companies, prices range from approximately $50,000 to $450,000 per seat.

Orbital tourism has also made a comeback, though at far higher prices: tens of millions of dollars per seat. SpaceX, which is contracted by NASA to launch astronauts to the ISS, is also available for private charters. In 2021, entrepreneur Jared Isaacman organized the Inspiration4 mission, the world’s first all-civilian mission, during which he and three crewmates orbited the Earth in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule as a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In 2022, SpaceX provided the launch vehicle for the Axiom mission 1 (Ax-1), the world’s first all-civilian mission to the ISS, during which four crew members spent eight days onboard the orbiting research facility.

Space Adventures is also back in business; it organized a flight to the ISS for Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, who traveled to space in December 2021. Maezawa intends to charter SpaceX’s under-development Starship spacecraft for a moon mission called the dearMoon project, taking with him eight civilians on the journey.

What’s Next for Space Tourism

Space tourism remains in its nascent phase, with plenty of work to be done. Existing suborbital companies are still tweaking launch vehicles and increasing launch cadence to approach regularity, while upcoming ones are waiting for FAA approval to begin their operations. And, hopefully, the space tourism companies will eventually be able to reduce the cost of flights, too.

But many enterprises are already eyeing the future when it comes to space tourism—a future in low-Earth orbit (LEO). NASA itself is investing in that future through the Commercial LEO Development Program, through which it is funding the development of private space stations. As NASA and its international partners move toward retiring the ISS in the next decade or so, the agency hopes to rent facilities from private stations that will be able to host not only its professional astronauts but also commercial visitors.

Four projects have received funding from NASA’s Commercial LEO Development Program, including Axiom Space, the company that launched the Ax-1 mission. Axiom has partnered with avant-garde interior designer Philippe Starck to work on its Axiom Station. Another funded project, Starlab by Voyager Space and its subsidiary Nanoracks, has partnered with Hilton to develop astronaut accommodations.

Three of the four companies are expecting to launch their space stations by the end of the decade, but as space programs go, delays are highly likely. (NASA’s current Artemis program, for instance, was hoping to land humans on the moon in 2024, but that deadline has been pushed back to at least 2025.) Still, the future is bright for space tourism and certainly within the realm of reality—all we have to do is wait. And for travelers who have always wished to be among the stars, that wait will be worth it.

Stefanie Waldek is a space, travel, and design journalist who loves aviation, storm chasing, and The X-Files. She’s happiest when cruising at 36,000 feet or at sea level in polar regions.
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