The Private Companies Pioneering the (New) Space Race

It’s a brave new world for space travel.

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Three companies—Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX—are blazing their own separate paths into space tourism.

Courtesy of Blue Origin

Space travel is all extremes. The prices are high—the cheapest trips cost as much as the average home in the United States—and the minutes spent floating weightlessly, gaping at Earth’s thin blue line, can be few. But more and more people are venturing into space, and the business is booming.

Three space barons—Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk—are at the fore of the space travel industry. So far, their passengers represent a narrow slice of humanity: celebrities like Star Trek’s William Shatner or uber-rich businesspeople like Jared Isaacman, who made his fortune on a payment-processing firm he started as a teenager. The days of sipping electric-blue cocktails on sleek space stations aren’t here for the masses just yet, but for those with the dream (and cash) for a jaunt to the nearest reaches of space, look to these companies.

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Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 with the intention of making space travel cheaper, more accessible, and frequent.

Courtesy of Blue Origin

Blue Origin

Prep: Two days of training include touring the New Shepard rocket, experiencing launch simulations, and learning to conduct oneself in zero gravity (no re-enacting scenes from The Matrix).

Price: Bezos has kept the cost for rides under wraps. In an auction for its first crewed flight in July 2021, the winning bid was $28 million for a single rider.

Founded in 2000 by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin launches travelers on 11-minute excursions. Previous passengers include William Shatner, who was profoundly moved by the experience and marveled at the tenuous boundary between Earth and space. “This air which is keeping us alive is thinner than your skin,” he told Bezos. “It would be so important for everybody to have that experience.”

The reusable New Shepard rocket takes travelers 62 miles above Earth. That’s just above the Kármán line—a theoretical boundary considered the start of space by the leading international aeronautical organization, the Féderátion Aéronautique Internationale, since the atmosphere there is too thin to support airplanes.

At the peak of the flight, passengers enjoy a few minutes of floating weightlessly while peering out their own windows (nearly 43 by 29 inches, the biggest on the market) before the capsule glides back down to the desert.

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Virgin Galactic is considered to be one of the front runners in the space race after it flew one of its space planes in the outer atmosphere in 2018.

Photo by Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic

Prep: A year of preparation culminates in several days of bonding and collaborating as a passenger team “to create a group that is fully equipped to enjoy themselves during spaceflight.” Passengers are also fitted for bespoke Under Armour space suits and boots.

Price: $450,000

British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic offers an experience on its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane, which can function in Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. As with any flight, the journey starts on a runway. The spaceplane piggybacks on another plane to 50,000 feet before the rocket ignites and the craft ascends.

The 90-minute flight peaks at 53 miles: well below the Kármán line, but past the 50-mile-mark that NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration consider the start of space. (Initially, the SpaceShipTwo was intended to fly above the 62-mile-mark, but trouble with the motor design resulted in a model that isn’t powerful enough to go that high.) Passengers enjoy four weightless minutes before re-entering the lower atmosphere and gliding back down the runway.

Virgin Galactic highlights the “overview effect” as a perk of its cosmic services: the cognitive transformation often sparked by viewing Earth against the void of space. Many astronauts report intense emotion as the unique perspective reveals the fragility and connectedness of life on Earth. In 2019, Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s Chief Astronaut Officer, became the first woman to fly to space on a commercial vehicle. In July 2021, she made a second trip aboard the same vessel.

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In 2021, SpaceX flew the space tourism industry’s first all-civilian crew into space.

Courtesy of SpaceX

SpaceX

Prep: To prepare for a three-day trip in orbit, one crew underwent six months of centrifuge spins and fighter jet flights, launch and re-entry rehearsals, and even climbed snowy Mount Rainier for team bonding.

Price: A reported $55 million

Led by tech magnate Elon Musk, SpaceX boasts the only tours into orbit. And they are much more exclusive. As of July 2022, only eight civilians—lucky individuals, wealthy businesspeople, and a retired astronaut among them—have orbited Earth with SpaceX, circling the planet every 90 minutes. For these tours, the company uses the same rocket, Falcon 9, and gumdrop-shaped spacecraft, the Dragon, to shuttle NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Astronauts have said SpaceX’s ride brings longer, rougher g-forces, with the rocket thrusting about 4.5 times Earth’s gravity onto passengers.

The company has sent civilians on a three-day spin around Earth, while a handful of business executives had a two-week stay on the International Space Station (the latter trip was chartered by the company Axiom Space). In 2023, SpaceX will send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on a trip around the moon.

On their orbiting stint in the 13-foot-wide Dragon, 357 miles above Earth, a four-person crew shared a toilet, took no showers, and slept buckled into the same seats they rode during launch. They ate cold meals of pizza, sandwiches, and bolognese. On the ISS trip, three civilians and their captain—a former astronaut—ate NASA’s freeze-dried meals. During their stay, which was extended due to bad weather for landing, the crew performed a variety of science experiments, like a regenerative medicine study for the Mayo Clinic on cardiac cells. Both journeys ended with a splash into the Atlantic Ocean.

Lina Tran is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin–based science writer born and raised on the coast of Alabama. She studied cell biology and literature and has worked in labs, libraries, and a brewery. She is currently a News and Politics Fellow for Grist.
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