One topic that has been popular in the last few years is space tourism, with more and more private citizens traveling into space. Since it seems space tourism is becoming routine, many can’t help but wonder who invented it. The truth is that it’s hard to answer this question since many events have contributed to the development of this industry.
Let’s dive into the fascinating history of space tourism and see if we can identify who invented it.
The 1950s and 1960s – The Beginning of Human Spaceflight
The 1950s and 1960s represented the turning point in spaceflight. Two countries competed in what became known as the space race: the Soviet Union and the U.S.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, into space. Four years later, the Soviet Union had another big success when Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, became the first man in outer space. Gagarin traveled in the Vostok 1 capsule and completed an orbital flight that lasted 108 minutes.
On the other side of the world, the U.S. was trying to do the same. Just four months after Gagarin became the first man in space, Alan Shepard Jr., a U.S. astronaut, became the first U.S. citizen to travel to space. A year later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
After this, the two countries raced to reach the Moon, and the U.S. did it first in 1969. Apollo 11 became the first spaceflight that sent humans to the Moon. Neil Armstrong, the commander, became the first man ever to step on the Moon.
The 1970s – The Birth of Space Tourism
As human spaceflight became more common, an idea was born—maybe “ordinary” people who aren’t astronauts or cosmonauts could go into space. This idea marks the real beginning of space tourism.
Richard Nixon, the U.S. president then, had an essential role in space tourism development. Shortly after becoming president, Nixon gathered a team of experts (Space Task Group – STG) to explore and recommend what the country should do next in terms of space exploration.
The group’s recommendations included an expedition to Mars, building a base on the Moon’s surface, and Earth-orbiting and lunar-orbiting space stations, among others. But unfortunately, since those actions would require a significant budget increase, Nixon didn’t act on the ideas.
In 1972, Nixon signed a bill that authorized NASA to create the Space Transportation System (i.e., the space shuttle). The intent was to build a transportation mode allowing scientists to conduct research and give “regular” people access to space. This is the only element of the STG recommendations that came to life despite the budgetary challenges. Nixon’s decision was seen as a revolutionary step in the country’s space program and the birth of space tourism.
The 1980s – The Rise and Fall of Space Tourism
The 1980s saw the launch of the first space shuttle. In 1981, NASA launched Columbia, the revolutionary “reusable” space shuttle. This was the first crewed space vehicle that made multiple flights into orbit. However, while the space shuttle allowed scientists to carry payloads to orbit, perform service missions, and recover satellites, it didn’t have the “touristy” aspect Nixon had intended.
The Space Shuttle program lasted until 2011. During that period, 135 missions took place, and 355 astronauts went into space multiple times.
Different events from the 1980s represent significant steps in the development of space tourism. In 1984, Charles D. Walker, a nongovernment astronaut, flew to space on STS-41-D, the 12th flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle program.
At the time, Walker worked for the McDonnell Douglas Corporation, and his employer financed the $40,000 ticket. Although Walker wasn’t the first space tourist, he was the first nongovernment individual to travel to space. During 1984 and 1985, Walker traveled to space three times. The success of these flights encouraged NASA to develop programs that invite civilians with no scientific background to travel into space.
This led to the next significant event. In 1984, U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space Project. The program’s purpose was to send an educator into space. The gifted teacher was supposed to communicate with their students from space, thus proving the reliability and spreading the excitement of space flight. In addition, NASA hoped this project would increase interest in the Space Shuttle program and space tourism.
More than 11,000 teachers applied for the program, and Christa McAuliffe was selected for the position, with Barbara Morgan as her backup. Both took a year-long absence from teaching to train for the space flight.
Then, in 1986, McAuliffe boarded the space shuttle Challenger, along with six crew members. Unfortunately, the flight lasted only 73 seconds before the shuttle broke apart and exploded in a massive fireball. All members lost their lives, and many children watching from their classrooms were stunned. This accident suspended the Space Shuttle program for a while.
The 1990s – A Step Forward
The Challenger tragedy affected the progress of the aerospace industry in the U.S., including space tourism.
Still, the 1990s saw consistent space flights by the U.S., Russia, and China. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that space tourism was in the spotlight again. Several space tourism companies were founded. One of the first was SpaceDev, founded in 1997 and acquired by the Sierra Nevada Corporation in 2008. In 1998, Space Adventures was founded, and it became the first company that worked with private citizens who wanted to travel to space.
Of course, space travel isn’t something everyone can afford. These companies were well aware of this, so they targeted wealthy individuals.
The 2000s – The Turning Point
Space tourism officially started in the early 2000s, when Dennis Tito purchased a ticket to the Mir space station in 2001. This project was arranged by MirCorp, a Russian company. Since Mir was soon decommissioned, Tito worked with Space Adventures to transfer the ticket to the International Space Station. The ticket’s worth was $20 million.
On April 28, 2001, Tito joined the Soyuz TM-32 mission and spent almost eight days in space, during which he orbited the Earth 128 times. Since the flight was completed successfully, Dennis Tito officially became the first space tourist.
Although Tito was the first, he wasn’t the only one to travel to space in the 2000s. Six more private citizens visited the International Space Station in the following years:
- In 2002, Mark Shuttleworth, an entrepreneur, became the second self-funded space tourist and the first South African to travel into space.
- In 2005, Gregory Olson, an American engineer, scientist, and entrepreneur, traveled into space.
- In 2006, Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American engineer, became the first self-funded woman to go into space.
- In 2007, a Hungarian-American software architect, Charles Simonyi, traveled into space. He returned to space in 2009, becoming the only self-funded space tourist in history to travel into space twice.
- In 2008, Richard Garriott, an American video game developer, traveled into space.
- In 2009, Guy Laliberté, a Canadian businessman, went into space.
Most worked with Space Adventures for their flights and traveled on Soyuz spacecraft. NASA was against sending private citizens to space due to the space shuttle Challenger disaster, where seven crew members lost their lives.
The 2000s were also the time when several individuals established their companies. The two most prominent names are Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson. Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, while Branson started Virgin Galactic in 2004. Although dozens of other space travel-related companies appeared on the market, space tourism was still limited to travel to the International Space Station on Soyuz spacecraft.
The 2010s and Early 2020s
As mentioned, the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. However, this didn’t mean there was no interest in space tourism—quite the opposite. Numerous space companies were making small but significant steps toward developing the space tourism industry. They tested new engine designs, conducted unmanned test flights, and developed partnerships intending to make space tourism more available.
Although space companies worked hard, there wasn’t a lot of talk about it in the media until 2021. That year produced several milestones that changed the space tourism industry. Numerous well-known individuals traveled into space. The first was Sir Richard Branson, who reached the edge of space in the rocket plane his company had been developing since it was founded. The trip took place on July 11, 2021.
Only a few days later, on July 20, Jeff Bezos traveled to space on a rocket built by Blue Origin, the company he launched. This was the first crewed flight of his rocket ship.
In September 2021, Jared Isaacman and his crew made space history. Their expedition became the first private spaceflight that orbited the Earth with a team of nonprofessional astronauts.
October 2021 saw another milestone. William Shatner, best known for the role of Captain Kirk in “Star Trek,” boarded the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket and became the oldest person to visit space at 90 years old.
In December 2021, Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, spent 12 days on the International Space Station, becoming the first tourist to travel to the ISS in over a decade.
Another prominent name in the space tourism industry is Elon Musk, the wealthiest man on Earth. Musk founded SpaceX, one of the best-known private space companies.
Although Musk hasn’t traveled to space, he’s contributed to the development of spaceflight and space tourism. His company was the first to deliver cargo to the ISS and has a contract with NASA to transport humans to the ISS. Musk is developing Starship, a vehicle that should be fully reusable and capable of transporting around 100 people to space.
With so many people interested in space tourism, it’s hard to predict what the future holds. However, one thing is sure: commercial space travel is more realistic than ever.
Space Tourism Is Here to Stay
As you can see, it’s impossible to say one person invented space tourism. While Tito may be the first space tourist, he didn’t invent it. Numerous events had to happen to make space tourism possible, and we can’t wait to see what’s next.