If all goes according to plan, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic will be the first commercial space flight.
They are not the first space tourists, though. Dennis Tito in 2001, and seven subsequent others, paid the Russians $20 to $35 million each to be a tourist to the space station. It also means Branson would not even be the first billionaire in space (many of those eight were billionaires).
However, it has been 17 years and more than $1 billion in the making, starting a new era of human space flight. In the past year, we've seen an almost-too-hard-to-believe timeline, with rapid progress across multiple companies, shuffling to be the first to bring us to today.
At the end of May 2020, the SpaceX crew Dragon took two astronauts into space on a test flight, marking the first time a private company had sent people to the space station. This was followed by the first full mission in November where NASA astronauts went up. Around the same time, Tom Cruise starting talking to SpaceX and NASA about filming the first movie in space on the Axiom-1 mission (which at the time was aiming for October 2021).
Axiom Space is a company aimed at private astronaut missions, rather than building rockets. And, instead of being part of a nation, their astronauts would be part of a company, a company led by former NASA astronauts. They reached an agreement with SpaceX to take four passengers to the Space Station, for the first private space mission.
In December 2020, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin were doing more test flights, preparing to hopefully take humans into space this year. Then in February, Elon Musk and SpaceX announced they were teaming up with another tech billionaire for Inspiration 4. Originally scheduled for the end of the year, it would take four people aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon to become the first all-private trip into space.
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As part of that mission, SpaceX ran a charity drive for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. One of the donors in this drive was chosen at random to have a seat. However, the winner didn't want to go, so they gave the seat to their friend, Chris Sembroski. The mission is now set to take place in mid-September. However, this meant Axiom Space's mission was bumped to January 2022, and along with it, Tom Cruise.
This then gave the idea to RosCosmos to team up with a Russian studio, announcing in May they would fly an actress, Yulia Peresild, into space in October to film a Russian movie, beating Tom Cruise.
Around the same time, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, which has had more than a dozen flights, announced out-of-the-blue that they would fly their first passengers into space on July 20. That date also is the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing - a very deliberate statement. Then last month, Jeff Bezos announced he, along with his brother, would go on Blue Origin's first flight. A week later, the auction for a seat on Blue Origin's first flight, what would be the first commercial flight into space, ended. The winner paid $US 28 million ($36 million). Given the flight is only 11 minutes long, that means they paid about $180,000 per second for the flight.
Then two weeks later, Bezos announced he would take Wally Funk. She was part of Mercury 13, a group of female astronauts who tried to prove to NASA women could go into space. At the end of June, after another Virgin Galactic test flight, the US FAA gave approval to Virgin Galactic to fly passengers into space. And a week later, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic announced they would fly into space today, finishing a 17-year journey to be the first commercial space tourism flight.
- Brad Tucker is an astrophysicist and cosmologist at Mount Stromlo Observatory, and the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU