Orbital Space Tourism is Back, Baby! And on Steroids

The Axiom Space Ax-1 crew: former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, Canadian businessman Mark Pathy, American investor Larry Connor, and Israeli businessman Eytan Stibbe. (Credit: Axiom Space)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NewSpacers of the world, rejoice! After a 12-year gap, orbital space tourism is back! And it’s bigger and more expensive than ever. The only bad news: Maverick will stay grounded — at least for now.

Earlier this week, Axiom Space unveiled the full complement for its commercial Ax-1 flight to the International Space Station (ISS) early next year. The group includes three rich white guys from the United States, Canada and Israel (Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe, respectively) flying with Spanish-American former NASA astronaut turned Axiom executive Michael Lopez-Alegria, who will command the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Anyone expecting to see Tom Cruise on the list of spaceflight participants was disappointed. Despite much publicity about the actor and director Doug Liman filming a movie on the station this fall, their flight appears to have been delayed.

In terms of numbers, the mission is major improvement from the first period of ISS tourism during the aughts. Back then, seven space tourist paid Space Adventures millions of dollars to squeeze one at a time into the claustrophobic confines of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft with two professional cosmonauts. Eight flights were conducted, with one tourist flying twice.

Next year, we’ll have three paying customers and a private astronaut flying on a fully commercial mission to ISS in the much roomier, commercially procured Crew Dragon.

Axiom was careful to stress that the crew won’t just be just taking pictures, but will be “participating in research and philanthropic projects” during the eight-day voyage. They will do educational work with students in the United States and Israel.

The various projects complies with a NASA requirement that paying customers visiting the station actually do useful things up there, rather than just be tourists doing summersaults and taking pictures of Earth out the window.

However, these guys aren’t spending $155 million for the purpose of conducting research and education projects in orbit. They’re going to space for the experience of going to space. However valuable the work they do while they’re there might be, it’s not the main reason the mission is taking place.

Axiom says we can look forward to more of these flights in the future.

“Houston-based Axiom intends to offer private and national astronaut flights to ISS at a rate of up to two per year to align with flight opportunities as they are made available by NASA,” the company said.

And there’s more. Axiom plans to attach its own modules to the station “as early as 2024.” When ISS is decommissioned later this decade, the Axiom modules will be split off to form a commercial station that will serve as “the central node of a near-future network of research, manufacturing, and commerce” in low Earth orbit.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the sky high/astronomical/out of this world (pick your pun) cost of visiting the station. The last tourist to visit the space station aboard a Soyuz in 2009 paid $35 million for the trip, the equivalent of $42.2 million today. The three participants on Ax-1 are paying $55 million apiece.

Perhaps prices will come down in the future. That has been the great promise of space tourism — orbital and suborbital — since the days of SpaceShipOne way back in 2004. Still, orbital flight remains an expensive proposition; it’s not clear just how much elasticity there is in this area.

The $55 million price is much lower than the $90 million plus that NASA was paying for seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft at the end of a nearly nine year gap in American human spaceflight capability.

The end of the space shuttle program in 2011 put a stop to Russia’s space tourism because those seats were needed for American astronauts. Now that NASA is flying astronauts from U.S. soil again, Russia is getting back into the game.

Credit: Roscosmos

In November, Roscosmos announced a search for an actress to star in “Challenge,” which it billed as the first feature film to be shot in outer space. The movie is apparently different from the one that Tom Cruise is planning to star in.

“The motion picture with the tentative title ‘Challenge’ is a joint project of the State Corporation Roscosmos, Channel One and the studio Yellow, Black and White. Filming will take place at the International Space Station in the fall of 2021,” the space corporation announced.

In this project, it is important for us not only to demonstrate the heroism and high professionalism of cosmonauts and industry specialists who ensure the safety of manned space flights, but also to develop the possibility of accelerated preparation for such a flight and the implementation of a mission to the ISS a specialist (engineer, doctor, astrophysicist), in whom the need may suddenly arise on board the station,” said Roscosmos General Director Dmitry Rogozin, who has snagged a producer credit.

“This is a kind of space experiment. The actress selected by a competition and a medical commission will have to perform the functions of an astronaut-researcher and become a full-fledged member of the crew,” he added.

Well, an actress who can act and be an actual scientist. I guess that rules out Denise Richards.

Glavkosmos, a fully owned subsidiary of Roscosmos, is also marketing seats for flights that will start next year. The company tweeted that it is “happy to propose commercial space flight opportunities on #Soyuz to the #ISS in 2022-2023!”

Glavkosmos plans to sell two seats on Soyuz vehicles, with the third seat being taken up by a professional cosmonaut. Once the program gets going, there will be four seats available per year for paying customers.

Last year, Roscosmos was working to determine how the Soyuz spacecraft could be safely flown with only one professional cosmonaut aboard.

“An important feature of flying on a spacecraft with one professional cosmonaut is the inability to reach all controls while in the commander’s seat. The commander cannot do what the flight engineer on the left or right usually does,” Roscosmos said in a press release. “There are two ways to solve this problem: either for the astronaut to free himself from the tethered system and be able to reach the desired valve, or to assign this function to the participant in the space flight (tourist).”