It’s been years since I’ve read Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book on the dawn of the American space program, The Right Stuff. But it’s a hard book to forget. Wolfe focused his book mostly on the very earliest origins of NASA’s manned missions — the Mercury Program — and specifically on the men selected to fly those missions. He describes the process through which the United States selected the men who had “the right stuff” to be not only astronauts, but the first astronauts, and therefore automatic heroes to a nation desperate for good news after some humbling early space-race losses to America’s great Cold War nemesis, the Soviet Union.
Fans of Wolfe’s book, and the space program generally, have long noted the irony of how the term “the right stuff” went into popular use as shorthand for astronauts. Wolfe, though clearly an admirer of the men, shows in his book that there really wasn’t any such thing as the right stuff — the astronauts were obviously impressive, but the selection process was beset by politics and arbitrary decisions aplenty. Still, even if not literally true, the notion of the right stuff endures. Those few who travel to space remain exemplars of the best of humanity.
But for how much longer?
Don’t mistake my meaning here. I’m not suggesting that the world’s national space exploration agencies begin dramatically lowering their standards (though perhaps, if they did so aggressively, I’d eventually qualify). What I am suggesting is that what has long been almost entirely a sci-fi notion may finally, truly, be coming to pass. The dawn of space tourism may just be starting to peek up over the horizon.
On Dec. 13, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic finally made it to space. After hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, years of development work and a tragic test-flight accident that claimed the life of a pilot, a Virgin Galactic spacecraft crossed the 50-mile mark to brush the edge of space, with two test pilots aboard. The Virgin craft did not go quite so high or fast as to go into orbit of the Earth — it crossed into space and then came back down. But space is space. It counts. (I’m not going to get into the debate of where space really begins — let’s just go with this, folks.)
WATCH BELOW: Virgin Galactic ‘SpaceShipTwo’ reaches space during test flight
The Virgin flight is still a test. But it’s a key one. The company intends to create a viable space tourism industry by taking paying customers — at $250,000 a pop — to the edge of space. The flights would be relatively short. Less than two hours from take-off until landing, with only about six minutes of weightlessness. But during the flight you’d have a hell of a view. You’d be able to see your home planet from above. And you’d join one of the most elite clubs in the world — those who’ve left it.
Virgin Galactic has some pretty fierce competition. Pushing the final frontier seems to be the purview of billionaires as much as national agencies these days. Elon Musk’s SpaceX seems on the cusp of revolutionizing human space flight through its reusable rockets, which should dramatically lower the cost of launching stuff — people and machines — into orbit. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is working on similar plans. Space tourism could be a huge part of the business model for these companies, as well.
WATCH BELOW: Elon Musk captivates the world with his Falcon Heavy launch
There’s an important asterisk here. Space tourism isn’t new. After the Soviet Union went out of business, the Russian space agency made up for massive budget cuts in part by selling extra seats on planned missions to a select number of ultra-rich people, at costs of tens of millions per flight. What Branson is hoping to soon provide, and what Musk and Bezos may also one day offer, is a space tourism experience that’s accessible to the merely wealthy, and not exclusively the ultra-rich.
The $250,000 that Virgin says it will charge for a flight is a lot of money, to be sure, but it’s an amount of money that many people could scrape together if so inclined. I’m not sure how many middle-class folk would be inclined to mortgage their homes or sink a huge part of their retirement savings into a short jaunt into space, but the number has to be larger than zero. And that’s the market Virgin Galactic is aiming for.
We aren’t quite there yet. Virgin has taken hundreds of deposits but has yet to put a paying customer into space. Bezos is still doing test flights and SpaceX is mostly focused on cargo missions, with manned flights to the International Space Station perhaps coming as soon as next year (and a spectacular mission/publicity stunt of sending artists around the moon by 2023 or so).
But for the first time ever, we genuinely seem close to this. Not “10 years off if we catch a few breaks” close. But “could begin in the immediate future” close.
It’s incredible to think about where this could go. If you have any interest in space — and if you’re this far into this column, you do — it has probably never occurred to you that you might one day go there. But it’s no longer a virtual impossibility. I’m 35 years old. I don’t have a cool quarter million bucks in cash laying around, but if I’m cautious and catch a few financial breaks along the way, and if the cost of space tourism comes down as it becomes more common … my God. It’s just remotely possible that I could one day be up there, looking down on my homeworld from above.
WATCH BELOW: Space Tourism
Is that likely? Probably not. A lot of things, both for the industry and my chequebook, would need to go right for that to happen. But it’s conceivable in a way it never has been. The day Virgin Galactic took its flight to the edge of space, I sat down and did some number crunching. Assuming Branson is able to make Virgin Galactic work reliably and safely, and if the cost comes down as the company scales up, I could easily imagine a day where people would finance their trip to space in the same way they do a fancy car or a condo in Miami. You can plug any number you want into a loan calculator, and until we see how this industry shapes up those numbers really could be anything, but the point is made. Dropping $30 million on a vacation is effectively impossible for all but a handful of people. But $250,000 for a trip? It begins to slide into the realm of the possible. A 10-year financing deal for a quick jaunt to space won’t be for everyone, but if the price is right, I’d sign that in a heartbeat. It’s not something for everyone — but human history is full of things that were luxuries for the elite before becoming available to the masses.
Who knows if it’ll happen with space travel. Only time will tell. But it could happen. And I think that was only something I truly realized when Virgin Galactic took two test pilots and sent them from California to space and back between breakfast and lunch. The impossible has become not just possible, but potentially practical. You — yes, you — may one day leave this planet behind. The only right stuff you’ll need is money — and perhaps not as much of that as you think.