For growing numbers of explorers, space is the new Antarctica or Mount Everest. Even as the U.S. NASA space program launched four astronauts into space last year, more than two dozen people unaffiliated with the government space program traveled in space.
One was actor William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek television series. His October flight made Shatner the oldest person (at age 90) to fly to space.
Although the U.S. government has a role to make sure space travel doesn’t harm bystanders, opening opportunities for spaceflight to private businesses is a natural progression, says Scott Pace, professor of international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School and director of the Space Policy Institute. Government is good at exploration that does not make economic sense for commercial interests, he says. But once the private space sector is established, it can do things faster and more efficiently.
This month, on February 28, the first all-civilian crew of four will head to the International Space Station as part of a mission organized by the company Axiom Space. They will travel on a SpaceX Crew Dragon.
“As more people fly to space and do more things during their spaceflights, it attracts even more people to do more activities in low-Earth orbit and reflects the growing market we envisioned when we began the Commercial Crew Program 10 years ago,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA headquarters.
The Association of Space Explorers lists 609 people who have flown either suborbitally or orbitally, according to executive director Andy Turnage. The number of private astronauts so far is about 30, but growing.
There is a recent boom of billionaires adding “astronaut” to their résumés. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, a British citizen, launched the first privately funded vehicle in 2021 with himself aboard. American Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, followed days later in his Blue Origin spacecraft.
“This year is truly a renaissance for human spaceflight, both as we fly NASA and international partner astronauts on U.S. commercial crew spacecraft to the International Space Station and also as we see the expansion of private astronaut missions,” McAlister said.
Pioneers in space
Bezos and Branson were not the first private citizens in space.
NASA’s earlier attempt to open space to civilians ended when the selected traveler, teacher Christa McAuliffe, was killed in the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion in 1986. In 1990, Japanese broadcast journalist Akiyama Toyohiro spent seven days on Russia’s MIR space station, becoming the first private astronaut.
Post-Soviet Russia found space tourism a lucrative option. American entrepreneur Dennis Tito paid for a flight on a Russian spacecraft and in 2001 became the first private citizen to fly to the International Space Station.
Pace says people have been interested in commercial spaceflight for years, and its expansion will depend on reducing both the cost — currently tens of millions of dollars per person, per flight — and the risk.
In the U.S., suborbital flights are available through Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. SpaceX and Boeing plan orbital flights. The latter’s Starliner is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in May.
NASA’s Camille Alleyne believes private companies can bring innovation and agility to the space economy. “With competition, it drives down costs, and that is always great for the government,” said Alleyne, deputy manager of the Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development Program, on a NASA podcast.
And Pace sees private space exploration as “quintessential American symbolism: adventure, entrepreneurialism and going out on a new frontier.”