'Space tourism' may be possible as soon as 2020, say companies

Bigelow Aerospace and Axiom Space plan to attach their space modules to the International Space Station as part of a new NASA partnership. They hope this will pave the way for commercial ventures into space.

HO/Bigelow Aerospace/AP
In this artist's rendering released by Bigelow Aerospace, a model of the Genesis I spacecraft is shown. Hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow dreams of installing an inflatable commercial space station in Earth's orbit.

If your dream vacation takes place somewhere in Earth’s orbit, you may be in luck. 

Two private space companies say they’ll have commercial facilities available by 2020. Bigelow Aerospace and Axiom Space announced their intentions this week at the 2016 International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight. Bigelow, which produces compressed habitat modules that expand when they reach their destination, already has a test module attached to the International Space Station.

It’s all part of a NASA program that aims to use the International Space Station (ISS) to support the growth of commercial space activities in low-Earth orbit. Private spaceflight will allow NASA to turn its attention to Mars exploration while enabling more people than ever to experience space, the companies say.

"Hopefully, if we're successful in the private-sector community, NASA's going to save a boatload of money, on multiple locations [in orbit] – not just one – with more volume than they've ever had before," Bigelow founder and chief executive Robert Bigelow said during the symposium on Wednesday. The company is planning to connect its forthcoming B330 modules together to create enough space for four guests at a time, accompanied by three Bigelow employees.

Private companies will be able to connect their modules to the International Space Station, as Bigelow has done. Axiom Space intends to attach its seven-person habitat by 2020 and leave it connected until the end of the ISS’s life.

NASA said companies will be able to send their own astronauts to the International Space Station within the next two years to help with company research. Precisely when private travel will begin is still unclear. “We are still working through the next steps so we can’t address specific questions at this time,” a NASA spokesperson wrote in an email to Motherboard.

After Dennis Tito became the first self-funded “space tourist” in 2001, several wealthy individuals have been to the International Space Station with the company Space Adventures. Those visits stopped in 2011. 

However, the agency believes, “A vibrant user community will be key to ensuring the economic viability of future space stations,” according to a statement by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. And since many entrepreneurs are focused on “space tourism” ventures, economic viability may depend on having private individuals visiting the International Space Station sooner rather than later.

Other customers may include scientists, researchers, and governments from countries without space programs. The latter is a particular focus of Axiom Space, chief engineer Mike Baine said during his symposium talk.

"There's a lot of interest by other governments looking to get into the space arena," he explained, calling these governments "anchor customers" for the company.

The ISS agreement is another indication of the public-private partnership that exists in the space arena. Elon Musk made headlines when he called on the public and government to help determine the cause of the SpaceX explosion in September. NASA has contracted with several space companies to supply the International Space Station and ferry astronauts there as soon as 2018.

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