A Definitive History of Space Tourism & Human Spaceflight
The path to easy, commercial access to space has been much longer and complicated than most people realize.
If you’ve landed on this post, you’re probably curious what space tourism is, and the history of space tourism.
Space tourism is commercial activity related to space. That could be going to space as a tourist, watching a rocket launch, going stargazing, or traveling to a space-focused destination.
People are surprised to learn we’ve only been visiting space for 59 years! Most of those visits have been due to government activity, not because civilians wanted to go to space!
On April 12th, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Since then, less than 600 other people have been to space.
In the decades to come, this number will grow rapidly, as space tourism becomes commonplace and more people are able to afford access to space.
To better understand the space tourism industry, it helps to have a good sense of space tourism history. Space tourism starts with its roots in Gagarin’s historic trip to today’s powered test flights and future tourist experiences.
We’ve put together an infographic that highlights the history of human spaceflight, with a special focus on space tourism as it has developed. You can see part of the infographic at right (click to see the full-length infographic), and you can read about each of these periods of spaceflight history below.
If you’re curious about the answers to questions like “when did space tourism start?,” “when did the first tourist travel to space?,” and “how many space tourists have there been?,” read on for a space tourism timeline about the interesting history of space tourism!
This post was originally published in April 2018, and was updated in July 2020.
A Brief History of Early Human Spaceflight
It’s difficult to understand space tourism history without a foundation. The U.S. and Russian efforts to send men to space propelled technology to the point where today, we can talk about ordinary citizens traveling to space on a regular basis. So let’s start there.
After the successful launch of Sputnik 1 in late 1957, the Soviet Union was eager to capitalize on their ‘lead’ in the Space Race. On April 12, 1961, they succeeded and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Gagarin making a 108-minute orbital flight aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft. During this time, the U.S. Mercury space program was attempting to do the same; in May 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard was the first U.S. citizen in space. In early 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
Having ‘lost’ the first leg of the marathon to space, the U.S. laid down the ultimate gauntlet in 1961 and 1962 with President John F. Kennedy’s famous ‘We Choose to Go to the Moon’ speeches. Reaching space alone and making orbits became commonplace as the U.S. and Soviet Union raced again to be the first to put a man on the moon. The Mercury space program gave way to the Gemini and Apollo programs, the latter of which succeeded in their goal to reach the moon in 1969. In 12 short years, almost 50 men had been to space, some of them repeatedly.
The 1970s: The Birth of Space Tourism
The 1960s came to a close and the repeatability of human spaceflight was proven. The 1970s began with an idea that perhaps people other than highly-trained astronauts and cosmonauts could able to go to space. This is the first real chapter in the history of space tourism.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon announced that the Space Shuttle as a new era of spaceflight. The Shuttles were originally designed and intended to be lower-cost and reusable. Intended to carry research and construction payloads for space stations, early Shuttle designs also included a passenger cabin that could fit within the Shuttle cargo bay. Designed to carry up to 74 passengers into orbit for 3 days, it was the first large-scale concept for the space tourism industry.
Even though it was never developed, the idea of space tourism stuck. By the 1980s, the U.S. was starting to talk about lunar orbit and moon bases. Unfortunately, the 1980s brought tragedy that forestalled the large-scale development of the space tourism industry.
The 1980s: Non-Governmental Astronauts Go to Space
On the whole, the Space Shuttle program was a success, running from 1981 to the final mission in 2011. During that time, 135 missions launched, and 355 people went to space. These included German Dr. Uli Merbold and MIT engineer Byron Lichtenberg, Space Shuttle specialists on STS-9 in 1983.
In 1984, Charles Walker flew on STS-41-D. His ticket was paid by his employer, McDonnell Douglas, so he is widely considered the first non-government astronaut – though not the first space tourist. These successes helped NASA gain confidence in their Space Flight Participant program, created to encourage citizens without scientific or government roles to go to space.
In 1985, Christa McAuliffe became the first Teacher in Space. The world watched with bated breath as Challenger launched in early 1986. Those familiar will remember the tragedy that followed. With the deaths of the Challenger crew, the Space Shuttle program stopped for over two years as a result and the Space Flight Participant program retired.
The 1990s: Spaceflight Business as Usual
As one might expect, the Challenger disaster slowed progress in the U.S. aerospace industry. It was the first accident where American astronauts had died since Apollo 1 in 1967.
On the whole, the 1990s saw consistent launches and spaceflight by the U.S. and Russia. China also began moving slowly toward becoming a spacefaring country.
In the late 1990s, a wave of space tourism reemerged. In 1997, SpaceDev was founded (and acquired in 2008 by Sierra Nevada Corporation) and in 1998, Space Adventures, Ltd. became the first company to begin working with private citizens interested in going to space.
Following suit, XCOR Aerospace was founded in 1999. The second notable space tourism company, and Bigelow Aerospace was founded the same year on the premise of putting a private space station into orbit.
All of these space tourism companies operated on a premise that cost should not be the primary consideration in getting to space. Their target customers quickly emerged as individuals who had made significant wealth in the dot-com bubble looked to the stars and tried to buy their place in it.
The 2000s: Space Tourism Takes Off
As the century turned, space tourism became a small but consistent reality. Space tourism history entered another chapter; the 2000s is when space tourism officially started.
In 2001, wealthy American Dennis Tito purchased a ticket to the Mir space station through MirCorp, a Russian commercial spaceflight company. After Mir was decommissioned in 2001, Tito worked with Space Adventures to transfer his $20 million ticket to the International Space Station. In April 2001, Tito began an almost-eight-day stay aboard the ISS. This made him the first private citizen who had purchased his ticket to space.
Over the next few years, six more private citizens went to the International Space Station:
- 2002: South African computer millionaire Mark Shuttleworth
- 2005: American sensor hardware millionaire Gregory Olson
- 2006: Iranian-American software millionaire Anousheh Ansari
- 2007: Hungarian-American software billionaire Charles Simonyi (who visited again in 2009)
- 2008: British-American video-game millionaire Richard Garriott
- 2009: Canadian billionaire artist Guy Laliberté
Most of these individuals used Space Adventures to arrange their flights; all went to space aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, as NASA had banned tourists aboard space shuttles following the 2003 Columbia disaster.
In this same time, the more household names of space tourism began to rise to prominence. Starting in 2000, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos established Blue Origin; in 2004, Richard Branson established Virgin Galactic. Rocket Lab was founded in 2006. Dozens of other companies that flooded into the industry too, hoping to capitalize on renewed public interest in space and a new swath of wealthy individuals ready to pay for access.
Despite this interest, during the early 2000s, space tourism has been limited to launches aboard Russian Soyuz aircraft and the only destination was the International Space Station.
The 2010s: Emergence of a Commercial Space Tourism Industry
As the second decade of the 2000s began, most people wanted to see more space exploration. Unfortunately, in the first few years, progress reversed, and by mid-2011 the U.S. Space Shuttle program flew its last flight. From that point onward, crews to the International Space Shuttle flew aboard Russian Soyuz rockets.
For the next several years, a variety of players continued making small moves in the market. Others entered the game, too:
- Virgin Galactic experienced both success and failure in the 2010s. With early success in guide flights, the company overcame a devastating loss in October 2014 when the VSS Enterprise broke up during a manned test flight. By late 2017, Virgin Galactic was performing glide test flights again.
- Blue Origin had a quiet decade. But, by the end of 2017, they’d made strides in testing new engine designs and unmanned test flights of their crew capsule.
- Rocket Lab, a U.S.-based company which launches from New Zealand, had their long-anticipated first successful test flight in early 2018.
- Zero2Infinity, a Spanish balloon-flight company, began developing strategic partnerships, as did U.S. balloon company World View Enterprises.
- SpaceX is not a strictly space tourism company. But even they entered the industry in late 2017 by agreeing to fly two private citizens around the moon. They also have a contract to fly paying tourists to the ISS.
Other companies, including XCOR Aerospace and Armadillo Aerospace, attempted to enter the market too. However, they found that the financial and technical hurdles of aerospace were too great to overcome.
As we now enter the 2020s, the only questions are: When will space tourism be available for everyone? Who will be the first company to take customers to space? Would YOU go to space on a space tourism flight? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!