Orbital Space Tourism

The Greatest Destination Off Earth

On September 15th, something historic is happening. SpaceX is planning to launch four private tourists into orbit around Earth, on a three day mission called Inspiration4. It will not be the first time a private citizen will go to space or even to orbit. However it will be the first time a private citizen is put up there by a private corporation. There have been seven previous orbital space tourists, but all were launched on rockets operated by the Russian government’s national space agency. The Inspiration4 mission will mark another major shift toward private organizations offering capabilities that were previously only feasible by governments.

The Inspiration4 crew. From left to right: Chris Sembroski, Dr. Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux. Source: Inspiration4.com

In this newsletter we’ve talked about Suborbital space tourism, specifically the operations of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. You can read that post here. Orbital tourism though is a whole other beast. Putting humans into orbit is understood to be far more difficult than launching on a suborbital path to the edge of space. It is also a more profound experience for the individuals taking the ride.

In this post, we’ll talk about the infrastructure developing around private orbital space tourism. This includes the rocket companies getting the tourists up there, the private agencies brokering the experiences, and finally the habitats being built in space for tourists to visit.

Orbital space tourism is an exciting field that just a few years ago would have been considered reasonable only within the realms of science fiction. However it is becoming a very real way for private organizations to operate successful businesses.

What is Orbital Space Tourism?

Orbital space tourism means not just traveling to space, but doing so with enough sideways velocity that instead of falling back down to the Earth’s surface, you end up orbiting around the planet. Being in orbit means that a trip can last pretty much as long as you have life support systems that can keep you sustained in space. The first orbital tourist trips though are likely to last only a few days or weeks at the most.

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Diagram of an orbital launch trajectory. Source: thespacetechie.com

The Carriers

While the section header is pluralized, in reality theres only one company with the capacity to put private citizens into orbit, SpaceX. SpaceX began flying humans into space only about a year ago, first doing so for NASA as part of the Commercial Crew Program in which NASA paid private companies to send its astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX is the only company to have succeeded in that program so far and since that first crewed launch in May 2020, SpaceX has launched two more crews, sending ten astronauts in total to the International Space Station (seven astronauts from NASA, two from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, and one from the European Space Agency).

All of these astronauts travelled inside SpaceX’s crew capsule named Crew Dragon.

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Astronauts inside a SpaceX Dragon Capsule. Source: The Guardian

Dragon is capable of holding up to seven passengers at a time, though it has yet to fly with more than four. To lift the capsule into orbit, SpaceX uses its own Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX successfully completes key test of its Crew Dragon human spacecraft | TechCrunch

Falcon 9 rocket launching with Crew Dragon capsule atop. Source: TechCrunch

The Crew Dragon capsule has life support systems to sustain a crew in space for days or weeks, but the spacecraft is typically used to ferry people to the International Space Station (ISS) and remain docked. Dragon can stay docked at the ISS for up to 210 days until the crew is ready to re-board the capsule and ride it back down to Earth.

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Video fo Dragon Capsule docking with ISS. Source: NASA

SpaceX has not yet disclosed the cost of purchasing a launch of a Crew Dragon aboard a Falcon 9, but when the Crew Dragon capsule was in early development in 2012, the company targeted a launch price of about $160M.

After completing a number of missions for bringing NASA astronauts to the ISS, SpaceX began offering private individuals the opportunity to purchase a trip to orbit. The Inspiration4 launch planned for September 15th will be the first of those missions.

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Crew Dragon landing in the Gulf of Mexico, returning astronauts from the ISS. Source: NASA

Boeing is also developing a crew capsule named Starliner as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program which one day may be used to carry private citizens to space as well. However, Starliner has had a number of technical challenges that have resulted in significant delays and so the capsule is unlikely to carry astronauts at least until the middle of 2022 at the earliest.

If Boeing does provide flights for private citizens aboard Starliner, it will likely be much more expensive than SpaceX’s services. When carrying astronauts to the ISS, SpaceX charges NASA $55M per seat while Boeing will charge $90M.

The Brokers

While the Inspiration4 trip was purchased by entrepreneur Jared Isaccman directly from SpaceX, there are also an increasing number of companies that will purchase the flights from the launch companies and sell seats to passengers directly. This gives the launch provider the benefit of not having to find customers and individually sell seats.

The oldest still active space tourism company is Space Adventures, which has been in operation since 1998. Space Adventures has actually been responsible for every orbital space tourism trip that has previously flown, all of which were aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. The first Space Adventures tourist was American businessman Dennis Tito, who travelled to orbit back in 2001. Looking forward, Space Adventures has purchased one launch aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon and Falcon 9. That trip is anticipated for 2022 at the earliest and Space Adventures has not yet announced who the four passengers will be.

Dennis Tito, first space tourist - Stock Image - S565/0231 - Science Photo Library

Dennis Tito aboard the ISS in 2001

In addition, to Space Adventures, Axiom is another space tourism company and seemingly has the most ambitious plans in the near term. Axiom was founded in 2016 and the company’s leadership has extensive experience in crewed space travel. One of the company’s founders served as NASA’s International Space Station Program Manager for 10 years. Axiom has already purchased four missions from SpaceX to send private tourists to the ISS and is reportedly charging $55M per seat to customers. The first of those, Ax-1, is scheduled for January 2022. Ax-1 will carry one former NASA Astronaut, who is also an Axiom employee, as spacecraft commander and three private individuals. Axiom has also confirmed reports that one of the first few missions will likely carry Tom Cruise and film director Doug Liman for the purposes of filming a movie on the ISS.

The Habitats

It’s possible to take a trip to orbit and remain in the capsule the entire time, as the crew of the Inspiration4 mission will be doing for their three day trip. However, for longer visits, it’s typically more convenient to stay in a larger, more permanent habitat in space that has more robust life support systems intended for extended stays. Currently, the only such habitat available to private citizens is the ISS. That is where most of the crews sent on missions organized by Axiom Space will be staying. The ISS though is a government operated scientific laboratory and was not developed with the primary intention of housing private tourists. Looking forward, there are a number of plans to establish permanent, private habitats in space that would be optimized for paying visitors.

The first and most obvious option for a private space station is to privatize the one that’s already there, the ISS. In fact, this is very likely to happen, although the timeline for that process is still unclear. In 2018, NASA released a document called the ISS Transition Report, in which it expressed that “NASA intends to begin shifting responsibility for meeting its needs and requirements in LEO by leveraging private industry capacity, innovation, and competitiveness that would offer the prospect of lower cost to the Government”. The ISS has guaranteed government funding through 2024 and there is significant confidence that this funding will be extended at least through 2028 and likely through 2030. At some point though, it’s highly likely that much of the ISS operations will be passed to private entities that will sell access to the station to those wishing to conduct research in space or visit as a destination.

International Space Station pictured above Earth

The International Space Station in low Earth orbit. Source: NASA

In addition to taking over the ISS’s existing systems, some organizations are looking to leverage the ISS to introduce their own private habitats. This is Axiom Space’s immediate strategy. Axiom is developing a module called the Axiom Hub, which will dock to an existing port on the ISS and expand the size of the station. Axiom is hoping that the extended modules will be added to the station in 2024, at which point they will not just broker trips to the ISS but will also host the tourists in their own private modules. Axiom ultimately aims to have its own separate private space station, independent of the ISS.

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Rendering of Axiom module added to ISS. Source: Axiom Space

Two private organizations have actually already added modules to the ISS. In 2016, Bigelow Aerospace attached the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module to the ISS in order to test the use of an inflatable module to extend the size of the station. The test was successful and the module continues to be used for storage. However, Bigelow Aerospace laid off all of its staff in 2020 during the pandemic and there seem to be no plans to continue development of its existing projects.

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Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the ISS. Source: NASA

Another private company, Nanoracks became the second organization to attach a module to the ISS when it added its Bishop Airlock in 2020. Nanoracks though seems to have less interest in using habitats for private tourism and is more concentrated on leveraging its outposts to customers interested in research, manufacturing, and other industrial applications.

NanoRacks Bishop Airlock and BEAM

Bishop Airlock (left) attached to ISS, with Bigelow Expandable Activity Module seen behind it to the right. Source: NASA

A Matter of Scale

As the opportunities for private citizens to travel to space expand, suborbital and orbital experiences will likely complement each other. Some customers will prefer the shorter, less demanding suborbital trips while others will seek the prolonged, more ambitious orbital visits to space. Each has the potential to grow into a promising market opportunity for the companies involved.

Beyond the experiential differences though, another major distinction exists between orbital and suborbital space tourism. The price of an orbital visit to space is far higher than that of a suborbital visit. An orbital trip to the ISS booked with Axiom space aboard a Crew Dragon capsule costs about $55M per seat. With four passengers aboard, thats $220M in revenue to Axiom for a single trip. Of that amount, Axiom will have to pay significant costs to SpaceX and the ISS for launching and hosting the travelers. The cost to SpaceX alone is anticipated to be somewhere around $160M.

Compare that to the revenue involved in a Suborbital flight to space aboard a Virgin Galactic vehicle, where the price is expected to be $450,000 each. With six passengers on their next generation vehicle, the revenue per trip will be $2.7M. Consequently, Virgin Galactic has to fly about 60 times to match the sales to SpaceX of a single orbital tourist trip.

One of the biggest challenges that every space company understandably faces is scaling up its operations. SpaceX is currently flying its Falcon 9 rocket about 20 to 30 times per year while 3 to 4 of those launches will likely involve carrying NASA astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon capsule. It is unclear what rate of private tourist trips SpaceX is hoping to achieve, or even how many are possible given the limited space aboard the ISS. However, flying only a few private tourist launches a year can add hundreds of millions in revenue without adding too significant a burden to the company’s existing launch cadence.

On the other hand, the suborbital launch companies are looking to scale up from zero to dozens or hundreds of launches per year in the immediate future. Scaling operations has seemingly proved harder than anticipated for every launch program in the space industry, often with projects taking years longer than expected to hit launch rate milestones. It’s important to note that an orbital travel experience is significantly more complex than a suborbital one, so adding those flights will still be extremely complicated for SpaceX. That being said, it seems that SpaceX is benefited by the fact that the price of a single orbital trip is so high that they do not need to vastly scale their operations in order to add significant incremental revenue from orbital tourism.


When the Inspiration4 mission becomes the first launch of private tourists to space by a private company, it will be a major moment not just for the space industry but for human exploration as a whole. It marks the beginning of a process that will hopefully lead to extended trips to space that are one day affordable to anybody and everybody. I believe we are fortunate to live at a time where this is now a reality and I’m excited for what lies ahead.

Also, if you’re unfamiliar with the Inspiration4 mission, I highly recommend the Netflix documentary Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space. The crew were selected for a number of criteria, but all have an inspiring story to share and it’s absolutely worth learning more about.

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