The time has come. Richard Branson is the first billionaire founder of a space company to be shipped off to suborbital space on Sunday on a ship he helped build. The trip on the VSS Unity will last around 90 minutes, and he'll be bringing three colleagues with him. Branson's main duty on the trip: to figure out how to make the trip even more fun for the people who go after him.
And people will, indeed, go after him. Virgin Galactic has already sold around 600 tickets for similar flights, and plans to send at least 400 people per year to space starting in 2022.
But though Branson might be the first "billionaire founder of a space company" to go to space, he's certainly not the first billionaire to do some orbital touring. Here's a brief timeline of the people who traveled to space before him, and when you, too, might be able to join the 60-mile-high (and beyond!) club.
2001: A literal space odyssey
If you were a billionaire in the early aughts and wanted to go to space, you called Virginia-based Space Adventures. The company partnered with Russia's Federal Space Agency to send people on the Soyuz spacecraft for trips to the International Space Station.
In April 2001, Dennis Tito made history as the first non-astronaut to go into orbit, paying a reported $20 million for the eight-day trip. The former Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer was 60 when left the earth, and his trip wasn't without some controversy: Space agencies from Europe, Canada and Japan said that Tito shouldn't go, as he didn't have sufficient training. And though NASA said it didn't have a problem with commercial space flight, it also didn't think Tito had the right training (Tito himself said he thinks that age played a factor in their objections to his trip).
But up he went, and paved the way for those who came after him.
He was followed by:
- Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth in 2002 (10 days, $20 million);
- Sensors Unlimited co-founder Gregory Olsen in 2005 (10 days, $20 million);
- Co-founder and CEO of Telecom Technologies Anousheh Ansari in 2006 (10 days, $20 million);
- Video game developer (and son of an astronaut) Richard Garriott in 2008 (12 days, $30 million);
- Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté became the first Canadian space tourist in 2009 (12 days, $35 million);
- and Charles Simonyi, the father of the Microsoft Office suite and the only private citizen to go twice. (10 days, $20 million in 2007; 14 days, $35 million in 2009).
Space travel today and beyond
Today there are four companies that want to take people to space: Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Boeing. A fifth, Orion Span, planned to send travelers to stay at a space hotel but shut down in March.
In 2019, NASA itself said it plans to welcome tourists to the ISS, using both Boeing and SpaceX ships. But those trips would be pretty costly: $35,000 a night to stay on the ISS, and $50 million for the trip there and back. They're planning to start sending people next year.
Both Virgin and Blue Origin will compete in the suborbital race to space. Virgin Galactic is planning to charge each space hopeful around $250,000 per flight, and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber have shown interest. Blue Origin hasn't yet announced ticket prices or timelines, but Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, Wally Funk and the winner of an auction (who paid around $28 million) will fly up July 20.
SpaceX is the only private company planning to send people into orbit, and the only company with actual tickets booked, with one flight leaving as soon as September. Tickets for those flights will cost a cool $55 million.
So when can you go to space?
The current spaceflights are particularly expensive because there aren't many of them, said Jordan Bimm, a space historian at the University of Chicago and a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. There aren't a ton of seats on the actual spacecraft, and the only people filling them are billionaires, friends of billionaires and professional astronauts who need to manage the flight, he said.
"Right now those are the only ways people can go to space, and people like you and me just do not have a pathway at this moment," he said. "That's what's holding us back."
In the next decade or so, Bimm said, the price and popularity of traveling to space could compare to a trip to Antarctica, which starts at about $20,000. He said if and when space companies "demonstrate repeat reliability and flawless execution," the number of available flights to space could increase and the price could go down a tad (but it would still be a pretty penny).
He added that space companies will try to profit off people just wanting to say "I went to space!" as incentives to sell the trip. The trips won't be long, if only a few minutes, but space tourists can technically still call themselves astronauts.
"It's sort of like dipping your toe in the ocean and then saying you swam in the ocean," he said. "It's a very, very brief visit. And I think what these space companies are doing is capitalizing off of this misunderstanding."
Still, you get your astronaut wings, and you can't just buy those. Not even with $50 million.