Lately, you must have come across the term ‘space tourism’. Sounds quite futuristic, right? Well, it is nothing new. Its origin dates back to 2001 when US millionaire Dennis Tito paid $20 million to get a ride to the international space station. He travelled via the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and spent eight days at the space station. Tito was the first space tourist. So what is space tourism? It is travelling into space for leisure and recreational purposes?

The nascent market of space tourism is again creating a buzz as several private companies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are attempting to make it happen. Interestingly, the rivals Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have scheduled their space flights only a few days apart. While the former blasted off on July 11, the latter will fly to the fringes of outer space on July 20. Both the companies are offering suborbital flights, providing passengers with few minutes of weightlessness besides a new view of the planet.

Now, What is Suborbital Flight? 

Suborbital rocket crosses the ‘boundary’ of space depending upon its speed and then come back down after the engines are shut down. Unlike, the orbital spacecraft, which travels at a faster speed known as orbital velocity, the suborbital flight’s pace is not fast enough to stay in space around the planet.

What Inspires Space Tourism? 

Though it is and for some time will largely remain as a status symbol of the super-rich, factors like a glimpse of earth from space, weightlessness, high-speed travel and unusual experience are some of the driving forces. Besides boosting the economy, if the reusable spacecraft reaches orbit, it will reduce the cost of space exploration and satellite launches. 

The market of space tourism is expected to be worth at least $3 billion by 2030. However, if this avant-garde tourism is developed without any regulations and unnecessary cautions, its consequences can impact globally.

What Are The Possible Risks?

Retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly shared how a year on the International Space Station took a toll on his body. In a news release before his memoir, Endurance: My Year in Space and Our Journey to Mars, he said, “I lost bone mass, my muscles atrophied, and my blood redistributed itself in my body, which strained my heart”.

“Every day, I was exposed to ten times the radiation of a person on Earth, which will increase my risk of fatal cancer for the rest of my life. Not to mention the psychological stress, which is harder to quantify and perhaps as damaging,” he added.

Radiation Risk

As we go above the protective magnetic field of the Earth, the radiation exposure not only increases cancer risk but can also affect the central nervous system. According to NASA, the radiation “can alter cognitive function, reduce motor function and prompt behavioral changes”. The radiation risk of tourists taking a suborbital flight is negligible. However, as a company like SpaceX focuses on lunar tourism and flight beyond Earth’s orbit, the threat can’t be ignored. In fact, astronauts at the space station, which lies within the protective layer, are still exposed to ten times higher radiation than on the planet. 

Health Effects

Space motion sickness is a real thing and it can severely affect tourists in spaceflight. Nausea and chest discomfort can also be faced by some tourists. In a research published in Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine journal, many volunteers complained of grayout, a blurred sight that is the precursor to blackout. As the space tourists will not necessarily have any science background or belong to the astronaut community, these health effects if not addressed can pose serious threats.

Spaceflight Side-Effects

G-forces, vibration and microgravity are some of the proven risks of spaceflight. According to Federal Aviation Administration, it is important for a participant to receive medical consultation from a physician trained in aerospace medicine within 12 months of flight. As it is not required legally, it is completely up to the companies to decide. While Virgin Galactic provides a three-day training, orbital and long-duration spaceflight will require strict training protocols than a suborbital joy ride.

Climate Impact

Though the new-age companies have taken it upon themselves to mitigate the effect of spacecraft on the environment, their emissions, though uncertain, need to be evaluated. All three pioneers — SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin besides few others have plans to make their spacecraft environmentally sustainable, unlike kerosene-fueled rockets.