Future Tense

A Very Brief History of Billionaires Going to Space

Jeff Bezos raises one hand while speaking, in front of a background of stars.
To boldly go where some other space tourists have gone before Mark Ralston/Getty Images

On Monday, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced that he will travel to space on July 20 with his brother Mark. Bezos will be aboard the New Shepard rocket created by Blue Origin, the aerospace company he and Mark founded, and will be accompanied by the winner of an online auction. The current bid is $3.8 million and the winner will be announced Saturday. Imagine not just going to space, but going with Jeff Bezos.

During the 11-minute flight, the passenger capsule will detach from the rocket more than 60 miles above the Earth. Bezos and the others will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and then the capsule will parachute back to Earth.

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The New Shepard has gone to space 15 times already, but this will be the first time that it will carry humans. The flight will take place on the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and a few weeks after Bezos steps down as the CEO of Amazon. (He will remain executive chairman.)

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Bezos’ announcement has reopened the discussions about the future of space tourism, which Blue Origin, SpaceX (founded by Elon Musk), and Virgin Galactic (founded by Richard Branson) have all invested heavily in. Virgin Galactic has previously sold tickets for $250,000 on its suborbital spaceplane, but it plans to raise prices once it reopens sales. (That puts to shame one estimate from 2010 that by 2014, the cost of a suborbital ticket would be $50,000 - $100,000.) As of July 2020, Virgin Galactic said it had sold more than 650 tickets for suborbital trips like Bezos’: brief experiences of weightlessness with views of space.

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But for a period of time, some very wealthy people were able to experience space in a different way: spending a few days at the International Space Station after hitching a ride on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Dennis Tito, a multimillionaire businessman from Los Angeles, is widely considered to be the first space tourist, since he was the first to pay for a space trip. (Other private citizens went up before him, but did not have to shell out for the opportunity.) In April 2001, the now-80-year-old spent $20 million, worth about $30 million today, to be aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. Tito’s journey to the International Space Station started in Southern Kazakhstan, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where he lifted off with two cosmonauts for an eight-day trip. “The pencils started floating in the air, and I could see the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth,” he told CNN in April 2021.

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In the same interview, he said he spent his time “looking at the window, videoing the earth, the portholes, the station.” That may sound a little dull, but “it was just wonderful.” And he would like to return to space one day. “I’d love to be one of the first people to go with Starship to land on Mars if I was physically capable.” (Starship is developed by SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk.)

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After Tito’s flight in 2001, six other wealthy people from around the world paid for journeys to the ISS, all of them through the Space Adventures tourism agency and aboard a Soyuz Russian rocket.

In 2002, Mark Shuttleworth became the second space tourist and the first-ever South African in space. In order to be able to fly, he had to do a one-year training, including seven months of preparation in Star City, Russia. He spent eight days at the ISS, where he participated in experiments related to AIDS and genome research. He also had a radio conversation with Nelson Mandela and a 14-year-old South African girl, Michelle Foster, who was terminally ill. During the chat, she asked Shuttleworth to marry her. He politely declined.

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In 2005, the American Gregory Olsen became the third tourist to go to space, but he has said that he dislikes the term “space tourist”—he would rather prefer to be called “space flight participant.” Before he went to space, he told the BBC, “The term ‘tourist’ doesn’t do justice to all the work I’ve put in, or the work that the people at the Gagarin centre [outside Moscow] put in preparing us.” In order to be able to do the trip, he trained for a year and a half. However, he added: “I will not participate pretending that I’m an astronaut or cosmonaut. There is so much knowledge needed to operate this vehicle.”

In 2006, Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian American businesswoman and engineer, became the first female space tourist and the first Iranian woman in space. “I want to reach women and girls in remote parts of the world where women are not encouraged to go into science and technology jobs. They should believe in what they want and pursue it,” she told the New York Times. Like Olsen, she did not appreciate the term “space tourist”: “A tourist is someone who just buys a ticket and then goes somewhere. They don’t train for six months, including survival training in water and on land, and try to learn every system on a spacecraft,” she said to the Times. She spent nine days at the International Space Station, where she participated in various experiments on anemia, back pain, and the consequences of space radiation on ISS crew members and different species of microbes that have made a home in space. A year later, Charles Simonyi, an American businessman of Hungarian descent, went up—and then in 2009, he became the first tourist (sorry, Ansari and Olsen) to pay twice to go to.

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In 2008 the British-American Richard Garriott became the sixth tourist to go to space. The following year, Canadian Guy Laliberté, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, became the last paying visitor to the ISS so far. Laliberté dedicated his spaceflight to “raising awareness on water issues facing humankind.” He also called his trip the first “poetic social mission” in space, which involved a two-hour-long webcast with several artistic performances.

Laliberté had to pay taxes to the Canadian government on his $35 million ticket, but he later tried to get the money back, “contending the expenditures for the trip were business expenses and not a personal luxury trip to outer space,” according to the National Post. Laliberté argued that the trip was a “stunt-type promotional activity for the Cirque du Soleil group and for a charity he founded and thus did not give rise to a shareholder benefit.” In 2020, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling that it was not, in fact, a business trip.

Since 2009 there haven’t been any other tourists. But more may be heading up soon. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon plans to do a trip this year only with civilians, who will pay $50 million each for a seat. Billionaire Jared Isaacman is taking with him Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old cancer survivor and physician assistant at St. Jude children’s hospital in Tennessee. More fancifully, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa hopes to go on board of Starship together with a group of artists to the moon in 2023, for a project called “Dear Moon.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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