The Era of Private Space Travel Has Arrived — But How Did We Get Here?

Here's how space tourism went from sci-fi dream to reality.

We are all astronauts. Step outside after dark and look up at a starry sky, and your mind will take the same journey our ancestors' minds did many thousands of years ago. "Since our primitive ancestors first walked on this planet, we have been both mystified and fascinated by such heavenly bodies as the sun and moon," says Colin Burgess, author of "The Greatest Adventure: A History of Human Space Exploration." "In awe they worshipped the sun, the moon, and the stars, revering them as gods, while trying to make some sense of their purpose." Our ancestors also had a luxury most us have lost — totally clear night skies unspoiled by man-made light.

Related: More space travel and astronomy

From Dreams to Reality

The pivotal moment for space exploration came on July 20, 1969 with Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, but early sci-fi from authors like Jules Verne ignited imaginations long before technology caught up. "Remarkably, in one of his most famous and prescient works, Verne told of three men being launched to the moon from Florida in an aluminium spacecraft fitted with retrorockets and an eventual splashdown in the ocean," says Burgess.

In 1956, "The Forbidden Planet" became the first film to be set entirely on a foreign planet in interstellar space. A year later, the Space Age began when, on October 4, 1957, the USSR put Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, into orbit. Two years later, the U.S. named the Mercury Seven astronauts, and in 1961, the USSR launched Vostok 1 to make Yuri Gagarin the first man in orbit. In retaliation, NASA sent Alan Shepherd up to space for a few minutes the same year.

Retro-inspired digital photo collages of outer space travel
Photo Illustration by Mariah Tyler

From the Earth to the Moon and Beyond

By the time the Star Trek television series started in 1966, the Space Age was well underway, and the moon was the target. The movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" was released a year before that first moon landing, but in the wake of Apollo 11, public interest in space exploration appeared to wane. NASA's budget was slashed, but a rare alignment of the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune persuaded the space agency to launch Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 on a tour of the solar system. In 1979, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" used them as the inspiration for a sentient being called "V'Ger" that was seeking its creator.

The Space Shuttle Era

NASA's 1981 Space Shuttle launch rekindled interest in space exploration. In 1983, "The Right Stuff" romanticized the Apollo space program, followed by "Apollo 13" in 1995 and Tom Hanks' magnificent miniseries for HBO, From the Earth to the Moon, in 1998. But, Houston, there was a problem. "The advent of the Space Shuttle gave fresh stimulus to space exploration, but we became inured over the next thirty years to seeing it launch and land," says Burgess. Was the dream over?

The Universe Is Back in Fashion

After the loss of 14 astronauts in accidents in 1986 and 2003 (along with its astronomical cost), the Space Shuttle's demise was inevitable. NASA then had a game-changing idea: Why not cut costs by helping to create a highly competitive private space industry? After a decade of grants and test flights, NASA's Commercial Crew Program finally came to fruition in the summer of 2020 when Elon Musk's SpaceX flew two NASA astronauts to the ISS. Its Falcon 9 reusable rocket — which blasts satellites and spacecraft into orbit and then lands back on the launchpad — has helped reignite the public's interest in space. Musk has been talking about Mars colonies since well before 2015's iconic movie "The Martian" starring Matt Damon.

A New Age

SpaceX is set to go into partnership with NASA to get the first woman and the next man on the moon in 2024. Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have both successfully launched into space to kick-start space tourism. "Now we have the spectacle of fabulously wealthy figureheads engaged in a whole new race into space, with a return to the moon and even Mars on their radars," says Burgess. "Without this commercial effort, such things would undoubtedly be decades instead of years away."

As Tom Cruise heads to the International Space Station later this year to film the first movie shot in space, sci-fi and the reality of space exploration are about to come full circle.

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