Civilians in space: The challenges and potential of launching citizen astronauts

With recent global space activity and achieved milestones, the budding space tourism industry could be accessible to the average Canadian in the distant future

Art by Mikayla Croucher

Art by Mikayla Croucher

Last May, three men went aboard China’s Shenzhou-16 spaceflight for a five-month mission in the country’s Tiangong space station, which orbits Earth.

While two members of the crew were a part of China’s People’s Liberation Army, the other, Gui Haichao, was an astronautics professor who did his post-doctoral research in Toronto.

Haichao became China’s first civilian astronaut in space, where he was charged with using, maintaining, and fixing science equipment as well as controlling experiments and analyzing data, reported China Daily, a state-owned media outlet.

Wealthy entrepreneurs who own United States-based commercial space companies have also achieved key milestones.

British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company is focused on sending passengers to space as tourists, along with researchers to conduct experiments for scientific and educational purposes.

On July 11, 2021, Branson, two pilots, and three Virgin Galactic employees went aboard the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity rocket plane that launched from the New Mexico desert, marking the company’s first fully crewed spaceflight. They reached 88 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, with the trip lasting almost an hour from start to finish.

Nine days after Branson’s flight, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos travelled on the New Shepard rocket ship of his aerospace company, Blue Origin, with an experienced pilot, his brother, and his first paying customer. The trip lasted 10 minutes, with the crew reaching 100 kilometres above Earth.

Blue Origin’s vision is to see millions of people live and work in space for the benefit of the Earth. The company also hopes to see the movement of damaging industries into space, reads their website.

Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world-governing body for air sports, defines the beginning of space as 100 kilometres above sea level, meaning Bezos reached space, while Branson travelled to the edge. However, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. military classifies the start of space at an altitude of about 80 kilometres.

Another big player in the industry is Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, who founded the astronautics company Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX. Musk created the corporation with the goal of one day colonizing Mars and making it a planet where people can live.

On Sept. 15, 2021, SpaceX sent the world’s first all-civilian crew to orbit Earth for the three-day Inspiration4 mission, which was commanded by American billionaire Jared Isaacman.

With the rise of civilians in space, the space tourism sector is expected to grow to about $4 billion USD by 2030, estimated UBS, a global investment bank and financial services company, in a 2021 report. This value amounts to about five per cent of the broader space economy expected by 2030.


Canadian civilians in space

Edward Tabarah, the head of Canadian Astronaut Corps, is in charge of astronaut recruitment, training, and managing missions at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

He says the CSA’s objective is to send professional astronauts to space — selected through the agency’s extensive requirements — rather than private citizens.

These conditions include being in excellent health, meeting a specific height and weight requirement, having relevant professional experience, and earning at least a bachelor’s or doctorate degree in select fields.

While the CSA is not in the business of sponsoring or paying for space flights for private astronauts, the agency can support civilians who cover their own flights in an advisory role, Tabarah says.

Notably, on April, 8, 2022, Montreal-based entrepreneur and philanthropist Mark Pathy became the third Canadian civilian in space, following Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté’s 2009 trip to the International Space Station (ISS) and actor William Shatner’s 2021 ride on Blue Origin’s space shuttle.

Pathy approached the CSA to help put together a program of science experiments for when he travelled to the ISS as a part of the Ax-1 mission with Axiom Space, a U.S. space company focused on sending flights to the space station and eventually building the world’s first commercial one.

“We were able to advise him and give him contacts to connect him with scientists in Canada doing interesting work that could be done in space and finding answers that they were looking for, but they needed somebody to actually do those experiments,” Tabarah says.


Inaccessibility and limitations of sending civilians to space

To cover his seat on his commercial space trip to the ISS, Pathy shelled out $55 million USD.

For Virgin Galactic, tickets to reach the edge of space aboard the company’s SpaceShipTwo used to cost $250,000 USD each, before increasing by 80 per cent in 2021. As for Blue Origin, the business does not reveal its ticket prices, but it approached $100 million in private sales at the time of Bezos’s launch on the New Shepard.

Currently, space tourism remains exclusive to those who can afford to go, namely billionaires, says Jaymie Matthews, an astrophysicist and professor at the University of British Columbia.

“The reason is because they need vehicles that can be used again and again with very low failure rates,” Matthews says. “That’s essential to a viable industry.”

The failure rate of orbital launch attempts in 2022 was 4.3 per cent, while the usual yearly rate is closer to seven, according to Seradata, a British space data publisher.

While a low per cent chance of a catastrophic failure for a test vehicle is considered okay, even a one per cent chance of a rocket failing would not attract enough customers to keep space fares below a million dollars, Matthews says.

Besides civilians, the space industry also faces financial barriers on top of technological ones.

“Space is hard, and expensive,” Matthews wrote in a follow-up email to The Runner. “Building rockets and space capsules for tourists is as hard and expensive as building them for astronauts in the sense of the last 60 years of the space age.”

Another limitation of civilian space exploration and tourism is destinations.

“The experience of being in space and looking at the Earth from space is incomparable. It really would be. But there is no variety of experiences in the near future for space vacations. So it’s not like [buying] a vacation to Niagara Falls or the Taj Mahal,” Matthews says.

Canada also isn’t an ideal place to have a spaceport because being north does not provide as much of the Earth’s rotation to boost a rocket, he adds. That is why the U.S. has its Kennedy Space Center in the southern state of Florida, where rockets travel over the Atlantic Ocean, in the same direction as the Earth’s rotation. 

However, there is a spaceport in development for sending satellites to space through Maritime Launch Services in Nova Scotia. Matthews says it could take about a decade or less for the space transport company to get satellites into orbit from Canada, but the service does not take people to space. 


Future potential and benefits of civilian space exploration

Although space tourism continues to be highly expensive and only accessible to billionaires or those who may have won their seat through a contest, Parshati Patel, an Ontario-based astrophysicist and freelance science communicator, says she hopes within the next 50 years, space flights will cost thousands of dollars, versus millions.

For example, while Virgin Galactic selling tickets for over $200,000 USD a few years ago is considered a lot of money in this economy, it was not in the millions, showing a trend of space travel becoming slightly cheaper than what it was before, she says.

Competition within the industry is also going to bring innovation and technology, making it more affordable for Canadians to go to space in the future, Patel says.

There are a few major players in the industry, lots of companies, and many startups figuring out how to make space tourism possible, such as by building stations and tourist hubs, she adds. These components need to be created, so people can pick their carrier and location for when they want to travel to space.

Investments are also a key factor in making space tourism more accessible.

“It’s not just people investing their time in developing, but you need investors who have money to be able to put [funds] into those ideas to actually [bring] them to life,” Patel says. “Then you have governments supporting those initiatives and startups and companies who are wanting to do those things.”

Ensuring there is lots of time for testing flights to make sure they are safe for humans and the advancement of other sectors are also required for space tourism, she says.

Both Patel and Tabarah see the similarities between space exploration and aviation.

“The first civilian flights in airplanes were very uncomfortable, very noisy, and very, very expensive. Only a select few could afford them,” Tabarah says. “So now, these private missions to space are also very expensive, not very comfortable, and only a few can afford them.”

As civilian space exploration grows in acceptance and becomes the norm, comparing the average person in space — whether they are young, old, or not physically fit — to professional astronauts with healthy lifestyles and daily workout routines can help increase understanding about humanity, he finds.

“Right now, we try to relate the health of the astronaut to the average citizen, but once we start sending the average citizen, we’re going to learn a lot more, and that can only open up new solutions for life on Earth,” Tabarah says.

Another benefit of sending civilians to space is research, Patel says. Besides astrophysics, there are other fields that can have research applications, such as biology with understanding the growth of plants or how the human body ages in space.

Tourists can also work with universities, non-profits, youth, and researchers to get their citizen-sourced experiments up in space.

“It already happens, but I think it would just blow people’s minds if they were able to send their experiments all the time with many different people to just research a variety of topics, including things like their ideas about what they see in the night sky because a lot of people have questions about that,” Patel says.

While most of Canada does not make for an ideal spot to launch vessels, she notes Maritime Launch Services demonstrates locations in the east coast where it can happen.

“But in terms of space tourism, I think we would definitely need people to dream big and find investments from within Canada to be able to develop something like that,” Patel says. 

“We would obviously have to rely on southern partners and partners across the world to be able to test [vessels], given the environmental conditions in Canada. It’s very cold most of the year.” 

She also says many companies are in the ideation phase of what their tourism architecture could look like, with now being an “exciting time for space exploration.”