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The Texas-led space tourism boom could make out-of-this-world vacations affordable sooner than you might think

NASA ending its space shuttle program after the Columbia explosion led to a Texas-based rise of private space travel and tourism.

DALLAS — In 2000, Chris Cassidy applied for NASA’s astronaut program. 

He didn’t get picked.

But, after serving two tours in Afghanistan with the U.S. Navy SEALs Team and completing a graduate degree in ocean engineering at MIT, he was ready to apply again in 2003.

“I was printing everything, making sure it was all perfect [and] compiling the papers when the accident happened,” Cassidy said.

Twenty years ago -- on February 1, 2003 -- the Columbia space shuttle exploded on reentry, killing the seven astronauts on board. An investigation found insulating foam damaged the wing during takeoff, leading to hot gases breaking apart the shuttle on reentry.

"I remember stuffing all those things into the big envelope and mailing it and going, 'OK, whoa, it’s real,'" Cassidy said. "You’re sad for those people as individuals, sad for those families that lost somebody."

Cassidy’s eventual NASA training began in 2004, just months after word came that the shuttle program would end.

"The shuttle’s chief purpose over the next several years will be to help finish assembly of the International Space Station," President George W. Bush said on Jan. 14, 2004. "In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service."

There were around 120 astronauts at NASA when Chris Cassidy was accepted into the program in 2004. By the time he retired after a final flight in 2020, only 40 remained.

Credit: NASA
Chris Cassidy flew his last flight for NASA in 2020.

But, it turns out, that end meant the beginning of a new era.

Texas is now home to Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space program in Van Horn, as well as Elon Musk’s SpaceX company in Boca Chica. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is located just across the border in Sierra County, New Mexico.

Joel Quintana is an assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at UTEP, which is conveniently located close to the headquarters for both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.

"You go, "Is that going to work? Is there enough money? Is there a market for it?'" Quintana said of his reaction to the Blue Origin facility.

Now, though, half of Blue Origin’s staff are UTEP grads. And the company has completed six crewed space missions ton this point.

"All those companies are hurting, hurting for engineers," Quintana said.

Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, which made it to space nine days before Bezos' brand did, are targeting a burgeoning space tourism industry.

Craig Curan got into the space tourism game as an accredited Virgin Galactic "space agent" after 35 years spent working as a traditional travel agent -- because, as he puts it, it was something different.

Credit: Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic won the race to space tourism -- beating Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin by all of nine days.

"Going to space... was sexy," he said. “It was fast, it was on the edge. It was risky. It was next-level."

Curan himself is around 400th in line to fly on Virgin’s spaceship after having bought his seat in 2011. He hopes to fly sometime in 2025.

"Demand exceeds capacity right now -- that, I think, is pretty clear," he said. "All of this infrastructure, it's starting to become built out right now -- and it's here.”

Investment bank UBS estimates the space tourism industry will be worth $4 billion by 2030.

"Opportunities to invest in the broader space economy will continue to grow, helping to get the Space Economy to nearly double over the next 10 years as it has over the last 10 years," the bank’s report read.

Already, it's a big-money field.

A thousand people have paid the $450,000 fee to fly Virgin's shuttle, which has gone 53 miles up in the air.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin -- which went to 66 miles up into space -- auctioned its first seat for $20 million. Since then, bidding has slowed some to around the $1 million to $3 million marks. There’s some speculation the bidding was a way to determine where future seats could be priced.

Credit: Blue Origin
The first seat on Blue Origin was auctioned off for $20 million. Prices have come down substantially since then.

And then there are the three men who paid $55 million each to fly SpaceX's flight to the space station a full 250 miles above Earth.

“When aircraft first started flying at the dawn of the jet age, only the very wealthy, and very few people, could go by jet travel," Curan said. "My son is 31. He'll have an opportunity to go to the moon if he wants to. He will absolutely be able to go to a space hotel."

Marco Caceres, a senior space analyst at the Teal Group, agrees with that notion.

"The vision for these companies, to me, is infinitely more ambitious than NASA," Caceres said. "They can afford to be -- because these entrepreneurs plan to be around for the long term."

Caceres says SpaceX is focused on exploration, whereas Blue Origin and Virgin target tourism. But all three are quickly lowering costs for space travel with the aim of eventually being on par with a plane ticket.

"I don't think it's a pipe dream," Caceres said. "But I don't think we're going to see it in the next 10 years. I think the reason for that is because you need volume. I think the next year and the next two years are going to be very telling in terms of who survives in this space launch industry."

With the perspective he has from his time at NASA, Cassidy is a little more tempered in his timeline: “Maybe in 50 years it’s like, 'Hey, what do you want to do for Christmas break this year? Want to go to Hawaii?' 'No, dad! We went there last year -- let’s go to the space station.' 'OK, alright, we'll go to the space station.'"

Cassidy said he isn’t bothered by private astronauts. Rather, he welcomes them.

"I don’t claim that only government-selected astronauts are the people that can experience this," Cassidy said. "I fundamentally think if you take a big picture of humanity, that the world would be better off if every single person had five minutes to look out the window of a spacecraft and see Earth going by. You just see blue and green and brown, and white clouds and white mountaintops, and oceans of all colors. It looks like one blob that’s a home for everyone."

Credit: SpaceX
Elon Musk's SpaceX is the most ambitious of the current Big Three in the space tourism game, taking passengers a full 250 miles above Earth.

Of course, there are more options beyond the three companies getting in on space travel, too. There are planes designed to create micro-gravity situations, space facilities that give the feeling of takeoff G-forces, and balloons that can be rented by groups for special events to reach the edge of the atmosphere.

"Imagine, if you will, celebrating a wedding and getting married at 100,000 feet," Curan said.

The possibilities are vast.

"There are different companies that are talking about  providing different experiences for space tourism," Quintana said. "It’s grown by leaps and bounds, and we’ve been able to kind of democratize but also kind of spread out that supply chain."

The eventual goal, most parties in this field agree, is using the moon as a launch pad to colonize Mars.

"Elon Musk's vision is out of this world," Caceres said. "I mean, it's just no pun intended, but his goal really is to colonize Mars. What SpaceX is doing is infinitely more difficult and more challenging, and they're much farther along."

The out-of-this-world is, indeed, becoming possible.

"If it hadn't been for the Columbia disaster, which led to the end of the shuttle program, you wouldn't have had enough room for and money to encourage the development of some of these private companies,” Caceres said.

And things will only take off from here. 

"It sounds goofy, but it’s very possible," Cassidy said. "Just a little over 100 years ago, the Wright Brothers first flew -- and now we’re talking about space flight. So who knows?"

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