May 15, 2012 8:15 PM GMT
Already, there are some hints of how the era of commercial space travel might unfold. Companies like Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Space Adventures are booking passengers on suborbital joy rides to space, promised for dates within the next few years, and hundreds of people are signing up. And already there are celebrity tie-ins: Among the people who have signed up for Virgin’s first flights are Ashton Kutcher, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks and Katy Perry.
On a more mundane note, the launching of commercial satellites has been a steady business for decades, and SpaceX is among the companies already competing for contracts. Indeed, SpaceX already seems to have built a viable business here, having announced more than $1 billion of contracts in the last few years.
Then there are the longer-term dreams, which may sound less far-fetched as each landmark in space travel grows nearer.
“I think humanity needs to get to Mars, one way or another,” said Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, who vows that his company will send people to Mars in as little as 10 years — more likely 15 years, and certainly within 20. He said he would do this with or without NASA: “I would prefer it would be with NASA. If not, we have to find another path.”
The International Space Station is only a couple of hundred miles up — SpaceX’s rocket has yet to get there, of course — and Mars is millions of miles away. But Mr. Musk predicts that travel to Mars will eventually become commonplace, and that the ticket price will eventually — perhaps a decade after the first flight — drop to half a million dollars. That contrasts with the more than $60 million a seat that the Russians are currently charging NASA to take one astronaut to the space station.
“Is it possible to achieve that?” Mr. Musk said in an interview at his headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. “I think it is. My calculations show that it is.”