Leisure travel might be a little more exciting for the world’s wealthiest adventure seekers as space, long the exclusive domain of professional astronauts, is now accessible to tourists. In July 2021, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin each successfully launched suborbital tourism programs from their spaceports in New Mexico and Texas, respectively (with Blue Origin completing its second launch in October 2021). In September 2021, SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission kicked off the company’s orbital tourism program from the Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A. Each of these companies hope to make space a popular destination by offering regular launch services to private citizens. Aspiring space tourists can expect to pay upwards of $250,000 for a seat on suborbital spacecrafts and an estimated $50 million for a ticket to orbit. Space enthusiasts on a budget can tour Spaceport America, where Virgin Galactic launches to space, for $50 or less.
These historic spaceflights represent the most recent chapter in a longer history of space tourism. More than 20 years ago, Dennis Tito, the first “space tourist” (also known as “spaceflight participant”), flew to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft for a six-day stay. Tito donated the Sokol pressure suit he wore in space to the Museum in 2003. Since his flight, only six other individuals scored self-funded travel to space (one of these intrepid travelers flew twice). Space Adventures, a US-based travel agency to the stars, facilitated these multi-million dollar, out-of-this-world experiences in partnership with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
Although space itself remained inaccessible to private citizens until the 21st century, other places where Earth and space meet—such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) centers—have long been popular destinations for a different kind of space tourist.
The Space Age dawned in the golden age of the family road trip. Thanks to the proliferation of private automobile ownership, an expanding interstate highway system, and the advent of more generous vacation policies in the workplace, Americans ventured from home in greater numbers in the 1960s than at any earlier time in the nation’s history. Millions of these travelers included on their itineraries NASA centers, particularly those with ties to the human spaceflight program: the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama; the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County, Florida; and the Manned Spacecraft Center (known since 1973 as the Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas.
NASA centers were not prepared for the tourists who appeared en masse outside their gates. In the early 1960s, the centers operated much like—and were often physically adjacent to—secure military installations. For reasons of national security, the centers restricted access to official visitors only. In response to curious onlookers, the centers developed ad hoc visitor programs. At the same time, proactive civic leaders and enterprising business-people responded to the presence of space center tourists by developing their own space-themed attractions, including museums, halls of fame, and amusement parks, and amenities, such as motels, hotels, and restaurants.
At the Kennedy Space Center, for example, public affairs officers facilitated increasing access to NASA’s launch complex between 1964 and 1967. Their efforts began while the spaceport was under construction with a modest roadside trailer featuring wall-mounted exhibitions. They soon expanded visitor programming to include self-guided driving tours on weekends and holidays during breaks in construction activity. In 1966, the space center partnered with Trans World Airlines (TWA) to operate an escorted bus tour program.
The following year, the Visitor Information Center opened to the public. It featured indoor exhibition and presentation facilities, an outdoor “rocket garden” that became a popular backdrop for family photos, and a depot for the bus tour program. The architect included all the amenities a traveler might need, such as restrooms, food concessions, a gift shop, and a pay phone, which is now on display at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Shaped like a Mercury capsule, the pay phone was painted in a playful tropical teal color, which was en vogue at other Florida attractions at the time. Since 1967, the Visitor Information Center has continued to evolve and expand, reflecting developments in spaceflight and the evolving expectations of 21st century vacationers. Some 1.5 million people visit annually.
Whether venturing to space, visiting a spaceport, or engaging in space-related recreation, individuals and families are likely to continue the tradition of incorporating space activities as part of their leisure time. As we enter the next chapter in the history of space tourism, questions about the significance of these experiences endure: What do “space tourists” hope to gain from their encounter with space or space sites? What does their choice of vacation destination say about their individual identities and the cultural significance of space? Who has access to these experiences and who is left out? And how will space tourism reshape communities on Earth as the industry evolves?