Happy Tenth Birthday, Space Tourism!

Parabolic Arc’s Fun With Numbers Tour continues this morning with a look at space tourism on this 10th anniversary of millionaut Dennis Tito’s historic flight to the International Space Station. And what a decade it’s been — for government space travel. Here’s why:

Table A(wesome): Human Spaceflight From Dennis Tito to Today

No. of Flights

No. of Crew Members

No. of Space Tourists

Percentage of  Total Flights

Percentage of Total Crew

Percentage of Tourists on Crews

Space Shuttle

27

192

0

48.21

71.36

0

Soyuz

23

68

8

41.07

25.28

11.76

Shenzhou

3

6

0

5.36

2.23

0

SpaceShipOne

3

3

0

5.36

1.12

0

TOTALS:

56

269

8

100

100

2.97

As Table A shows, space tourism has been making steady if unspectacular progress over the last decade. From zero percent on April 27, 2001, space tourism has climbed to nearly 3 percent of all crew members sent into space. Good job!

That number would have been higher if the shuttle system had not be out of commission after the loss of Columbia and the U.S. had not suffered delays in fielding a successor vehicle, both of which placed extra burdens on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and eliminated seats for millionauts.

Of course, the number also would have been significantly higher if private companies were flying orbital transports of their own instead of relying on the Russian government. And suborbital companies were not perpetually 18-24 months away from flying. (I’m looking at you….everybody!)

A few interesting things to note in this table:

  • Orbital tourism relies entirely upon the Soviet-era Soyuz vehicle that was designed by communists in the 1960s
  • Although exact figures are hard to come by, the eight space tourism seats have probably netted the Russian government in excess of $200 million (assuming an average cost of $25 million plus apiece) for missions it was obligated to fly anyway
  • No one has flown suborbital since Brian Binnie piloted SpaceShipTwo on its last spaceflight on Oct. 4, 2004, nearly seven years ago
  • Of 56 human spaceflights, only three (5.36 percent) were undertaken entirely by a private company — Scaled Composites — using a vehicle that it immediately retired
  • Suborbital space tourism has been all hype and zero passengers for the past seven years
  • The U.S. and Russia have flown a similar number of flights over this period (27 to 23)
  • The disparity in the number of crew members flown is substantial (192 to 68) due to the disparity in vehicle sizes (7 to 3 crew)
  • Russia would have needed to fly 41 additional Soyuz flights during that period to reach the space shuttle’s crew total
  • China’s progress in human spaceflight has been slow — three flights with six taikonauts over nearly 8 years.

Looking ahead, we can expect the following developments and trends over the coming decade:

  • The number of suborbital spaceflights should increase as Virgin Galactic, XCOR,  Blue Origin and Armadillo Aerospace begin test flights of their vehicles in the years ahead
  • Until those test programs are well underway, all estimates of when commercial service will begin are suspect
  • Russia will launch four Soyuz vehicles per year to ISS once the space shuttle retires later this year
  • Soyuz launches will increase to five per year around 2013 as production ramps up and space tourism flights resume
  • America’s human spaceflight total will drop to zero for three to four years as NASA astronauts hitch rides on Russian rockets
  • Soyuz should get some competition for tourism flights in the middle of the decade once American commercial alternatives come online
  • Until those vehicles are online, the Russians will make hundreds of millions of dollars selling seats to the Americans at more than $50 million and $60 million apiece
  • When U.S. commercial vehicles come online around 2015, Russia should be preparing to send tourists around the moon in a modified Soyuz
  • Commercial transports will serve both ISS and multiple private space stations by the end of the decade if all goes well
  • China should see an increase in its orbital human spaceflight activities once it launches a small space station later this year and crews to occupy it.