Left in the dust: The first golden age of citizen travel to outer space: UNM Newsroom

The first civilian in space was a Japanese newspaper reporter in 1990, Toyohiro Akiyama. Then, six months later, Helen Sharman, a distinguished British chemist won a radio contest, beating out more than 13,000 other British men and women. However, both have been denied inclusion in the commercial space tourism club.

“Citizen access to space is, critically important as a tourism niche and more important to the future of mankind.” – Dirk Duran-Gibson, UNM Professor Emeritus

In 1990, Akiyama spent a week in space on behalf of the Tokyo Broadcasting System where he was a reporter. His employer paid $12 million for his trip, which promoted the 40th anniversary of his broadcast network.

Sharman was a distinguished British chemist, and a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). She replied to a radio advertisement by the Moscow Narodny Bank for a free trip to space, along with 13,000 other British citizens. She was selected due to her chemistry credentials. In May of 1991 she spent eight days in orbit in the Mir Space Station as part of Project Juno, an effort to normalize relations between Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The cost was $10 million.

These names are so often overlooked, and according to UNM Professor Emeritus Dirk Duran-Gibson the first golden age of space tourism is long forgotten.

UNM Professor Emeritus Dirk Duran-Gibson

“Space-X. Virgin Galactic. Blue Origin. Names familiar to us all,” Duran-Gibson said. “But what about Armadillo Aerospace, Bigelow Aerospace, Eads Astrium, XCore Aerospace, UP Aerospace and the Transformational Space Corporation, known as tSpace. More than 100 companies announced plans to enter the civilian space race, but few have survived.”

He argues that most people have forgotten the first cohort of civilian space tourism promoters, like the Space Enterprise Council, Space Frontier Foundation, Space Access Society, the Space Tourism Society, Personal Spaceflight Industry, and the International Association of Space Entrepreneurs—there were more than 100 such organizations. According to Duran-Gibson, some are still active.

Within the last few years, the world has celebrated a trio of citizen trips high up into Earth’s atmosphere. Space is a very dangerous environment and a difficult place as a travel destination. These recent “spacefarers” are courageous individuals, but Duran-Gibson argues they can hardly be considered the first citizens in space.

Duran-Gibson says one of the most essential questions remain unanswered, what is considered a citizen spaceflight.

“There is uncertainty over exactly what citizen space travel means, believe it or not,” he said. “Is it enough to ascend high into the Earth’s atmosphere? And there are different ideas about where outer space begins. Another factor is that some space authorities define citizen space travel as including only paid trips for by the spacefarer. The most restrictive definition of space tourism is that the sole purpose of the trip is recreational, and the travel must be paid for by the space sojourner.”

The Initial Space Tourists
Dennis Tito was the first space tourist to pay his own way, a mere $20 million, in 2001. The American businessman spent his time in the International Space Station enjoying microgravity, music and photography. Upon his return to Earth the mayor of Los Angeles arranged a news conference in his honor.

Others who followed:

2002 | Mark Shuttlesworth
2005 | Gregory Olsen
2006 | Anousheh Ansari
2007 & 2009 | Charles Simony
2008 | Richard Garriott
2009 | Guy Laliberte

Simonyi went to space twice, within two years, spending a total of 25 days in space. This Hungarian-American software developer built the first version of Microsoft Office and was worth $5.5 billion in 2022. His two trips cost $55 million. At the age of 13 he was selected to be Hungary’s Junior Astronaut. He thoroughly documented both trips on his mission website.

“We can and should learn from the relevant past,” Duran-Gibson said. “Citizen access to space is, critically important as a tourism niche and more important to the future of mankind. If we do not take robust steps to create an off-planet capacity in terms of infrastructure, operational experience, public-private partnerships, international coalition-building and technological innovation, the human race will perish when our planet does.”

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