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On April 30, 2001, American millionaire Dennis Tito arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) via Russian Soyuz rocket, becoming the world's first space tourist.
For Tito, who was 60 years old at the time, it was the culmination of a dream he had had from a young age and for which he had spent no less than US $ 20 million to make it come true.
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Reflecting on the journey two decades later, Tito joyfully describes the moment the rocket first entered orbit.
"The pencils began to float in the air and I could see the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth," he tells CNN Travel.
"I was elated. It was the best time of my life, achieving a vital goal, and then I knew that nothing could overcome this."
In the 20 years since Tito spent his vacation in space, only a handful of other extremely wealthy tourists have followed in his footsteps, but companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are betting that the next great vacation destination is outside. this world, and are working to make it a reality in the not too distant future.
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Tito has been very attentive to updates in the space tourism field, and says he hopes that many others will one day be able to experience the thrill of a trip to space.
"I wish them the best," he says.
"I hope they have the wonderful experience that I had."
The best experience of my life
Tito tells CNN Travel that his trip was "the best experience of my entire life, those eight days."
He is seen here in May 2001, just after arriving on Earth.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV / AFP via Getty Images
When Tito embarked on his historic journey in 2001, he was working in finance, but had started his career in aeronautics and astronautics.
Tito was fascinated by space since he was a child, and believes that already at that time he was preparing the ground for a stay in space.
"When I flew in 2001, I wasn't someone who said, 'I want to be famous and fly into space.' It was a goal I set for myself in 1961," he says.
That was the year that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space.
"When I was young, it fascinated me," says Tito.
Later, when he changed professions and stopped working in aeronautics, Tito continued to dream of his own space flight.
"It was eight days of euphoria"
-Dennis Tito, first space tourist
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NASA long opposed the idea of sending civilians into space, but in 1991, shortly before the collapse of the USSR, Tito began talking to the Soviet Union about joining a space mission as a paying citizen.
He resumed these conversations at the end of that decade.
"At the end of the 90s, in Russia they were suffering a lot from the funding of this space program and the bottom line was that I said to myself, 'Huh, maybe I could get involved with them.'
On April 28, 2001, Russia's Soyuz spacecraft took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, with Tito on board and two Russian cosmonauts.
Tito spent the next week aboard the ISS.
"It was eight days of euphoria," he says.
"I just enjoyed looking out the window, recording the land, the windows, the station. It was wonderful," recalls Tito.
"It was just ... what I expected, the best I expected multiplied by 10. It was the best experience of my entire life, those eight days."
The current state of affairs
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Two decades later: 20 years have passed since Dennis Tito, the world's first space tourist and pictured during his journey, arrived at the International Space Station.
Only a handful of people have followed in Tito's footsteps.
Although, companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic believe that space tourism is the future.
(Credit: Oleg Nikishin / RTV / Newsmakers / Getty Images)
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Incredible experience: Tito told CNN Travel that his trip was "the best experience of my entire life, those eight days."
Here it appears in May 2001, just after returning to earth.
(Credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV / AFP via Getty Images)
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| Boeing Starliner: One of the future space tourism bets is Boeing's Starliner spacecraft, seen in the image after landing in White Sands, New Mexico, in December 2019 after a test flight. Once Starliner starts flying to the International Space Station, wealthy travelers will be able to book a ticket through the Space Adventures agency, which also organized Tito's trip. (Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images)
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Crew Dragon: The American company SpaceX is planning orbital trips to space later in 2021, via its Crew Dragon ship.
The image of the vehicle is from May 2020, shortly before it became the first commercial spacecraft to send NASA astronauts into space.
(Credit: SpaceX via Getty Images)
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Heading to the Moon: Meanwhile, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa hopes to fly to the Moon as a private citizen in 2023, via SpaceX's spacecraft, alongside a group of artists.
Elon Musk also intends for Starship to bring humans to Mars one day.
(Credit: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA / AFP via Getty Images)
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Future Ambitions: This is a rendering of Voyager Station, a space hotel that could become a reality later this decade.
(Credit: Orbital Assembly Corporation)
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'Golden Age' - The hotel is being designed by Orbital Assembly Corporation.
"We are trying to make the public understand that this golden age of space travel is very near. It is coming. It is coming fast," says CEO John Blincow.
(Credit: Orbital Assembly Corporation)
Since Tito's historic flight, seven other civilians have traveled into space, also spending millions to do so.
Each of these trips was organized through the space tourism agency Space Adventures, with travelers transported on Soyuz spacecraft from Russia to the ISS.
There have been no space tourists since 2009, which Space Adventures representative Stacey Tearne attributes to the fact that the US space shuttle program was withdrawn, leaving Russia's Soyuz spacecraft as the only option to go. and back from the ISS.
Tearne tells CNN Travel that Space Adventures is confident that the landscape will change again.
"In the future, we envision multiple vendors and vehicles," he says.
"Once there is competition in the market, there will be competitive prices."
Space Adventures continues to collaborate with the Russian space agency;
in fact, they are currently working on a Soyuz mission to the ISS in 2023 that includes the opportunity for a tourist to take a spacewalk.
Travelers with a lot of money will be able to reserve a seat on Boeing's Starliner spacecraft, seen here after landing in White Sands, New Mexico, in December 2019 following a test flight, once it begins flying to the ISS. .
Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images
The company also has the rights to market seats aboard Boeing's Starliner space capsule to individuals, once operational flights to the ISS begin.
In the more immediate future, Space Adventures is planning a trip in late 2021 via SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft.
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NASA helped fund the development of Boeing's Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon, but both companies remain privately owned, so they will continue to have the option of selling seats aboard their spacecraft to anyone who can afford them.
The US space agency has changed its discourse on space tourism since Tito's historic trip, announcing as early as 2019 plans to open the ISS to tourists.
Orbital space tourism
The American company SpaceX plans to make orbital trips to space in late 2021, via its Crew Dragon aircraft, photographed here in May 2020, not long before it became the first commercial spacecraft to send NASA astronauts into space.
Credit: SpaceX via Getty Images
Not all space tourism is the same.
There is a marked difference between a trip to orbital space, which involves high-speed takeoffs that break gravity and longer durations, and suborbital space, in which travelers are briefly exposed to weightlessness and views of space during a flight. at the edge of the atmosphere, 96 kilometers above Earth.
The American company SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk with the aim of bringing human beings to Mars, is perhaps the greatest success in the field of orbital space tourism.
In May 2020, SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial spacecraft to send NASA astronauts into space and the company has plans to use the spacecraft for a civilian-only trip later in 2021, with seating at bid for about $ 50 million each.
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Billionaire Jared Isaacman, CEO of Shift4 Payments, who will be one of those traveling on board, is funding the trip.
Among those joining him will be Hayley Arceneaux, 29, a cancer survivor and physician assistant at St. Jude Children's Hospital in Tennessee.
Arceneaux will become the youngest American to visit space and the first person with a prosthesis to travel to space.
Arceneaux, Isaacman and the rest of the crew are training for the trip, which will last several days.
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SpaceX also signed an agreement with Axiom, a startup founded by former NASA administrator Michael Suffredini, to bring a group of "private astronauts" to the ISS aboard a Crew Dragon in the second half of 2021.
NASA also recently awarded SpaceX a $ 2.89 billion contract to build the Starship, which is expected to land astronauts on the moon for the first time since the 1970s.
SpaceX hopes that Starship will take Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and a group of artists to the Moon in 2023. Musk also intends for Starship to one day take humans to Mars.
At 80, Dennis Tito is not sure if his future is to go back to space, but he is excited about the movements in the field of orbital space tourism.
"I would love to be one of the first people to go to Mars with the Starship, if I were physically capable," he says.
He imagines that they will probably opt for a younger crew.
"But I can fantasize about it," says Tito.
Suborbital space tourism
Meanwhile, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has long been working on suborbital space tourism projects, selling tickets at $ 250,000 each for the past few years.
Branson flew aboard the company's historic test flight on July 11, along with two pilots and four Virgin Galactic employees.
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The Blue Origin company is also committed to suborbital space tourism, which is why it launched its founder, Jeff Bezos, to the edge of space on July 20.
Also on board were Bezos's brother, Mark, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, whose father purchased a ticket for an undisclosed amount.
They were joined by Wally Funk, an 82-year-old pilot who trained to be an astronaut 60 years ago, but hadn't had a chance to go into space until now.
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Daemen took the place of an anonymous auction winner who had paid $ 20 million for a ticket, but decided to postpone it for a later mission due to "scheduling conflicts," according to Blue Origin.
The auction money went to Blue Origin's STEM education charity called "Club for the Future," which in turn donated it to space-related nonprofits.
The price of space tourism has drawn criticism from those who say the money could be better spent solving problems on Earth, something Bezos admits, in part.
Other suborbital concepts include Florida's company Space Perspective, which hopes to take passengers to the edge of space in a high-tech version of a hot air balloon.
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Jeffrey A. Hoffman, a former NASA astronaut now with MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says he is "very excited" about the concept of space tourism.
"I'm excited about the idea that many, many more people can experience being in space and hopefully bring back to Earth a new sense of their relationship with our planet," Hoffman tells CNN Travel.
Hoffman describes the view of Earth from space as a reminder that "we're all in this together."
"Having this idea of the Earth as a finite system, and as a planet, is critical to our survival as a species," he says.
Not only that, being in space is fun, Hoffman says.
According to him, the feeling of weightlessness, which is difficult for those of us who have remained on Earth to imagine, is incredibly pleasant.
"It's being in a state of euphoria all the time, your body feels so amazing, different," he says.
"So I think a lot of people, when the word gets out and these initial travelers tell their stories, you're not going to be able to keep people away."
Hoffman describes Tito's flight in 2001 as something that "broke the barrier" and marked "the beginning of a new era of space travel."
He is hopeful that the historically astronomical cost of space tourism will decline as demand increases and projects under development become an operational reality.
"If you look at the travel industry, certain things are available to the general population, and certain types of tourism are only available at a much higher economic level. But little by little, things tend to go down."
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Hoffman suggests that the main obstacle to space tourism, aside from cost, will be fear of safety.
In 2014, a test pilot was killed during a Virgin Galactic test flight, while SpaceX and Blue Origin test rockets have exploded, uninjured.
Hoffman says that, as with air travel, there will always be a risk of accidents, but a consistent safety record will help get the concept off the ground.
Although the launch dates for many of the space tourism concepts have been pushed back several times, Hoffman is confident that this year could be an important one.
Would you consider returning to space as a tourist?
The space expert says he is often invited to participate in cruises to give talks about his work, and hopes that one day there will be similar opportunities in space travel.
"If someone invited me to go into orbit, or even get on a three-minute flight as a seasoned astronaut and share the stories, that would be great," says Hoffman.
"On the other hand, if I had $ 200 million in my possession, I'm not sure I'd spend it in another week in space, because I've already been there. But I'd love to go back."
Space hotel: In 2027, the stay in space could be a reality.
Welcome to Voyager Station, an ambitious space hotel project.
Credit: Orbital Assembly Corporation
Speaking of cruises, in 2019, the Californian company Gateway Foundation unveiled plans for a cruise ship-style hotel designed to orbit Earth's atmosphere.
The Voyager Station project, comprised of 24 modules connected by elevator shafts that make up a spinning wheel orbiting the Earth, will be built by Orbital Assembly Corporation, a new construction company led by ex-pilot John Blincow.
In a recent interview with CNN Travel, Blincow said construction of the space hotel is expected to begin in 2026, and that a stay at the hotel could be a reality in 2027.
The hotel hopes to highlight some of the fun perks of being in space: There are plans to serve space food and organize recreational activities like "space basketball."
A unique experience: Recreational activities that take advantage of the reduced gravity will be offered.
Credit: Orbital Assembly Corporation
SpaceX's Starship system could help power up Voyager Station.
When the initial designs were unveiled a couple of years ago, Tim Alatorre, lead design architect for Orbital Assembly Corporation, told CNN Travel that the hotel's aesthetic was a direct response to Stanley Kubrick's film "2001: A Space Odyssey. ", which he described as" almost a model of what not to do. "
"I think Stanley Kubrick's goal was to highlight the divide between technology and humanity and so he purposely made the stations and ships very sterile and clean and alien."
Rather than the typical image of space, with astronauts in spacesuits floating in tight spaces, the team behind the space hotel wants to create a luxury hotel that doesn't seem out of place on Earth, but with views out of place on Earth. world.
"We try to make the public realize that the golden age of space travel is just around the corner. It is coming. It is fast approaching," says Blinclow.
- CNN Business's Jackie Wattles contributed to this report.
- CNN Business's Jackie Wattles contributed to this report.