Vegas to the Moon!

Does space tourism have a future in Las Vegas? Sir Richard Branson thinks it might

Could Las Vegas become a launching pad for a new type of tourist—the kind who’s looking for a thrill ride that can’t be found behind the velvet rope?

In the past five years, ideas that once seemed outlandish—medical tourism, a tech corridor, green energy—have been seriously considered as viable tools for our economic development. Why not space tourism?

For its first 40 years, spaceflight was limited to those chosen as part of a national astronaut selection process; mostly Soviet (later Russian) cosmonauts and American astronauts. For a while, it looked like the space shuttle was going to open up space to civilians; politicians Jake Garn and Bill Nelson flew on shuttle missions, but plans to have regular flights of educators in space and more trips by civilians were scrapped when teacher Christa McAuliffe perished in the 1986 Challenger disaster.

That tragedy, and the subsequent loss of Columbia in 2003, highlighted the dangers of spaceflight, but leaving the green hills of Earth for the depths of space—even if it’s just a couple of days in low-earth orbit, roughly 200 miles up—remains a dream for many. Of course, only the elite of the elite can become astronauts. Lacking extensive piloting experience or advanced degrees in the sciences—and the dedication to be at the top of your field for most of your adult life—you don’t have much of a chance to become a professional cosmic explorer.

But space tourism may make orbit available to the nonprofessional—though for the past decade that’s meant the kind of nonprofessional who could pay millions for the privilege.

In 2001, the first space tourist, engineer and investment manager Dennis Tito, flew on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. He trained for several months before the mission (which pales in comparison to the years regular astronauts log before liftoff, but still shows dedication) and conducted a variety of experiments in his nearly eight days in space. He reportedly paid $20 million for the journey.

But he got to know the thrill of floating weightless; of seeing the curvature of the Earth; of witnessing a sunrise every 90 minutes; of being one of only about 500 people who can say they’ve been off the planet.

Tito was the first, and he was followed by six other “space tourists” (the Russian Federal Space Agency prefers the term “spaceflight participants”) who reportedly paid up to $40 million to take part in eight-to-11-day trips to the International Space Station. Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté, whose shows dominate the Strip and who himself is no stranger to the gaming tables of Las Vegas, joined their ranks in 2009.

Still, less than a dozen space tourists have lifted off over the past 12 years. The problem is that when you charge tens of millions, you’ve got a limited market. But even if there was more demand, Soyuz seats are hard to come by.

That’s where Sir Richard Branson comes in with his plan to make space travel more affordable. His Virgin Galactic group plans to use the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane to carry passengers on a two-and-half-hour suborbital flight that will have them briefly pass into space, experience weightlessness for a few minutes and see stars without the twinkle our atmosphere gives them. At $200,000 a ticket, it’s far more affordable than the Russian space-tourist program. And with more than 500 prospective fliers already signed up—they pay a $20,000 deposit to guarantee their slot—and test flights ongoing, it’s on track for launch within the next few years.

So, what does this have to do with Las Vegas?

After testing is complete, Branson plans to fly SpaceShipTwo out of Spaceport America, which is in southern New Mexico. With Branson’s Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic flying more often out of Las Vegas (including the recent addition of three-times daily LAX-LAS service), it’s not out of this world to imagine that Las Vegas could be a conduit for travelers en route to Spaceport America.

What better place to work out the pre-flight jitters—or celebrate a once-in-a-lifetime experience?

For now, Branson’s focus is starting operations. “This is the year of Virgin Galactic,” he says. The first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo is scheduled for April 29, and a series of increasingly ambitious test flights are expected to lead to the first passenger flight in 2014.

Las Vegas isn’t presently slated for a spaceport of its own, but Branson sees a potential fit. “We’ve got other cities talking to Virgin about setting up spaceports,” he says. “And now that I think about it, Las Vegas is one we should be seriously thinking about.”

Indeed, it’s easy to see how Branson’s credo for Las Vegas air passenger service—“People shouldn’t wait to get to Vegas to start having fun”—would apply to suborbital sorties as well. And his plans for eventual point-to-point flights—think flying from New York to Australia at 8,000 miles per hour—would be a natural for Asia-to-Las Vegas routes.

How do Branson’s Galactic plans fit in with the bigger picture of space exploration? NASA doesn’t accept space tourists, but it does encourage private-sector companies to develop space tourism. “The nation’s space policy,” NASA spokesman Allard J. Beutel says, “is aimed at creating an environment where commercial space companies can build on past successes, allowing NASA to focus on the administration’s ambitious path for deep-space human exploration, which includes capturing an asteroid and sending astronauts to study it and ultimately to Mars. The increasing number of private U.S. companies attempting to push the boundaries of space shows the wisdom of that policy.”

But before we can definitively say that the policy is, indeed, wise, space tourism will have to become cheaper, easier and safer. As the home of Nellis Air Force Base, the closest neighbor of Area 51 and the headquarters of Bigelow Aerospace, Las Vegas should have a role in that process.

It’s a good cultural match, too. For decades, Nevada profited by letting people gamble when most other states thought it too dangerous to cater to their citizens’ deep-seated desires to play. We’re now well-positioned to serve the even more primal need to explore. Las Vegas once billed itself as the “Last Frontier”; it may evolve into a gateway to the final frontier.