Skip to main content

Space tourism took a giant leap in 2021: Here's 10 milestones from the year

The Inspiration4 crew poses for a selfie in the Crew Dragon cupola.
(Image credit: Inspiration4)

This year saw more space tourists fly to space on a bunch of different systems, and the story has only just begun. 

Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX each flew their first tourist-focused missions this year, sending aloft several people each with minimal training in professional spaceflight. Meanwhile, Roscosmos (the Russian federal space agency) brought two sets of space tourists into space, including a mission with Space Adventures.

With 2022 also set to be busy, between more tourist flights and the expected addition of company Axiom Space (using a SpaceX Crew Dragon), we rounded up some of the main milestones of 2021 below.

Video: Life on the International Space Station in 2021 (opens in new tab)

1) Axiom Space announces first crew for 2022

The four members of the Axiom Space Ax-1 crew: Michael Lopez-Alegria, former NASA astronaut, Axiom Space vice president and Ax-1 commander; Larry Connor, U.S. real estate entrepreneur and Ax-1 pilot; Mark Pathy, Canadian investor and philanthropist; and Eytan Stibbe, Israeli businessman and fighter pilot. (Image credit: collectSPACE.com)

Axiom Space revealed its clients Jan. 26 for its first privately-funded and operated mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Called Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1), the flight is arranged under a commercial agreement with NASA.

Slated to launch on a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft are Larry Connor, an American real estate and technology entrepreneur; Eytan Stibbe, a businessman and former Israeli fighter pilot; Mark Pathy, a Canadian investor and philanthropist; and Michael Lopez-Alegria, a retired NASA astronaut with nearly 260 days in space already across four missions.

In June, SpaceX and Axiom announced an agreement to fly three more missions to the orbiting complex after Ax-1. NASA officially cleared the Ax-1 crew for flight on Dec. 20.

2) Starship launches test flight and sticks the landing

After several attempts on previous test landing that didn't make it safely to landing, SpaceX's Starship SN-15 prototype launched its own test flight May 5 and made it all the way from takeoff to touchdown. 

The uncrewed test flight coincidentally fell on the 60th anniversary of the United States' first-ever crewed spaceflight, which saw NASA astronaut Alan Shepard make it to suborbital space. SpaceX has said it hopes to use Starship to branch out in the solar system, especially for crewed Mars missions.

3) Virgin Galactic launches Richard Branson

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson soars like Superman while in weightlessness during his Unity 22 launch on the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on July 11, 2021.

(Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

On July 11, Virgin Galactic launched its first operational tourist flight, featuring founder Richard Branson. It was "the experience of a lifetime," Branson said during a live broadcast of the flight. 

The four-person crew and two pilots of the Unity 22 test flight mission took off from the company's Spaceport America facility in New Mexico and flew just above the boundary of space, where everyone experienced about four minutes of weightlessness. 

Future flights of Virgin Galactic, though, have been delayed due to a Federal Aviation Administration investigation into a reported incident that happened during the spaceflight. That said, Virgin has opened up tickets again to paying spaceflyers, now at $450,000 apiece.

4) Blue Origin launches Jeff Bezos to space

Days after the Virgin flight, Blue Origin launched its first crewed spaceflight on July 20, featuring founder Jeff Bezos and a set of other three space tourists, including Mercury 13 aviator Wally Funk

Since the system flies autonomously, no pilots were required to be on board (although Funk is highly qualified as an aviator) as the New Shepard system lifted off from Blue Origin's Launch Site One near the West Texas town of Van Horn.

While Bezos and Branson denied their companies were in competition, the broadcast of Bezos' flight made several cutting remarks about the company flying above the Kármán line, an internationally recognized boundary of spaceflight that Virgin Galactic flights don't reach. 

Bezos also said in an interview in July that Blue Origin is not focused on competition, but building a "road to space." The company has adopted that catchphrase as a tagline and repeats it frequently during live broadcasts.

5) SpaceX stacks tallest booster ever with Starship

SpaceX's first orbital Starship SN20 is stacked atop its massive Super Heavy Booster 4 for the first time on Aug. 6, 2021 at the company's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas. They stood 395 feet tall, taller than NASA's Saturn V moon rocket.

SpaceX's first orbital Starship SN20 is stacked atop its massive Super Heavy Booster 4 for the first time on Aug. 6, 2021 at the company's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas. They stood 395 feet tall, taller than NASA's Saturn V moon rocket. (Image credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX's newest Starship prototype (SN-20) perched on its massive Super Heavy booster for the first time on Friday (Aug. 6), briefly setting a new record for the world's tallest rocket during preparations for an orbital mission.

The hour-long fit check brought the stack to 395 feet tall (120 m), taller than NASA's massive Saturn V moon rocket, which was 363 feet tall (110 m). Super Heavy alone stands 230 feet (70 meters) tall and Starship SN4 includes another 165 feet (50 m) of height. 

The next major milestone for Starship is the orbital launch that may take place in 2022, pending an environmental review by the Federal Aviation Administration and related government groups. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has pushed back launch estimates several times due to the review.

6) Inspiration4 launches 4 civilians on first orbital mission

Billionaire Jared Isaacman's privately chartered spaceflight launched on Sept. 15, 2021 aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, flying high in Earth orbit on a nearly three-day mission. Inspiration4 was the first crewed orbital mission with no professional astronauts on board (as the Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights preceding it were all suborbital missions.)

Isaacman, a pilot, commanded the flight and was accompanied by physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux, data engineer Chris Sembroski, and geoscientist and science communication specialist Sian Proctor. Sembroski and Proctor won their seats in contests to support St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, while Arceneaux is employed at that hospital.

Resilience and its crew circled Earth for three days, splashing down off the Florida coast on Sept. 18. The mission exceeded its fundraising goal for St. Jude.

7) Blue Origin launches William Shatner

A "Star Trek" star boldly went into suborbital space Oct. 13 on Blue Origin's second crewed space mission, called NS-18. William Shatner, 90, is best known for playing Captain James T. Kirk on "Star Trek: The Original Series."

"That was unlike anything they described," Shatner was heard saying via a radio link as the capsule parachuted back to Earth, after carrying him and three other crew members to suborbital space.

Shatner is now the oldest person to have ever flown to space, beating the record set by Wally Funk, 82, who flew on Blue Origin's first crewed flight July 20. Crew member Glen de Vries died in a plane crash weeks after the flight and Blue Origin dedicated their next crewed mission in December to him.

8) Russian film crew shoots drama on ISS

Russian actress Yulia Peresild (center), director Klim Shipenko (second from right) and cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy (right) bid farewell to their Russian crewmates Anton Shkaplerov (second from left) and Pyotr Dubrov before returning to Earth on Oct. 17, 2021.

Russian actress Yulia Peresild (center), director Klim Shipenko (second from right) and cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy (right) bid farewell to their Russian crewmates Anton Shkaplerov (second from left) and Pyotr Dubrov before returning to Earth on Oct. 17, 2021. (Image credit: Roscosmos/Anton Shkaplerov via Twitter)

Just days after Shatner's ride to space, a Russian film crew including actress Yulia Peresild and producer Klim Shipenko landed with cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy of the Russian federal space corporation Roscosmos on Oct. 17.

"Вызов" ("Challenge" in English) is the movie in production. It follows the fictional story of a surgeon (Peresild) who is launched to the station to perform emergency surgery on a cosmonaut (Novitskiy, who would play the role well given he is a cosmonaut in real life.)

The effort is a joint production of Roscosmos, the Russian television station Channel One and the studio Yellow, Black and White. Given the small crew on hand in space, Shipenko took on several behind-the-scenes roles, including director, make-up artist, sound editor and cinematographer. 

9) Blue Origin launches 'Good Morning America' host to space

Blue Origin's next (and likely last) crewed flight of 2021 filled out all six seats in the New Shepard spacecraft during a successful launch and landing Dec. 11. The starring guest was Michael Strahan, host of "Good Morning America", who is a retired football player. (The crew threw mini-footballs in space to celebrate his past career.)

Strahan said the experience was amazing. "I want to go back," he told Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos after returning to Earth. "Touchdown has a new meaning now!!!" he wrote on Twitter (opens in new tab) after the flight.

Also on the flight was Laura Shepard Churchley, 74, the daughter of NASA astronaut Shepard after whom the New Shepard system is named, and four other individuals who paid for their seats. Blue Origin has not yet released per-seat pricing for customers, and we are also awaiting details on their next planned crew launch.

10) Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa flies to ISS

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa entered the International Space Station on Dec. 8, 2021. (Image credit: NASA TV)

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, video producer Yozo Hirano and cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin launched on Dec. 8 to the International Space Station for a 12-day mission to the orbiting lab.

Maezawa is also planning to fly around the moon on a SpaceX mission that he paid for, tentatively slotted for 2023, but chose to visit the space station as well on a mission brokered by the U.S. space tourism company Space Adventures with Russia's Roscosmos space agency. It was not revealed how much Maezawa paid for the flight, but single seats in the past have cost up to $35 million. And Maezawa bought two seats, one for himself and for Hirano, who recorded videos of Maezawa in space.

Maezawa, the CEO of Start Today and the founder of online clothing retailer ZOZO, bought the seats for himself and Hirano. Hirano documented the mission and participate in some health and performance research. They also made the first Uber Eats delivery in space on the flight. The trio returned to Earth on Dec. 19.

And that's a wrap at the biggest space tourism moments in 2021. The year 2022 is expected to bring more milestones as the company Axiom Space plans to launch its first fully private crew to the International Space Station early in the year, with SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic all expected to continue their private spaceflight pace. 

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.