(CNN) – On April 30, 2001, American millionaire Dennis Tito arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) via a Russian Soyuz rocket and became the world’s first space tourist.
For Tito, then 60 years old, it was the culmination of a dream he had had since he was a young man, one for which he had paid a whopping $ 20 million to make it a reality.
Reflecting on the journey two decades further, Tito is happy when he describes the moment the rocket first went into orbit.
“I was euphoric. I mean, it was the biggest moment of my life to achieve a life goal, and I knew then that nothing could ever beat this.”
In the 20 years since Tito vacationed in space, only a handful of other – affluent affluent – tourists have followed in his footsteps, but companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are knocking that the next major vacation destination is out of this world, and working to make it a reality in the not so distant future.
Tito has been closely following updates in the space field – he says he hopes many others will one day be able to experience the excitement of a trip to space.
“I wish them only the best,” he says. “I am hopeful that they will have the wonderful experience I had.”
‘The best experience of my whole life’
Dennis Tito, pictured here after landing back on Earth in May 2001, was the world’s first space tourist.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV / AFP via Getty Images
When Tito embarked on the history tour in 2001, he worked in economics, but he had started his career in aviation and astronautics.
Tito had been fascinated by space ever since he was little, and reckons that he paved the way for a space stay even then.
“When I flew in 2001, it was not just anyone [saying], ‘Oh, I want to be famous and fly in space.’ This was a goal I set in 1961, he says.
“I was fascinated by it as a young person,” says Tito.
Later, when he changed careers and no longer worked in the aviation arena, Tito continued to dream of his own spaceflight.
Dennis Tito, first space tourist
NASA had long opposed the idea of sending civilians into space, but in 1991, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tito began talking to the Soviet Union about joining a space mission as a ticket-paying citizen.
He resumed these talks later that decade.
“In the late ’90s, the Russians really hurt the funding of this space program, and the bottom line was, I figured,’ Huh, maybe I could get involved with the Russians. “
Fast forward to April 28, 2001, and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with Tito on board, along with two Russian cosmonauts. Tito spent the next week aboard the ISS.
“It was eight days of euphoria,” he says.
“I just enjoyed looking at the window, filming the earth, the bunks, the station. It was just amazing,” Tito recalls.
“It was just – what I had expected, the best I had expected times 10. It was the best experience of my whole life, the eight days.”
The current state of the game
Since Tito’s historic flight, seven other private citizens have traveled to space and hosted millions to do so.
Each of these trips was organized through the space agency Space Adventures, with travelers transported by Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS.
There have been no space tourists since 2009, with Space Adventures’ representative Stacey Tearne assuming that the US Space Shuttle program was retired, leaving Russian Soyuz craft as the only option to get to and from the ISS.
Tearne tells CNN Travel that Space Adventures is confident that the landscape will change again.
“In the future, we expect more suppliers and vehicles,” she says. “When there is competition in the market, there will be competitive prices.”
Travelers with deep pockets will be able to book a seat on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft – seen here after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico in December 2019 after a test flight – when it begins flying to the ISS.
Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images
NASA helped fund the development of Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, but both companies remain privately owned, so they will still have the opportunity to sell seats on board the spacecraft to anyone who can afford them.
Orbital space tourism
The American company SpaceX is planning orbits to space later in 2021 via its Crew Dragon aircraft, pictured here in May 2020, not long before it became the first commercial spacecraft to send NASA astronauts into space.
SpaceX via Getty Images
Not all space tourism is the same.
There is a marked difference between a trip to orbital space – involving gravity-boosting high-speed uptake and longer duration – and the suborbital space, where travelers are briefly exposed to weightlessness and views of space during a flight to the edge of the atmosphere, 60 miles above the earth.
The American company SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk with the goal of eventually flying humans to Mars, is perhaps the biggest hitter on the path of space tourism.
Billionaire Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman, who will be one of them on board, is financing the trip.
Arceneaux is set to be the youngest American to visit space, and the first person with a prosthesis to travel into space. Arceneaux, Isaacman and the rest of the crew are currently undergoing training for the trip, which will last for several days.
Now 80 years old, Dennis Tito is not sure if there will be a return to space in his future, but he is excited about movements in the orbital space tourism field.
“I would like to be one of the first to go with Starship to land on Mars, if I was physically fit,” he says.
He reckons they will probably go for a younger crew.
“But I can fantasize about it,” says Tito.
Suborbital space tourism
Meanwhile, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been working on suborbital space projects for some time, selling tickets for $ 250,000 per pop in recent years. When the company finally reaches this milestone, Branson hopes to be one of Virgin’s space tourists.
NASA scientist: ‘You will not be able to keep people away’
Jeffrey A. Hoffman, a former NASA astronaut who now works in MIT’s Department of Aviation and Astronautics, says he is “very enthusiastic” about space tourism as a concept.
“I’m excited about the idea that many, many more people will be able to experience being in space, and hopefully bring back to Earth a new sense of their relationship with our planet,” Hoffman told CNN Travel.
Hoffman describes looking back at Earth from space as a reminder that “we are all in it.”
“Getting this idea of the earth as a finite system, and as a planet, is crucial to our survival as a species,” he says.
Not only that, being in the room is fun, says Hoffman. He says that the feeling of weightlessness, which is difficult to imagine for those of us who have remained grounded, is incredibly pleasant.
“It’s in an exhilaration all the time, your body feels so amazing, different,” he says.
“So I think a lot of people – when the word comes back and these first travelers tell their stories – you will not be able to keep people away.”
Hoffman describes Tito’s 2001 flight as “breaking the ice” and marking “the beginning of a new era of space travel.”
He hopes that the historical astronomical costs of space tourism will come down as demand increases and projects under development become a functioning reality.
Jeffrey A. Hoffman, former NASA astronaut and MIT professor
“When 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 gradually things tend to trickle down.”
Hoffman suggests that the most important barrier to space tourism – apart from costs – will be security fears.
In 2014, a test pilot was killed during a Virgin Galactic test flight, while SpaceX and Blue Origin test rockets exploded without damage.
Hoffman says that, as with flights, there will always be a risk of accidents, but a consistent safety record will help get the concept off the ground.
While the launch dates for many of the space tourism concepts have been pushed back several times, Hoffman is confident that this year could be significant.
Would he consider returning to space as a tourist?
The space expert says that he is often invited on cruise ships to give lectures about his work, and he hopes that similar opportunities may one day exist on space trips.
“If someone invited me to get on orbit, or even embark on a three-minute flight as an experienced astronaut and share stories that would be great,” Hoffman says.
“On the other hand, if I had $ 200 million, I’m not sure I would spend it in just one week in space, because I’ve been there. But I’d like to go back.”
Speaking of cruises, in 2019, the California-based company Gateway Foundation announced plans for a cruise ship-style hotel designed to orbit the Earth’s atmosphere.
Voyager Station, which consists of 24 modules connected by elevator shafts that form a rotating wheel orbiting the earth, will be built by Orbital Assembly Corporation, a new construction company run by former pilot John Blincow.
The hotel hopes to highlight some of the fun benefits of being in space – there are plans to serve space food and organize leisure activities such as “space basketball”.
SpaceX’s Starship system can help get Voyager Station off the ground.
“I think the goal of Stanley Kubrick was to highlight the distinction between technology and humanity, and then he made the stations and ships very sterile and clean and foreign.”
Instead of the typical space – astronauts in spacesuits floating in cramped quarters – the team behind the space hotel wants to create a luxury hotel that does not look out of place on earth, with only a few outside of this world’s views.
“We’re trying to make the public realize that this golden age of space travel is just around the corner. It’s coming. It’s coming fast,” Blinclow said.
CNN Business’ Jackie Wattles contributed to this report