(CNN) — On April 30, 2001, US millionaire Dennis Tito arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) via a Russian Soyuz rocket, becoming the world’s first space tourist.
For Tito, then 60, it was the culmination of a dream he’d held since he was a young man, one he’d shelled out a cool $20 million for to make a reality.
Billionaire Virgin CEO Richard Branson is now set to follow in his footsteps. On July 11, Branson is due to blast off into suborbital space via his company Virgin Galactic.
Reflecting on his momentous journey two decades on, Tito is gleeful when describing the moment the rocket first went into orbit.
“I was euphoric. I mean, it was the greatest moment of my life, to achieve a life objective, and I knew then that nothing could ever beat this.”
In the 20 years since Tito vacationed in space, only a handful of other — uber wealthy — tourists have followed in his footsteps, but companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are banking on the next big vacation destination being out of this world, and working to make that a reality in the not-so-distant future.
Tito has been keenly keeping an eye on updates in the space tourism field — he says he hopes many others will one day be able to experience the thrill of a trip to space.
“I just wish them the best,” he says. “I am hopeful they will have the wonderful experience that 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 his history-making trip in 2001, he was working in finance, but he’d started his career in aeronautics and astronautics.
Tito had been fascinated by space ever since he was a kid, and reckons he was paving the way for a space sojourn even then.
“When I flew in 2001, it wasn’t just someone [saying], ‘Oh I want to go become 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 aeronautics arena, Tito continued to dream of his own space flight.
Dennis Tito, first space tourist
NASA had long opposed the idea of sending civilians to space, but in 1991, shortly before the collapse of the USSR, Tito started talking to the Soviet Union about joining a space mission as a ticket-paying citizen.
He recommenced these conversations later that decade.
“In the late ’90s, the Russians were really hurting for funding of this space program and the bottom line was, I figured out, ‘Huh, maybe I could get involved with the Russians.'”
Fast-forward to April 28, 2001, and a Russian Soyuz spaceship lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with Tito on board, alongside two Russian cosmonauts. Tito spent the next week on board the ISS.
“It was eight days of euphoria,” he says.
“I just enjoyed looking at the window, videoing the earth, the portholes, the station. It was just wonderful,” Tito recalls.
“It just was — whatever I had expected, the best I had expected times 10. It was the best experience of my whole life, those eight days.”
The current state of play
Since Tito’s historic flight, seven other private citizens have traveled to space, also coughing up millions to do so.
Each of these trips was organized via space tourism agency Space Adventures, with travelers transported on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS.
There haven’t been any space tourists since 2009, which Space Adventures’ representative Stacey Tearne puts down to the fact the US Space Shuttle program was retired, leaving Russian Soyuz craft as the only option for getting to and from the ISS.
Tearne tells CNN Travel that Space Adventures is confident the landscape will change again.
“In the future, we anticipate multiple providers and vehicles,” she says. “Once there is competition in the marketplace, there will be competitive pricing.”
Deep-pocketed travelers 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 following a test flight — once it starts 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’ll still have the option to sell seats aboard their spacecraft to anyone who can afford them.
Orbital space tourism
US company SpaceX is planning orbital trips to space later in 2021, via its Crew Dragon aircraft, pictured here in May 2020, not long before becoming the first commercial spaceship to send NASA astronauts to space.
SpaceX via Getty Images
Not all space tourism is equal.
There’s a marked difference between a trip to orbital space — involving gravity-busting high-speed takeoffs and longer durations — and suborbital space, in which travelers are briefly exposed to weightlessness and views of space during a flight to the edge of the atmosphere, 60 miles above Earth.
US company SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk with the goal of eventually flying humans to Mars, is perhaps the biggest hitter in the orbital space tourism arena.
Billionaire Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman, who’ll be one of those on board, is funding the trip.
Arceneaux is set to be the youngest American to visit space, and the first person with a prosthesis to journey into space. Arceneaux, Isaacman and the rest of the crew are currently undergoing training for the journey, which is set to last several days.
Now 80, Dennis Tito isn’t sure if a return to space is in his future, but he’s excited about movements in the orbital space tourism field.
“I’d love to be one of the first people to go with Starship to land on Mars, if I was physically capable,” he says.
He figures they’ll probably go for a younger crew.
“But I can fantasize about it,” says Tito.
Suborbital space tourism
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been working on suborbital space tourism projects for some time, selling tickets at $250,000 a pop for the past several years.
Branson will be on board the company’s milestone test flight on July 11, alongside two pilots and four other Virgin Galactic employees.
Virgin Galactic hopes these suborbital space flights will be available for paying members of the public by 2022.
Also setting its sights on suborbital space tourism is Blue Origin which is set to launch founder Jeff Bezos to the edge of space on July 20. Also on board will be be Bezos’ brother and the as-yet-unnamed winner of a charity auction, who bid $28 million for a ticket.
NASA scientist: ‘You’re not going to be able to keep people away’
Jeffrey A. Hoffman, a former NASA astronaut who now works in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says he’s “very enthusiastic” about space tourism as a concept.
“I am 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 tells CNN Travel.
Hoffman describes looking back at the Earth from space as being a reminder that “we’re all in it together.”
“Getting 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, says Hoffman. He says the feeling of weightlessness, which is hard to imagine for those of us who’ve remained Earthbound, is incredibly pleasant.
“It’s being in a state of elation the whole time, your body feels so incredible, different,” he says.
“So I think a lot of people — when the word gets back and these initial travelers tell their tales — you’re not going to 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’s hopeful that the historically astronomical cost of space tourism will come down as demand increases, and the projects in development become a working 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 do tend to trickle down.”
Hoffman suggests the main roadblock to space tourism — aside from cost — will be safety fears.
In 2014, a test pilot was killed during a Virgin Galactic test flight, while SpaceX and Blue Origin test rockets have exploded, with no injuries.
Hoffman says that, as with air travel, there will always be risk of accidents, but a consistent safety record will help get the concept off the ground.
While the launch dates of many of space tourism concepts have been pushed back several times, Hoffman is confident this year could be significant.
Would he consider returning to space as a tourist?
The space expert says he’s often invited on cruise ships to give talks about his work, and he’s hoping similar opportunities might one day exist on space trips.
“If someone invited me to come into orbit, and or even go up on a three-minute flight as an experienced astronaut and share the stories that would be great,” says Hoffman.
“On the other hand, if I were in possession of $200 million, I’m not sure I would spend it on just another week in space, because I have been there. But I would love to go back.”
Speaking of cruises, in 2019, Californian company the Gateway Foundation released plans for a cruise ship-style hotel designed to orbit the Earth’s atmosphere.
Voyager Station, comprised of 24 modules connected by elevator shafts that make up a rotating wheel orbiting Earth, is set to 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 perks of being in space — there are plans to serve space food, and organize recreational activities like “space basketball.”
SpaceX’s Starship system could help get Voyager Station off the ground.
“I think the goal of Stanley Kubrick was to highlight the divide between technology and humanity and so, purposefully, he made the stations and the ships very sterile and clean and alien.”
Rather than the typical image of space — astronauts in space suits floating in cramped quarters — the team behind the space hotel want to create a luxury hotel that wouldn’t look out of place on Earth, just with some pretty out-of-this-world 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,” says Blinclow.
CNN Business’ Jackie Wattles contributed to this report