US-based international space tourism agency SpaceVIP is launching operations in the Middle East – a move that will also have beneficial implications for the Sultanate of Oman in light of the Omani government’s plans to kickstart the development of a domestic space industry.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Transport Communications and Information Technology unveiled an ambitious executive space policy and industry programme with a heavy emphasis on space tourism in Oman.
The Observer spoke to Roman Chiporukha, co-founder of SpaceVIP, about his plans for the region.
When Axiom Space, a Houston-based company operating missions to the International Space Station (ISS), approached Roman Chiporukha, co-owner of SpaceVIP, with a proposal to promote its trips to the ISS in 2018, Roman didn’t know much about space.
However, following the success of the mission in 2022 which marked the first fully private crew trip to the station, SpaceVIP emerged.
“SpaceVIP was founded to inspire the next generation of private astronauts... It seems that a lot of us don't really know that most of the technology and innovation that we take for granted actually comes from space technology. So we've taken it upon ourselves to first educate the public, and then give them the opportunity to experience all of these truly unique and enriching opportunities that are related to space,” shared Chiporukha.
The space tourism agency, which launched its operations in the Middle East this month, offers various space and space adjacent experiences.
Space enthusiasts can opt for various experiences at different price points.
The lowest of which are “earth” based experiences which include analog lunar or Martian research missions, where individuals get to experience the environment of that planet, zero-gravity trips where you can float in a cabin and experience zero gravity felt by astronauts in space, and various astronaut training simulations.
Space enthusiasts can also opt for sub-orbital and orbital experiences, such as a trip a on a stratospheric space balloon onboard Space Perspective’s Neptune Capsule that will travel over the world in a luxury cabin with Wi-Fi and refreshments , an orbital trip around earth or the moon , or even a trip to the International Space Station! So why would anyone go for any of these experiences? Like the majority of us, Chiporukha believes that it’s due to the novelty of the experience, however he also believes it’s partly in search of a greater meaning.
“I think some people are like, oh, this balloon looks really cool. Can I have a famous chef cook dinner on it? And then other people are like, oh, this is really cool. My sister-in-law died of cancer five years ago, what sort of cancer research are they doing in space? I would like to pair my experience up there with doing something meaningful and altruistic.” “So I would say it's probably 40% cool factor and then 60% thinking about something meaningful and worthwhile,” added Chiporukha.
So what do these experiences have in common? Chiporukha believes that it is the overview effect.
“The overview effect is the feeling that you get when you as a resident of this planet see the Earth from space, it's been cataloged by every single astronaut that has been in space,” he explained.
“And all of them talk about it in separate but very similar veins that when you see the Earth from space, you have this incredible sense of interconnectedness. Because you don’t see the world like you and I see the world on a Google map right with borders and dogmas and conflict and nonsense. You just see like this beautiful blue planet and you want to [protect it], it's almost like seeing, you know, a child or a baby of some sort. And so I think the overview effect is a really interesting phenomenon that might actually be a catalyst for greater human change,” he added.
SpaceVIP’s operations are not limited to space experiences only. In 2021, the agency launched Space Prize, a non-profit organization to empower young women in the space industry. According to non-proift, less than 12% of 600 people who have traveled to space were women.
According to Chiporukha, the non-profit holds space related writing competitions where winners get to experience zero gravity flights and get paired with successful mentors in the STEM community. In addition to donating space observation equipment to schools, and providing a free online space literacy curriculum which Chiporukha believes is suitable for all ages.
“[The curriculum] is meant to be interactive, and really educational. And you know, my wife read it the other day. And she goes, "This isn't just for junior high school and high school kids, this is for adults who have no idea but are interested to learn about space.” “So space prize is really, really meaningful, and has been a really big focus of our work while we wait for all of these other experiences to come online, so people can actually start going.” Unfortunately, none of the experiences take place in the Middle East currently. However, Chiporukha is a firm believer in the region’s potential. This January, National Aerospace Services Company ( Nascom) announced plans of building a rocket launch center in Duqm, a first of its kind in the Middle East. And last year, the Public Authority for Special Economic Zones and Free Zones (OPAZ) signed an agreement to establish a space settlement center in Duqm on Oman’s southeast. Chiporukha believes that increased interest in the space industry and space technology might make space tourism in the Middle East a reality.