Around a decade and a half before the explosion, the year 1972 marked a beginning and an end for space travel: It was the birth of the American space shuttle, and it was the last year a human walked on the moon. That year, the last of the Apollo program, polling showed that only 40 percent of Americans believed the program had been worth its hefty price tag. The cost-effective space shuttle, on the other hand, was seen as a sound investment. When President Nixon announced the shuttle in January 1972, he declared that the program “will give us routine access to space.” Unlike moon missions, which were strictly the provenance of astronauts, the shuttle flights—which Nixon described as “commutes”—open up the heavens to regular people.
The Challenger made history twice in 1983: first with the astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and later with the astronaut Guion Bluford, the first African American. Three years later, with McAuliffe on board, the shuttle was finally poised to deliver on its promise to carry civilians into space. “Teachers in Space” was the first of many similar programs NASA had planned: Tom Brokaw, Tom Wolfe, and even a 69-year-old Walter Cronkite were among the numerous applicants for “Journalist in Space,” and the agency was considering adding an “Artist in Space” program. The ultimate goal was to send two or three civilians each year—but when Challenger was torn apart, 30 years ago, the accident changed the face of spaceflight.
The disaster meant that NASA would no longer send regular people on the space shuttle. Civilian training at the Johnson Space Center came to a halt, and flights in the so-called “vomit comet,” an aircraft whose plummeting dips allow astronauts to experience weightlessness were canceled.
For many, however, the dream of everyday space travel lingered. In 2001, Dennis Tito paid a reported $20 million to become the first space tourist, entering Earth’s orbit in the company of Russian cosmonauts and spending eight days aboard the International Space Station. His groundbreaking flight made him the first in a string of space tourists, each paying between $20 million and $40 million and inadvertently helping to spark a new private space industry.
The burgeoning world of private spaceflight received a boost in 2011, when the U.S. retired its space-shuttle program. As a result, even a ride on Soyuz, the Russian Space Agency’s spacecraft, also went off the table, as any spare seats were needed to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station. Private industry was no longer the best way for civilians to get into space; it was the only way.
And recently, non-governmental spaceflight has made dramatic strides. In November 2015, Blue Origin, founded by the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, became the first company to successfully launch a reusable rocket, a feat scientists have long dreamed of (by recycling its expensive structure, the soft landing of a reusable rocket has the potential to significantly lower the costs of space travel). On January 22, Blue Origin did it a second time: The company’s New Shepard Rocket reached 333,582 feet above Earth before reigniting its boosters, hovering briefly above the ground, and then gently touching down on the launch pad.