Is space tourism worth it?

This month, space launches grabbed the headlines with a fervor reminiscent of NASA in its heyday of Apollo 11 and the moon landing. But unlike over 50 years ago, when these historic events took place, today’s stories focus on an entirely different group of people reaching the edge of space (and beyond): billionaire investors who funded their own space companies.

Each with their own purpose, SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) by Elon Musk, Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic by Richard Branson are advancing space technology and especially space tourism – the idea that ordinary citizens can visit the space as a tourist destination – at a rate never seen before.

But is space tourism a good thing that benefits humanity? Or is the current billionaire “space race” signaling the end of time as massive wealth is spent with no benefit to those with enough commas in their net worth?

The history of space tourism

Space tourism is in fact not a new concept or even a concept of the 21st century. NASA envisioned the possibility of space tourism in the 1970s. The earliest designs of the space shuttle (dating from 1979) included a configuration that would allow up to 74 passengers of cargo space for larger crews and even aircraft. tourist flights.

Some of the first non-government astronauts were actually sponsored by the company – talk about a professional benefit! These included Dr Ulf Merbold of Germany, MIT engineer Byron Lichtenberg, who both served as mission specialists on STS-9 in 1983, and McDonnell employee Douglas Charles Walker, who flew on STS-41-D in 1984.. This helped instill confidence in NASA’s Space Flight Participant program, of which Christa McAuliffe was to become the first astronaut and the first teacher in space. Unfortunately, the program – and the entire shuttle program – was delayed with the Challenger disaster of 1986.

Space tourism may have been postponed, but it has not been abandoned. At the turn of the century, self-made millionaires, including Bezos and Branson, both set out to start their own space businesses to provide tourism opportunities as NASA focused on government and research goals. Two decades later, the technology finally developed in such a way that the two companies – Bezos’ Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic – quickly launched their founders into the suborbital space.

Criticisms of space tourism

Space tourism was initially a hopeful concept, focused on improving the access of ordinary citizens to visiting space. However, the modern space tourism industry looks different, as early ticket sales by Virgin Galactic ranged from $ 200,000 to $ 250,000; Blue Origin hasn’t announced ticket prices, but it recently sold a seat for $ 28 million in a charity auction. This obviously costs access to space well outside the range of all but the ultra-rich; this is one of the main criticisms of space tourism today.

Part of the reason space flights are so expensive is that only a few people are transported at a time. “If you want to take the price from $ 250,000 to four digits, like an airline, you have to spread it over a lot more bodies,” Ron Epstein, aerospace analyst at Bank of America, told CNN. But it may be decades before companies get to this point. The cost of fuel and energy does not currently allow space travel to be offered to large numbers of people.

Another complaint is that the funds spent on space flights could be better spent elsewhere, for example to solve problems here on Earth. Alan Ladwig, author of “See You in Orbit? Our Dream of Spaceflight, ”says this comment is not without merit – or historical precedent since people have said the same about NASA. “There have been criticisms that money spent in space would be better applied to other societal needs. This has been a topic of debate for a range of space activities over the past 60 years and will not change. probably not regardless of what’s going on with space tourism, “he says. And several items we take for granted, like memory foam, insulin pumps, and scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses, come from NASA inventions.

Finally, space tourism (and launch technology in general) is criticized for its environmental impact. “The most frequently mentioned ‘damage’ concerns the pollution caused by the carbon black of certain spacecraft engines,” says Ladwig. “Virgin Galactic minimized this problem [saying its impact on climate change is minor and that it] also plans to invest in sustainable fuels for the future. Blue Origin engines rely on liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that burn as water vapor. However, critics note that electricity is still needed to make the fuels. “

At present, the number of flights to space is low, so carbon dioxide emissions are negligible compared to flights in airplanes. But what happens when that number increases? Virgin hopes to have 400 flights a year by the end of the decade, the Wall Street Journal reported. And unlike the other two companies, SpaceX will reach orbit when it takes four private citizens into space in September using its F9 rocket, which “calculations show that the equivalent of 395 transatlantic emissions flights of carbon, ”Phys.org reported.

Benefits of space tourism

Space tourism proponents say we don’t yet know what benefits can come out of going to space for recreation.

“Those who leave will have a transformational experience that will lead to new ways of thinking about our home planet, how they interact with others, and develop a commitment to improving life on Earth,” Ladwig said. “It remains to be seen what innovations, creations and advances in knowledge could result from new categories of space travelers, but expectations are high.”

What’s more, space tourism will be big business – both in space and on Earth: “A number of economic analysts have predicted that global space tourism could reach $ 1.7 billion by 2027. This would generate a significant number of new jobs and new capacities in emerging countries. the economy of space tourism, ”Ladwig explains.

It’s important to note that these launches are not one-off stunts. Some 600 people have been confirmed for Virgin Galactic flights in the future; the company hasn’t even sold tickets since late 2018 and has registered more than 8,000 interested potential buyers since then.

There is a long way to go from early and recent flights to a sustainable and widespread space tourism industry that more people can afford. “Historically, wealthy people have always been the first to embrace new businesses, adventures and transportation capabilities,” says Ladwig. “The ‘benefit’ of their participation is to demonstrate that the experience is valuable, is something people are willing to support and brings public attention to a new industry. “

It is only with this attention and funding that these companies – or their successors – hope to deliver extensive and mass-market responsive spaceflight, but it is an exciting prospect even if in the distant future.


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