Space tourism industry stuck in billionaire phase

Richard Branson’s extravagant space getaway on Sunday marked the dawn of a new space age – for the few who can afford it. Jeff Bezos is set to leave for a similar excursion next Tuesday when he soars into space with three other people on the first crewed flight of his company Blue Origin. The two billionaires validate their business tourism rockets and, they say, fulfill lifelong dreams to get a brief glimpse into space.

But what the Virgin Galactic mission on Sunday proved, and what Bezos’ flight will similarly show, is that space is almost open, not for you and me or the general public, but for more billionaires.

Opening up the cosmos to the masses and normalizing space travel is a goal that companies and their billionaire backers have been striving for for years but have yet to achieve. There is economic potential beyond launching the rich into space: microgravity research for scientists and – a much more distant goal – rapid transport between continents. This is the vision they are selling with these flashy flights; Once the preserve of government astronauts, space travel could also be something for everyone.

“It’s the dream, isn’t it?” This space is no longer just for NASA, ”said Kathy Lueders, head of NASA human spaceflight who oversaw the development of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon astronaut capsule, at a press conference. in April. “I mean, I think that’s what we’re trying to do … what we were hoping is that you would hopefully have so many customers that at some point the price would be to make it. accessible. It’s hard at first.

In this start-up phase, flying in space is only priced for the ultra-rich, due to the high costs of new space technologies. The launch of Richard Branson by Virgin Galactic represented one of the last key test missions to validate its brilliant six-seat spaceplane, SpaceShipTwo, but it was also a meticulously crafted marketing event, complete with flashy promotional videos, keynote speeches. inspirations and a pop concert, all designed to attract more attention and more customers.

Virgin Galactic guests at Spaceport America watch Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo space plane take off under its carrier plane
Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP via Getty Images

To live their own version of Branson’s dream, customers will have to pay at least $ 250,000 for a seat (the company already has around 600 booked passengers). And right now, the price of a quarter of a million dollars is the cheapest option on the market. The price of a seat on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket could be higher. And if you want to go into orbit for a few days, a ride on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will set you back at least $ 55 million (that could be higher, too; SpaceX has not publicly confirmed the actual price).

While Branson and Bezos’ flights into space mark key moments for their space tourism businesses, the space industry is far from being able to offer its services to the rest of the public. To get there, they will have to overcome several obstacles: Can these rockets reliably fly humans on multiple missions without a hitch? If there is a hitch, like a fatal accident, can the market survive a damaged reputation? And can someone buy a ticket for space just like they can book an expensive flight (instead of just the ultra-rich)?

Then there is the court of public opinion, which can be difficult to conquer. The space ambitions of Bezos, Branson and Elon Musk have been criticized as yet another example of billionaires spending money on passionate projects when there are places and causes where those funds could arguably be better spent. The United States alone struggles with vast inequalities in wealth, limited access to health care, and a rapidly changing climate, among other issues that, associated with space tourism, make activity insulting and selfish to many. . Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), one of the top critics of billionaires, reiterated this point as the race for private space intensifies. “Here on Earth, in the richest country on the planet, half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck, people struggle to eat, struggle to see a doctor – but hey, richest guys in the world are in space !, ”he tweeted in March.

“I can understand that,” Branson says of criticisms like that of Senator Sanders, speaking on The late show with Stephen Colbert on July 14. “But I think they may not be fully informed of what space does for Earth.” Branson, like other space advocates, points to technologies that investments in space have helped propel into the mainstream, such as hard-wired GPS capabilities in smartphones, weather tracking services, or research and communication. modeling of climate change from satellites in low earth orbit. Many of these investments came from public funds – it is still unclear what spin-off developments might emerge from the still nascent private space tourism industry.

As long as the space industry depends on billionaire funds for spaceships built for billionaire (and millionaire) clients, the perception that this is a hobby for the ultra-rich will inevitably remain. “We have to face the fact that billionaires who are trying to make more money are currently the public face of the space industry,” said Brian Weeden, director of the Secure World Foundation.

SpaceX Falcon-9 Rocket and Crew Dragon capsule launches from Cape Canaveral sending astronauts to the International Space Station

Elon Musk celebrates in NASA’s vehicle assembly building after SpaceX launches its first astronaut crew into space
Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Putting faces on infant industries is not unusual in itself. Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean alone, has helped propel commercial aviation since its beginnings in the 1920s and 1930s. Same thing with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates at the dawn of the computer. office at the end of the 20th century.

These industries also had skeptics and critics. The United States was skeptical of the first planes built by the Wright brothers, and senior military officials dismissed aviation as a fad. “Any man who sticks to it is either crazy or a hell of a fool,” said US Admiral William A. Moffett, who later adopted aviation as part of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics. And in 1943, when computers were gigantic, room-sized objects, IBM president Thomas Watson scoffed at their potential: “I think there is a global market for maybe. five computers.

Thefts have become commonplace. Computers have become cheaper and more widely used. And with each phase of the computer’s evolution, people have found new ways to use them as they have become accessible to more markets and a wider range of consumers, notes Carissa Christensen, CEO of BryceTech, a technology and space industry analysis company.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos presents The Blue Origin New Shepard System

Jeff Bezos presents Blue Origin’s New Shepard system in 2017

“There will be a pretty steep learning curve as companies move from the process of developing a capability and testing it to running it on a routine basis,” Christensen said. It is possible that space tourism will follow the same path as computers or airplanes, but there is no guarantee that it will be successful. Part of that is because there is no one-size-fits-all solution to lowering the cost of launching people into space. Virgin Galactic earlier this year unveiled a new version of SpaceShipTwo designed for rapid production rates, signaling that it is preparing to face its large backlog and reopen ticket sales, which have been closed for a long time. fatal accident in 2014 during a test flight. (Branson’s presence on Sunday’s flight also visually reassured customers of the ship’s safety.) Musk is focusing on improving rocket fuel efficiency with SpaceX’s spacecraft, a fully reusable launch system in development. to reduce the cost of sending humans into space.

But again, what exactly these next-generation awards will remain a mystery. Musk did not say how much it would cost potential passengers to fly Starship. And Virgin Galactic has not said how much it plans to charge for tickets for its new space plane, SpaceShipThree, as has Blue Origin, which has not disclosed its New Shepard prices.

Currently, you either have to be talented (chosen by a billionaire) or be lucky to book a ride on one of these rockets without paying top dollar. Raffling tickets, as Virgin Galactic plans to do, and giving seats to space enthusiasts who can’t afford them, perpetuates the public’s dream of standardized, low-cost space travel while the industry is struggling to find the right recipe for lowering prices. “I think in any competitive market you’re going to see the products improve and / or the prices go down,” added Christensen.

The competition is only just beginning and other companies are getting into space tourism. Texas-based Axiom Space plans to build a private space station and organize private rides on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsules. A new rocket in development by Rocket Lab, the California-based launch company that plans to go public, is designed to launch humans into space in the future. Boeing’s Starliner capsule is also designed to transport private astronauts to the space station.

At the moment, it’s unclear which one will succeed – if any of them do. For now, space tourism is still in a phase controlled by billionaire money. Whether or not the industry can get out of the show and become something more mature will depend less on Bezos or Branson fulfilling their childhood dreams of flying in space and more on reducing the cost of building rockets – and the price we pay to steal. them.

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