Space tourism is all yours, for a hefty price
Alright, so it’s a new era, but what does it mean? Do these forays represent a future in which even the average person could book a celestial flight and bask in the splendor of Earth from above? Or is this just another way for the ultra-rich to show off their money while simultaneously ignoring and exacerbating our existential problems on the ground? Almost all of these 2021 escapades were the result of the efforts of three billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Branson is only a single-digit billionaire, while Bezos and Musk have wealth measured in the hundreds of billions.
“The greatly undue influence of wealth in this country – for me, that’s at the heart of my issues with space tourism as it’s unfolding,” says Linda Billings, a communications researcher who consults for NASA and has writing on the societal impacts of spaceflight for over 30 years. “We’re so far from making this available to your so-called average person.”
Each seat on Virgin’s suborbital spaceplane, the cheapest way to go to space at the moment, will cost someone $450,000. A single seat on Blue Origin’s initial suborbital launch auctioned for $28 million, and the undisclosed price of SpaceX’s all-civilian Inspiration4 mission, which spent three days in orbit before crashing offshore of Florida, was estimated at $50 million. per passenger.
Not only are these thefts ridiculously out of financial reach for the average person, Billings says, they serve no real purpose — far from ideal given our earthly problems of inequality, environmental collapse and global pandemic. “We really don’t learn anything,” she says. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of thought or awareness among the people engaged in these space tourism missions.”
Laura Forczyk, owner of space consultancy Astralytical, thinks it’s wrong to focus strictly on the financial aspect. “The narrator [last year] I was a billionaire in space, but it’s so much more than that,” says Forczyk, who wrote the book. Become out of the worldpublished in January, in which she interviewed government and private astronauts about why they go to space.
Forczyk sees the flights as great opportunities to conduct scientific experiments. The three commercial tourism companies have conducted research projects in the past, studying things like fluid dynamics, plant genetics and the human body’s response to microgravity. And yes, the wealthy are the target audience, but SpaceX’s Inspiration4 passengers included artist and scientist Sian Proctor and data engineer Chris Sembroski, who won their tickets through contests, as well as the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Ambassador Hayley Arceneaux (the trip helped her raise $200 million in donations for the hospital). Blue Origin offered free trips to aviation pioneer Wally Funk, who as a woman was barred from becoming an Apollo astronaut, and Laura, the daughter of NASA astronaut Alan Shepard.
Forczyk also quotes Iranian space tourist Anousheh Ansari, who flew to the ISS in 2006. “She told how she grew up in a war zone in Iran, and how [the flight] helped her see the world as interconnected,” says Forczyk.
Billings thinks the value of such testimonials is quite low. “All of these people are telling the press about the wonderful experience they had,” she says. “But listening to someone else tell you how exciting it was to climb Mount Everest doesn’t convey the actual experience.”
As with an Everest trek, there is the risk of death to consider. Historically, spaceflight has had a fatality rate of just under 4%, or about 266,000 times higher than commercial aircraft. Virgin suffered two major disasters during testing, killing a total of four employees and injuring four others. “A high-profile accident will come; it’s unavoidable,” says Forczyk. But even that, she predicts, won’t end space tourism. People continue to climb Everest, she notes, despite the danger.