View: The economy, not the sky, is the limit of space tourism

There would have been no better way to celebrate the 52nd anniversary of the first moon landing than this month’s series of space flights heralding a new era in space tourism. Flamboyant Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson and his crew – including Indo-American aeronautical engineer Sirisha Bandla – briefly tasted weightlessness and a breathtaking view of Earth as their Unity space plane took to the skies at 80 km above the New Mexico desert last Sunday.

Another cutting-edge technology was showcased on Tuesday as the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, took off into space from the West Texas desert in a crew capsule carried by a reusable rocket. . The launcher, developed by his company Blue Origin, is named New Shepard after Alan Shepard, the first American in space who made his historic suborbital – reaching the “edge” of the atmosphere, but lacking sufficient speed to actually enter orbit – flight on May 5, 1961.

The passengers in the capsule had spectacular views of Earth and experienced weightlessness for a few minutes before settling back into their seats for the re-entry dive and a parachute landing in the desert.

Next week, Boeing is flight-testing its unmanned Starliner, atop an Atlas booster, from Cape Canaveral. Unlike the suborbital jumps of Unity and New Shepard, Starliner will reach low Earth orbit (LEO) and dock with the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver supplies to NASA. After a week, he disembarks and returns to Earth, parachuting on land. Boeing plans to fly the first manned Starliner to the ISS later this year, offering NASA an alternative to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and possibly transporting space tourists for a price to the ISS.

Musk himself is planning several missions, including SpaceX’s first fully civilian LEO flight later this year, a trip to the moon with seven civilians in 2023, and a “Martian city” by 2050.

Whether it’s Musk’s vision for interplanetary travel, Branson’s ambitious spacecraft, or Bezos’ goal to install cities in Earth’s orbit, these space entrepreneurs share a common goal: to sell rocket towers to promote commercial space flights. Driven as much by mercantile instincts as by proud hopes of great adventure, this bodes well for space tourism, which had stagnated since the flight of the world’s first space tourist, American businessman Dennis Tito, on April 28, 2001.

Commercial space travel will undoubtedly enhance economies of scale in the space industry and ultimately create a viable space economy. But as companies gear up for multiple launches, the irony is that even today’s most advanced rockets can barely lift 4% of their launch weight in orbit – a ratio that has not changed. in 60 years of space flight.

Even if cheaper air-breathing engines are developed to enter the atmosphere, it would still cost a lot to put humans in orbit. Thus, heavy haulage capabilities as well as reusable launchers must be developed to ensure that these dazzling achievements are not hampered by hidden costs. Aren’t the Concorde supersonic airliner, arguably the best aircraft ever, destroyed by its high fuel consumption?

Poor economy aside, the risks inherent in space travel cannot be overstated. Although engineers leave nothing to chance when designing spacecraft and launchers, the rocket is always unpredictable. This danger increases exponentially when companies manage risk in a rush, to allow more and more people to go into space.

The prevailing idea is that the most important qualification for sightseeing beyond the stratosphere is the willingness to save a multi-million dollar check and a few days of training. But space tourists need to focus more on cardiovascular fitness than healthy bank accounts, and be carefully vetted and trained for space flight.

The Americans and Russians invariably chose fighter pilots for their first shots into space (as China does now), whose optimal physical fitness helped cope with the high gravitational forces during takeoff and reentry. in the air. Space travelers crossing the atmospheric threshold may be exposed to radiation peaks caused by solar flares, while the long-term effects of microgravity on space travelers are still unknown.

Notwithstanding evocative names like Unity and Blue Origin, rockets cause critical environmental damage. Hybrid rocket fuels, for example, produce carbon black which impacts the ozone layer and contributes to climate change. With no legal regulations anywhere to ensure responsible standards and practices on the part of private space companies, the sooner these issues are addressed the better, as bold entrepreneurship opens the last frontier for tourism. spatial.

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