This month, space launches have grabbed the headlines with a fervor reminiscent of NASA in its glory days of Apollo 11 and the moon landing. But unlike 50-plus years ago when those historic events took place, today's stories focus on an entirely different group of people reaching to the edge of space (and beyond): billionaire investors who have funded their own space companies.
Each with its own objective, Elon Musk's SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies), Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic are pushing progress in space technology and especially space tourism – the idea that ordinary citizens can visit space as a tourist destination – at a pace not seen before.
But is space tourism a good thing that benefits humankind? Or does the current billionaire "space race" signal the end of times as massive wealth is spent with no benefit to any but those with enough commas in their net worth?
The History of Space Tourism
Space tourism is actually not a new or even a 21st-century concept. NASA envisioned the possibility of space tourism back in the 1970s. Early designs for the space shuttle (dating to 1979) included a configuration that would allow up to 74 passengers space in the cargo bay for larger crews and even tourism flights.
Some of the earliest nongovernmental astronauts were actually corporate-sponsored – talk about a work benefit! These included Germany's Dr. Ulf Merbold, MIT engineer Byron Lichtenberg, both of whom served as mission specialists on STS-9 in 1983, and McDonnell Douglas employee Charles Walker, who flew on STS-41-D in 1984. This helped inspire confidence in NASA's Space Flight Participant program, of whom Christa McAuliffe was set to become the first astronaut and first teacher in space. Unfortunately, the program – and the entire shuttle program – was set back with the 1986 Challenger disaster.
Space tourism may have been postponed, but it wasn't abandoned. At the turn of the century, self-made millionaires including Bezos and Branson both set their sights on building their own space companies to offer tourism opportunities as NASA focused on governmental and research objectives. Two decades later, the technology has finally developed such that both companies – Bezos' Blue Origin and Branson's Virgin Galactic – have launched their founders into suborbital space in quick succession.
Criticisms of Space Tourism
Space tourism was initially a hopeful concept, one focused on increasing access for ordinary citizens to visit space. However, the modern space tourism industry looks different as early ticket sales by Virgin Galactic ranged from $200,000-$250,000; Blue Origin has not announced ticket prices, but it recently sold one seat for $28 million as part of a charity auction. This obviously prices access to space well outside the range of all but the ultra-wealthy; it's one of the primary criticisms of space tourism today.
Part of the reason spaceflight is so expensive is that just a few people are carried at a time. "If you want to get to get the price from $250,000 down to four digits, like an airline, you have to spread it over far more bodies," Ron Epstein, an aerospace analyst with Bank of America told CNN. But it might be decades before companies get to that point. The costs for fuel and energy currently don't make it feasible to offer space travel to large numbers of people.
Another complaint is that the funds spent on spaceflight might be better spent elsewhere such as solving problems here on Earth. Alan Ladwig, author of "See You in Orbit? Our Dream of Spaceflight", says this commentary is not without basis – or historical precedent as people said the same thing about NASA. "There has been criticism that money spent in space would be better applied to other societal needs. This has been a matter of debate for a range of space activities for the past 60 years and is not likely to change regardless of what happens with space tourism," he says. And several items we take for granted like memory foam, insulin pumps and scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses, came from NASA inventions.
Finally, space tourism (and launch technology in general) is criticized for its environmental impact. "The most often talked about 'harm' involves pollution caused by black carbon from some spacecraft engines," Ladwig explains. "Virgin Galactic has downplayed 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's engines rely on liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that combusts as water vapor. However, critics note that it still takes electricity to manufacture the fuels."
Right now, the number of flights to space are few, so carbon dioxide emissions are negligible, compared with airplane flights. 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 achieve orbit when it takes four private citizens into space in September using its F9 rocket, which "calculations show puts out the equivalent of 395 transatlantic flights-worth of carbon emissions," reported Phys.org.
Benefits of Space Tourism
Boosters of space tourism say we don't know yet what positives may come out of going to space for recreation.
"Those who go will have a transformational experience that will lead to new ways of thinking of our home planet, how they interact with others, and develop a commitment to improving life on Earth," says Ladwig. "It remains to be seen what innovations, creations, and advances in knowledge might result from new categories of space travelers, but expectations are high."
Additionally, space tourism will be good business – both in space and on Earth: "A number of economic analysts have predicted that global space tourism could grow to $1.7 billion by 2027. That would generate a significant number of new jobs and capabilities in the emerging space tourism economy," says Ladwig.
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 over 8,000 interested potential buyers since then.
There's a long road ahead from early flights like recent ones to a sustainable, widespread space tourism industry that more people can afford. "Historically, wealthy individuals have always been the early adopters of new endeavors, adventures and transportation capabilities," says Ladwig. "The 'benefit' of their participation is to demonstrate that the experience has value, is something people are willing to support, and brings significant public attention to a new industry."
Only with that attention and funding can these companies – or their successors – hope to offer widespread and mass market-friendly flights to space, but it's an exciting prospect even if in the distant future.