2021 has seen some remarkable steps forward in privately funded space tourism. In July, Richard Branson and companions flew to the edge of space in Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane Unity. Later the same month, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos successfully completed a suborbital flight with three crew members aboard his company Blue Origin’s spacecraft New Shepard. And in September, an all-civilian crew spent three days orbiting the earth in the SpaceX capsule Crew Dragon Resilience.
Do these developments represent a passing fad for billionaires with cash to burn? Or is space finally being opened up to the masses?
How Did We Get Here?
In 2001, the American entrepreneur Dennis Tito became the world’s first privately-funded space tourist. He reportedly payed $20 million for a seven day stay on the International Space Station (ISS). The American space tourism company Space Adventures arranged Tito’s trip, launching him into space aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Today’s space tourism offerings have evolved through two channels – NASA’s desire to outsource human space transport solutions as well as the arrival of companies specifically targeting flights to space as a commercial enterprise. What both trends have in common is that it is the private sector, not national governments, doing the heavy lifting.
NASA’s Space Shuttle took its last flight in 2011 having become overly complex, expensive and outdated. The agency needed a replacement vehicle to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. Rather than develop a new system itself, the agency launched a private sector competition naming it the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).
The Last Ten years
Over the course of the last 10 years, Elon Musk’s SpaceX emerged as the front runner in the CCP selection processes. In November 2020, SpaceX became the first private sector company to transport NASA astronauts to the ISS.
Meanwhile, other companies have been busy developing their own space-faring capabilities. Blue Origin had originally participated in NASA’s CCP selection process but withdrew in 2012 to continue its developments with private funding.
While the SpaceX and Blue Origin launch systems comprise traditional vertical take-off rocket stacks, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has developed a novel rocket-powered spaceplane. This version launches from beneath a jet-powered mother ship at high altitude. It takes passengers on sub-orbital flights and is expected to begin commercial operations in the fourth quarter of 2022.
What is the Cost of a Space Tourism Trip?
Despite the progress made in 2021, commercial spaceflight is still not yet routine enough for ticket prices to reflect supply and demand fundamentals. In fact, we are arguably yet to see the first true spacefaring customer “off the street” partly due to the high costs involved but also due to delays in the commencement of routine commercial operations from each company.
As if to prove the point, a seat alongside Jeff Bezos on his first 10 minute Blue Origin flight sold at auction for $28 million making Dennis Tito’s seven day, $20 million trip look like a bargain. (The undisclosed Blue Origin auction winner ended up missing the flight due to “scheduling conflicts”.) A “standard” Blue Origin ticket price has not yet been announced.
Virgin Galactic has now accumulated a long queue of deposit holders selling tickets at prices ranging from $200,000 to $450,000. When commercial operations begin, Virgin Galactic will begin calling forward ticketholders for flights which will only be sub-orbital, with around six minutes of weightlessness. But at least the round trip and overall experience will last a bit longer than Blue Origin’s, lasting approximately one and a half hours.
The all-civilian SpaceX flight of September was led and funded by Shift4Payments founder Jared Isaacman for an undisclosed sum. The company is planning a further 10 day trip to the ISS in February 2022, carrying fee-paying passengers, at a cost of $55m per seat.
SpaceX is focussing on monetising and developing its payload further and astronaut launch capabilities rather than actively developing a space tourism service. Longer term, Elon Musk has spoken of his vision of humans becoming an interplanetary species and developing colonies on Mars.
In October, Blue Origin announced a partnership with Sierra Space to launch a commercial space station named Orbital Reef in low earth orbit. The facility, which is planned to start operating in the second half of this decade, will be a “mixed use business park”. It will feature a “human-centered space architecture with world-class services and amenities”.
Sierra Space itself is also getting in on the transportation action with plans to launch its Dreamchaser spaceplane next year. Some projections have estimated that the space tourism industry will be worth $2.5bn by 2030.
But despite these exciting developments, space tourism is not without its controversies. Firstly, what do we even mean by going to space? Employees at Blue Origin provoked a Twitter spat over the summer when they claimed that Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight hadn’t really reached space because its maximum altitude of 86km was below the Karman Line.
This threshold, 100km above mean sea level (MSL), is the boundary of space as recognised by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), an international aeronautics organisation. However, NASA and the US Federal Aviation Administration define the edge of space as 80 km above MSL. According to this definition, Virgin Galactic flights did reach space.
Secondly, the environmental credentials of space tourism are being brought into question during a year when all eyes were on COP26 in November. Even the UK’s Prince William suggested that entrepreneurs should focus their efforts on resolving climate issues rather than adding more carbon emissions to the atmosphere by blasting themselves into space.
Time will tell whether trips to space become as routine as holidays in the sun, or remain the preserve of a select group of billionaires and professional astronauts. But who knows – maybe 2030 will be seen in by the first New Year’s Eve party in space.