The space travel industry is stuck in its billionaire phase


Richard Branson’s extravagant leap into space on Sunday announced the dawn of a new space age – for the few people who can afford it. Jeff Bezos is embarking on a similar expedition next Tuesday as he embarks into space with three others on his company Blue Origin’s first crew flight. Two billionaires validate their company’s tourist-customized rockets and, they say, realize lifelong dreams to get a short taste of space.

But what the mission of Virgin Galactic on Sunday showed and what the flight of Bezos similarly shows that space is almost open, not to you and me or the general public, but to other billionaires.

Opening space to the masses and normalizing space tourism is a goal that companies and their billionaire supporters have been targeting for years but have not yet achieved. In addition to bringing rich people into space, there is economic potential: microgravity research by scientists and – a much further goal – rapid transport between continents. That is the vision they are selling on these blatant flights; When space travel was exclusively state astronauts, they can be a thing for everyone else.

“It’s a dream, isn’t it? This space is no longer just for NASA,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s space flight chief who oversaw the development of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon astronaut capsule, at an April press conference. “I mean, I think we’ll try to do that. .. what we hoped for is that hopefully you will have so many customers that at one point the price point would drop to having access to it. It’s hard at first. “

At this early stage, flying into space is only priced for the very rich because of the high cost of new space technology. Launched by Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson was one of the final key experiments to strengthen its shiny six-seater SpaceShipTwo, but it was also a carefully crafted marketing event that included flashy promotional videos, inspirational speeches and a pop concert. designed to attract more attention and more customers.

US SPACE TOURISM-BEZOS-BRANSON

Virgin Galactic guests at Spaceport America watch Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo take off under his aircraft carrier
Photo: PATRICK T.FALLON / AFP via Getty Images

To live their own version of Branson’s dream, customers have to pay at least $ 250,000 for a seat (the company already has about 600 booked passengers). And right now, a quarter-million-dollar price tag is the cheapest option on the market. The place price for Blue Origin’s new Shepard rocket may be higher. And if you want to go in orbit for a few days, riding SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsules will return you at least $ 55 million (it can also be higher; SpaceX hasn’t publicly confirmed the actual price).

While Branson and Bezos ’flights into space are key factors for their space tourism businesses, the space industry is not far from being able to offer its services to other audiences. To get there, they have to overcome several obstacles: Can these rockets reliably fly people on multiple missions without difficulty? If a disruption occurs, such as a fatal accident, can the market survive the damaged reputation? And can someone buy a ticket to space in the same way he can book an expensive flight (instead of just the very rich)?

Then there’s the public opinion court, which can be hard to beat. The space projects by Bezos, Branson, and Elon Musk have been criticized as another example of billionaires spending money on passions when there are places and reasons where these funds can undoubtedly be better spent. The United States alone is struggling with huge inequalities, poor access to health care, and a rapidly changing climate, including problems that, along with space tourism, make activities offensive to many selfish. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a leading critic of billionaires, has reiterated this as the private space race warms up. “Here on earth, in the richest country on the planet, half of our people live on payroll, people are trying to feed themselves, struggling with a doctor – but hey, the richest guys in the world are out of space!” He tweeted in March.

“I understand that,” Branson says of criticism, like Senator Sanders, talking Late performance With Stephen Colbert on July 14th. “But I think they may not have a complete education on what space is doing to Earth.” Branson, like other space defenders, points to technologies that space investments have helped drive into the mainstream, such as GPS capabilities connected to smartphones, weather monitoring services, or climate change research and modeling from satellites in low-Earth orbit. Many of these investments came from public funds – it remains unclear what spin-off developments may arise from the still-emerging private space tourism.

As long as the space industry is dependent on billionaire funds for spacecraft built for billionaire (and millionaire) customers, the notion that this is a hobby for the ultra-wealthy will inevitably remain. “We need to address the fact that billionaires earning more money are the public face of space at the moment,” said Brian Weeden, director of the Secure World Foundation.

SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket and crew dragon capsule departs Cape Canaveral to send astronauts to International Space Station

Elon Musk celebrates in NASA’s vehicle lineup after SpaceX launched the first astronaut crew into space
Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Setting a face for the emerging industry is not in itself unusual. Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean, was known to help transport commercial aviation from the beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. The same with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates on the advent of the desktop computer in the late 20th century.

There were also skeptics and critics in those industries. The United States was skeptical of the early planes built by the Wright brothers, and top military officials rejected aviation as a fad. “Anyone who sticks to it is either crazy or otherwise an ordinary damn stupid,” said American Admiral William A. Moffett, who later took over the aviation fleet under the authority of the Aviation Bureau. And in 1943, when computers were massive room-sized objects, IBM President Thomas Watson was ridiculed according to their potential: “I think the world market is perhaps for five computers.”

Flights became commonplace. Computers became cheaper and were more widely used. And at every stage of computer development, people found new ways to use them as they became available to more markets and a wider range of consumers, says Carry Christensen, CEO of technology and space industry analytics firm BryceTech.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos Introduces Blue Origin & nbsp;  New Shepard system

Jeff Bezos will introduce Blue Origin’s new Shepard system in 2017

“There’s going to be a pretty big learning curve as companies move from developing and testing a capability to routinely using it,” Christensen said. It is possible that space travel follows the same path as computers or airplanes, but there is no guarantee that it will succeed. Partly because there is no single solution to lowering the cost of bringing people into space. Virgin Galactic earlier this year released a new version of SpaceShipTwo it is tailored for rapid production, which shows that it is preparing to meet the large customer base and reopen ticket sales that have been closed; fatal 2014 accident during the test flight. (Branson’s presence on Sunday’s flight also served as a visual reassurance to customers that the ship is safe.) Musk is focused on improving rocket fuel efficiency with SpaceX’s Starship, a fully reusable launch system developed to reduce human sentings into space.

But again, what exactly these next generation prices are still a mystery. Musk has not said how much it will cost potential passengers to fly on Starship. And Virgin Galactic hasn’t said how much it plans to charge for its tickets to its newer spacecraft, SpaceShipThree, just like Blue Origin, which hasn’t revealed its New Shepard prices.

Right now, either you have to be talented (billionaire ruled) or lucky book a ride on one of these rockets without paying steep price tags. Lottery tickets, as Virgin Galactic intends to do, and donating places to space enthusiasts who can’t afford it keeps the public dream of a normalized, affordable space trip alive as the industry competes to find the right recipe to lower prices. “I think in all the competitive markets you will see products improving and / or prices falling,” Christensen added.

The competition has only just begun, and other companies are looking to get into space travel. Texas-based Axiom Space is planning to build a private space station and host private rides for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsules. A new rocket designed by the California-based launch company Rocket Lab, which plans to go public, is set to launch people into space in the future. Boeing’s Starliner capsule is also designed to transport private astronauts to the space station.

At the moment, there is no telling which one to do – if any of them do. So far, space tourism is still at a stage dominated by the billionaire. Whether the industry can grow from spectacle to more mature depends less on Bezos or Branson fulfilling their childhood dreams of flying into space and more on lowering the cost of building rockets – and the price we pay to fly. them.

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