Can space tourism break out of decades of delay?

blue origin
A still from a video Blue Origin released explaining its planned tourism services.

Today, there are a handful of private companies that are hoping to make a business out of flying tourists to space. And at least three of these companies say they’ll be able to do so in 2018. But as history demonstrates, there’s no guarantee that any of these companies will keep their timelines.

Space tourism has been considered on the brink of feasibility for years, and start-ups have made similar promises year after year to no avail — with the exception of one company. Space Adventures has been offering flights to the ISS since 2001, but hasn’t flown any customers since 2009. To date, only 9 private citizens claim the designation of space tourist.

The prospect of suborbital flights promised to kickstart the space tourism market by offering cheaper and less risky flights to the edge of space. Suborbital flights have been technologically proven and feasible since 2004, when Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne became the civilian first plane to reach 69 miles above Earth. But even with proven technology, the nascent tourism sector hasn’t gotten off the ground. Is there any hope that 2018 will be the year space tourism is finally realized?

“Who knows?,” said Derek Webber, founder of commercial space tourism and policy think tank Spaceport Associates. Webber, a former satellite and launch vehicle systems engineer, authored a book on space tourism in 2010 entitled The Wright Stuff – the Century of Effort Behind Your Ticket to Space, and is Vice Chair of a panel of nine international judges of the Google Lunar X Prize competition.

Derek Webber, author and founder of Spaceport Associates.

“I wrote a book on space tourism in 2010 and thought it was imminent then!” Webber told The Downlink in an email. “Sadly, my book, although published seven years ago, is still bang up to date as a record of achievement in this field.”

Space tourism’s progress to date has been slow and plodding. Webber, like other industry observers, said he’s unsure why the sector still hasn’t taken off.

“I confess to being baffled about what has been the problem,” he said. “It had seemed to me, as someone looking in from the outside, that the new suborbital space tourism sector was not short of ideas, of technological solutions, of marketing nous, or even funding. Plus, there was a supportive regulatory framework, which had not been easy to put in place.”

Riding the world’s most expensive roller coaster

Some believe initial space tourism will revolve around short, suborbital flights to the edge of space — a futuristic version of the barn-storming that helped propel aviation into mainstream. Suborbital flights are much less expensive and less risky than sending private citizens around the moon.

But “less expensive” is a relative term. According to research firm Technavio, the addressable market for space tourism will be limited to individuals whose net worth is over $5 million at current flight prices.

Virgin Galactic, which has been developing its suborbital plane for the past decade, is selling seats on the VSS Unity for $250,000 a piece. That’s significantly less than the $20-50 million flight to the ISS offered by Space Adventures, but Virgin Galactic hasn’t yet completed a commercial flight.

Virgin Galactic will use a captive carry system, in which a carrier aircraft “mothership” carries the VSS Unity 50,000 feet above Earth. Image source: Virgin Galactic

Blue Origin is also planning to offer suborbital tourism services. Earlier this year, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos revealed the company’s New Shepard capsule that the company wants to use to send tourists up to suborbital altitudes as early as next year to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Blue Origin hasn’t released any pricing information for such flights, however.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule will take passengers on a short flight above Earth. Image source: Blue Origin

And World View Enterprises is developing a stratospheric balloon that’ll carry tourists in a capsule to the Earth’s stratosphere. These customers won’t experience weightlessness, but they will get the perks of an onboard bar and free Wi-Fi, for $75,000 a seat.

World View Enterprises will carry passengers 100,000 miles above the Earth using a giant balloon. Image source: World View Enterprises.

Destinations needed in space

In the future, space tourism could get a boost once there’s some place in space for tourists to travel to. Take, for example, a commercial space habitat where tourists could spend a long weekend floating above the Earth.

That’s one of the uses proposed by Bigelow Aerospace for its B330 expandable module, which the company is hoping to turn into a commercial space station. Bigelow has partnered with ULA to deploy a habitation in low Earth orbit in 2020. ULA CEO Tory Bruno said the commercial station “enables destinations in space for countries, corporations and even individuals far beyond what is available today, effectively democratizing space.”

“We can’t begin to imagine the future potential of affordable real estate in space,” Bruno said.

But orbital tourism presents many more challenges than suborbital flights. Factors such as physical fitness, mental fitness, and the ability to complete extensive training will limit who can go to a space station. Orbital tourists flying in a capsule, for example, will likely need to become familiar with the spacecraft and be trained for safety in case of emergencies. Dennis Tito, a millionaire and former NASA engineer that became the first space tourist in 2001, completed a year of training before he took his ride aboard Roscosmos’ Soyuz craft to the ISS.

Consumer demand

In the near term, short suborbital flights reaching 62 miles above Earth will offer a more affordable taste of space for a larger pool of consumers. According to a 2001 study from tourism researcher Geoffery Crouch, as many as 400,000 consumers could fly to space each year if ticket prices get down to $165,000 (adjusted for inflation).

There’s evidence that consumer demand is there. Though Virgin Galactic said it lost a few of its customers in response to its 2014 explosion, the company has since sold out flights starting in 2018 through 2021. And earlier this year, SpaceX announced it had agreed to fly two private citizens around the Moon in 2018 using its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, after receiving “significant deposits” on their seats. Rumors are that flight will cost upwards of $100 million a piece.

Another indication of consumer interest in space tourism: that’s where the brands are going. Red Bull, Heineken, and this week, Kentucky Fried Chicken have launched space-oriented events, cashing in on the rising popularity of everything space to extend their respective brands. That strategy could translate into revenue-generating opportunities for space flight service providers in the future, too.

Still, there’s a lot of economics in space tourism to be worked out. Space flight service providers will face steep challenges in making space tourism a viable and lucrative business to offer to consumers. The high risk involved in every flight, punctuated by periodic explosions suffered by Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and others, only narrows the pool of potential customers.

The chicken-or-egg dilemma

The sustainability of space tourism in its early days will depend on continued interest in the novelty of such flights. A suborbital flight amounts to an incredibly exclusive amusement park ride that’s available only to the wealthiest citizens. It’ll also depend on a steady decrease in ticket prices to open up the ride to wider pools of consumers. The more flights are sold, and the more providers enter the market, the cheaper those flights should become, at least in theory.

The industry has suffered a number of setbacks that have obstructed growth. Launch dates have been pushed back year after year after year, due to delays in design and development, manufacturing, and in the case of Virgin Galactic, loss of life.

These setbacks have only served to amplify the chicken-or-egg dilemma in building out supporting infrastructure. New Mexico’s Spaceport America is a harrowing parable: Spaceport America was built using oil and gas tax money from the state of New Mexico, and the both the state and the company pinned all their hopes on the success of Virgin Galactic. After Virgin Galactic’s 2014 explosion, those hopes were dashed, along with the port’s revenue timeline. Without regular flights, Spaceport America is now grasping at financial straws to stay afloat. The port is even offering itself up for educational tours, private event bookings and yes, even weddings.

Spaceport America’s “Gateway to Space,” located in New Mexico. Image source: New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

If we buy the hype, 2018 could be the year space tourism gets off the ground. Virgin Galactic’s leadership seems confident that the company will meet its 2018 objective for commercial flights. Earlier this year, George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic’s parent company Galactic Ventures, told New Mexico Senator Tom Udall during a Senate hearing the company is planning “a fairly big transition of our staff to your state of New Mexico.”

And Webber remains optimistic. “I still expect to see the thousands of space tourists that we projected in our original space tourism demand forecasts back in around year 2002,” he said. “I have always believed that the market was there at the price levels assumed.”

About Kendra R Chamberlain

Freelance journalist writing about environment, clean & green tech, smart infrastructure, IoT and circular economy. Co-founder and contributing editor of The Downlink.

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