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Big Think released an interview with Burt Rutan today, in which he talks about why sending rich tourists into space for a few minutes at a time could be immensely important to the future of space travel.

Virgin Galactic, the company founded by Richard Branson to commercialize Rutan’s spacecraft designs, is sometimes dinged by critics as technically irrelevant. They say that suborbital hops above the atmosphere are a sideshow distraction compared to the real challange of getting humans into orbit. But Rutan argues that, from a technical point of view, flying tens of thousands of passengers over 10-to-12 years will do two things: mature safety systems, making spaceflight much cheaper; and reduce costs dramatically.

Rutan (who looks healthy these days, as compared to his shockingly gaunt apperance at Virgin Galactic’s unveiling of the SpaceShipTwo design in January 2008–a month before he had open heart surgery) also believes that space tourism will produce innovations that cannot be predicted in advance, just as the personal computer industry was unexpectedly spawned when engineers started playing around with microprocessors in the 1970s.

Rutan also postulates an absolute lower limit for the cost of sending humans aloft via rocket power. Noting that propellants are responsible for about a third of the total cost of mature forms of travel, such as commercial airflight or automobile transportation, he estimates that a sub-orbital ticket could one day cost as little as $475 per passenger, while a ticket to orbit could cost $12,000.

While such orbital travel would be dramatically cheaper than the tens of millions charged today for private trips to the International Space Station, this would still dash romantic dreams of mass colonization of space by rocket.

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Tagged: Business, spaceflight, space tourism, private sector

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