Private citizens have been buying their way into the heavens for decades. In the 1980s, McDonnell Douglas engineer Charles Walker became the first nongovernment individual to fly in space when his company bought him a seat on three NASA space shuttle missions. In 2001, American entrepreneur Dennis Tito dished out a reported $20 million to fly on a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station (ISS) and spend eight days floating in microgravity.
But beyond those few flights, nothing much happened.
At least not until last year. After decades of development and several serious accidents, three companies—SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic—launched their first tourist flights in 2021. William Shatner rode a Blue Origin vehicle to the edge of space in October. Former NFL star and Good Morning America host Michael Strahan took a similar ride in December. Even NASA, which was once hostile to space tourism, has come around and released a pricing policy for private astronaut missions, offering to bring someone to orbit for around $55 million.
Okay, so it’s a new era—but what does it mean? Do these forays represent a future in which even the average person might book a celestial flight and bask in the splendor of Earth from above? Or is this just another way for the ultrawealthy to flash their cash while simultaneously ignoring and exacerbating our existential problems down on the ground? Nearly all those 2021 escapades were the result of efforts by three billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson. Branson is a mere single-digit billionaire, whereas Bezos and Musk have wealth measured in the hundreds of billions.
“The greatly undue influence of wealth in this country—to me that’s at the heart of my issues with space tourism as it’s unfolding,” says Linda Billings, a communications researcher who consults for NASA and has written about the societal impacts of spaceflight for more than 30 years. “We are so far away from making this available to your so-called average person.”
Each spot on Virgin’s suborbital spaceplane, the cheapest way to space at the moment, will set somebody back $450,000. A single seat on Blue Origin’s initial suborbital launch sold at auction for $28 million, and the undisclosed price tag of SpaceX’s all-civilian Inspiration4 mission, which spent three days in orbit before splashing down off the coast of Florida, has been estimated at $50 million per passenger.
Not only are such flights ridiculously far out of financial reach for the average person, says Billings, but they aren’t achieving any real goals—far from ideal given our terrestrial problems of inequality, environmental collapse, and a global pandemic. “We’re not really learning anything,” she says. “There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of thought or conscience in the people engaging in these space tourism missions.”
Laura Forczyk, owner of the space consulting firm Astralytical, thinks it’s misguided to focus strictly on the money aspect. “The narrative [last year] was billionaires in space, but it’s so much more than that,” says Forczyk, who wrote the book Becoming Off-Worldly, published in January, in which she interviewed both government and private astronauts about why they go to space.
Forczyk sees the flights as great opportunities to conduct scientific experiments. All three of the commercial tourist companies have carried research projects in the past, studying things like fluid dynamics, plant genetics, and the human body’s reaction to microgravity. And yes, the rich are the target audience, but the passengers on SpaceX’s Inspiration4 included artist and scientist Sian Proctor and data engineer Chris Sembroski, who won their tickets through contests, as well as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital ambassador Hayley Arceneaux (the trip helped her raise $200 million in donations for the hospital). Blue Origin gave free trips to aviation pioneer Wally Funk, who as a woman had been barred from becoming an Apollo astronaut, and NASA astronaut Alan Shepard’s daughter Laura.
Forczyk also cites Iranian space tourist Anousheh Ansari, who flew to the ISS in 2006. “She talked about how she grew up in a war zone in Iran, and how [the flight] helped her see the world as interconnected,” Forczyk says.
Billings thinks the value of such testimonials is pretty low. “All these people are talking to the press about how wonderful the experience was,” she says. “But to listen to someone else tell you about how exciting it was to climb Mt. Everest doesn’t convey the actual experience.”
As with an Everest trek, there’s the risk of death to consider. Historically, spaceflight has had a fatality rate of just under 4%—roughly 266,000 times greater than for commercial airplanes. Virgin suffered two major disasters during testing, killing a total of four employees and injuring four more. “A high-profile accident will come; it’s inevitable,” says Forczyk. But even that, she predicts, won’t end space tourism. People continue to climb Everest, she notes, despite the danger.
Another question is how space tourism might affect the planet. A 90-minute jaunt on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceplane is roughly as polluting as a 10-hour transatlantic flight. Other calculations suggest that a rocket launch can produce 50 to 75 tons of carbon dioxide per passenger, compared with just a few tons per passenger from a commercial airplane.
Experts warn that even Blue Origin’s New Shepard, which burns hydrogen and oxygen and emits water, could affect the climate since its combustion products are injected high into the stratosphere, where their ultimate impact has yet to be understood.
The Federal Aviation Administration oversees all spaceflight in the US and might strengthen safety and environmental regulations. The agency currently has a moratorium on new regulations until 2023, which was designed to give the nascent industry time to develop before legislators came in with too much red tape. But few lawmakers or citizens are clamoring for more regulation.
“There are a lot of other things for people to worry about than whether or not only billionaires get to fly in space,” says Marcia Smith, the founder and editor of the news website SpacePolicyOnline.com, which covers space programs around the world.
Nobody has yet fully articulated a compelling reason to spend enormous sums on private spaceflight. It may have incidental value for science and engineering, or offer a small number of people a sense of transcendence.
But at the moment, it seems we do it mainly because we think it’s cool.
Adam Mann is a freelance space and physics journalist who lives in Oakland, California.
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