When most people think of space, they picture an inaccessible vastness that stretches further than they can fully comprehend. They think of Neil Armstrong, the International Space Station and NASA; or Soyuz and Yuri Gagarin. What could unite our perception of space though, is that it is primarily the domain of nation states, not individuals or companies. That may be about to change.
In the 21st century, outer space is no longer the final frontier it once was. It is now one of the most rapidly emerging markets on the planet (and beyond). Private companies routinely launch rockets and build satellites in what is already a $400 billion industry. The market is predicted to grow into a multi-trillion-dollar industry within the next 20 years through the expansion of extra-terrestrial activities such as mining and building habitats. One of the major sectors inside this industry is space tourism. Until now only a few tourists have ever visited space (paying millions for the privilege); but now it is increasingly likely that space tourism will become a regular occurrence this decade. Only one roadblock stands in the way: Congress. NASA would like to spend its limited budget on research that will benefit themselves and other private space exploration companies, but at the moment Congress is insisting that NASA spend its money on something else entirely: job creation. By prioritising this over the development of new technology, NASA and others are being held back from making space more accessible now and in the long run.
This obsession with NASA jobs in Congress is primarily the result of the history of space flight in the United States. During the Apollo and Space Shuttle era, construction was spread across multiple states, creating thousands of jobs throughout the country. Today, this is no longer the most cost-effective way of building rockets, especially as the massive budgets of the 1960s have been dramatically slashed. Yet NASA is building its new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), in all fifty states, and there have been tacit acknowledgments that it is to some extent a jobs program. In fact, some have gone so far as to nickname it the Senate Launch System.
Of course, there is nothing explicitly wrong with a jobs program. The real problem is the cost of SLS: $13 billion has already been spent on its development, and each launch is predicted to cost upwards of $1 billion. To put that in perspective, a Falcon Heavy from SpaceX (a private company) costs only $90 million and can launch up to 2/3rds of the payload that SLS will be able to. It makes little sense to develop a rocket like the SLS, as much of the extra spending that Congress has given NASA for it has been taken from the funding that would normally go to NASA’s important scientific work. Instead they could simply help develop and then buy rockets from commercial companies such as SpaceX, ULA and Blue Origin. This would allow them to achieve their goals while also making space significantly more accessible.
The money being spent on SLS seems particularly excessive when one considers that its technology appears increasingly obsolete and will be of little use for improving the accessibility of space. SpaceX has already developed a rocket whose first stage (the bottom part of the rocket) can return to earth and land, and other companies such as ULA and Blue Origin are racing to develop reusable rockets. SLS, however, will not be reusable; the boosters will fall into the sea after launch.
For space tourism to truly become commonplace, companies will need to have the ability to rapidly reuse rockets and crew capsules with very little refurbishment. Even SLS’s crew capsule, Orion, will require years of refurbishment before it will be approved for a second flight. Thus it is a project that will do little to help make space more accessible in the long run, and it is being funded at the cost of supporting private companies who could do exactly that.
There is hope for space tourism increasing soon though. NASA has, over the last ten years, paid SpaceX and Boeing to develop crew capsules that will launch on rockets already developed for satellites by the companies; primarily they want to use these to launch American astronauts to the International Space Station, but they also hope that these capsules will be used for commercial use, and in particular space tourism.
This is the kind of funding that must happen more if the space tourism industry is to truly take off. While private companies can and do try to just rely on loans, this is difficult as it takes many years to develop the technology, all of which is extremely cost intensive and completely unprofitable. This is especially problematic given that there are no guaranteed launch contracts at the end of the development. This was aptly demonstrated with SpaceX and their original Falcon 1 rocket that they used to break into the satellite launch industry: Elon Musk has said that if the fourth launch of the rocket hadn’t been a success (the previous three had failed), SpaceX would have gone bankrupt as no-one was willing to pay to launch their satellite on a rocket that wasn’t yet proven.
However despite the problems with raising private funding, most space tourism companies are still relying on it, with the exception of SpaceX and ULA/Boeing, who have proven rockets and thus a steady stream of income from satellite launches and NASA contracts. For example, Blue Origin is being paid for by Jeff Bezos, who is liquidating $1 billion per year to fund it. When they do start launching they will be selling tickets at only $250,000, meaning that they will be operating at a large loss to begin with. Virgin Galactic, which is planning to offer sub-orbital space tourism, has had to go public and has also been using Richard Branson’s wealth to fund the development of their craft.
NASA funding space tourism would be a significantly better way for private companies to operate, and it would be incredibly worthwhile for both NASA and for the American economy more generally. NASA can offer to help fund the development of a rocket or craft and pledge to purchase a certain number of launches. NASA benefit by having more options to get to space at a lower price and by having an increased amount of research into spaceflight. This is something that NASA desperately needs, as currently they are having to purchase launches from the Russians in order to get astronauts into space. Perhaps because of this it is something that they are looking increasingly willing to fund, with multiple Commercial Crew and Cargo contracts signed in the last five years or so. More widely, UBS have predicted that in a decade space tourism will be a $20 billion industry (and stated that this may be a conservative estimate), which would help provide a boost to American growth. They think that in the long term space travel will be an industry that begins to compete with long-haul flight providers (companies such as SpaceX are developing point to point travel on earth using rockets), which could create an even bigger space travel sector.
So despite its infancy, space tourism is almost ready for lift-off. SpaceX and Boeing are almost ready to start launching astronauts, and NASA is looking more and more willing to help fund the development of human spaceflight. It seems increasingly likely that a trip to space may be an achievable bucket list item for the next generation.