What is it like to be in the world’s hottest and coldest places, or dive in the ocean’s depths? And will it soon be possible to visit space?by Prospect / July 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Louis Brennan on space tourism
The euphoria surrounding the moon landings in the late 1960s generated enthusiasm for the commercial potential of space travel. Yet it took until 2001 for US businessman Dennis Tito to become the first space tourist. His example, and advances in engineering, have finally kick-started space tourism.
One of the biggest advances was made in 2004, when the Ansari X prize was won. The prize, for the first successful launch of a reusable manned spacecraft by a non-government organisation, was claimed by a joint venture between Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen and the aerospace company Scaled Composites. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has now teamed up with Scaled Composites to build a fleet of commercial spacecraft that will make space travel widely available for private citizens. Many other companies are also working on this.
Space Adventures, the US company that organised Tito’s trip, has since had six more customers for orbital spaceflights—at a reported cost of at least $20m each. Sub-orbital trips, which only breach the Earth’s atmosphere, would be cheaper. No such commercial trips have yet occurred, but Virgin Galactic, among other companies, aims to offer them within the next year or so and is selling tickets for $200,000. Obviously, space tourism is a highly expensive luxury product. Other factors such as the risk, the preparation required and the experience itself further limit the size of the market.
Yet this should change, as the evolution of the aviation industry demonstrates. Just as commercial air travel opened to the masses with the advent of low-cost business models, there will be a similar opportunity for space tourism. Its democratisation is already underway—Space Adventures, for instance, now sells zero-gravity experiences at the more affordable price of $4,950.
Sub-orbital space trips may become an alternative to long-haul flights for people merely wishing to travel across the world. They would cost much more than air travel, but their speed, combined with the experience of weightlessness and the panoramic views, should attract customers.
There is also the issue of fuel. Jet fuel, a hydrocarbon mix, is increasing in cost and some forecasts see this trend continuing—which is not the case with liquid oxygen, the main component of propellant fuel for space ships. This could over time drive the relative cost of space travel ever lower—one day it might be within reach of the average person.
Louis Brennan is the co-author, with Alessandra…