Blue Origin claims its sub-orbital rocket has made its third consecutive flight. The company’s goal is to eventually create a rocket that can take people into space and back for a fee, though it’s not yet sure how much that will be. But are there actually people who want to pay a lot of money to blast off on a dangerous rocket? Is there a future for space tourism?
The real competitions race for space tourism really took off with the British Virgin Galactic, one of the many undertakings of eccentric billionaire Richard Branson. Virgin aimed to make space tourism possible and relatively cheap by using a small airplane that would be propelled off the back of a larger airplane using a rocket engine. SpaceShipOne would then ‘be in space’ for about 5 minutes, then easily glide down to Earth again like an airplane. The costs of such a little trip: 250,000 dollars.
Blue Origin’s sudden entry
A few months ago, a ‘new’ company entered the small market. Blue Origin, founded by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, claimed to have launched a small rocket to the edge of space, and landed it back on Earth. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the company soon after managed to fly the same rocket to space again and then even a third time, making it one of the very few reusable rockets in existence.
It was Blue Origin’s sudden entry into the market that shocked most people. While the company was founded in 2000, 2 years before SpaceX, Bezos never had anything serious and concrete to show for it while suddenly the ‘New Shepard’ flew to a height of 100,5 kilometer, slightly over the Karman Line that defines the edge of space.
Space tourism versus actual spaceflight
There’s a huge difference in what Blue Origin does and what SpaceX is trying to do. While both companies want to make a reusable rocket, their methods and goals are very different. We wrote about that difference a while ago. One of the main ones is that Blue Origin has no interest in resupplying the International Space Station or sending people to Mars. Instead, Bezos’ company wants to make space tourism attractive.
Just the tip
Blue Origin’s rocket won’t actually reach orbit, but that’s not necessary, says Bezos. Eventually, people will blast off in it, touch the edge of space, be weightless for a few minutes and then come down safely to Earth – entering the relatively short list of people who may officially call themselves astronauts.
Visiting the space station
Sub-orbital flights aren’t the only way to reach space as a customer, though the alternative is vastly more unattractive. You can actually book a flight to the International Space Station, if you have a few million in the bank and are willing to go through the same difficult training as regular astronauts and work your ass off for a week. It’s been done before, though Roscosmos has called a halt to letting non-professionals into the hard-to-reach station since the Space Shuttle stopped ferrying astronauts up and down. 7 people have gone on 8 flights, paying between 20 and 40 million dollars and occassionally doing research for private firms to partially fund their trip.
In 2017, SpaceX will launch an improved version of its Dragon-spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station under contract for NASA. Ultimately, the company says it wants to sell seats on the Dragon, though it’ll have to work with the countries and agencies that run the Space Station to allow visitors to the orbital laboratory. So for now, the only private spaceflights that you’ll be able to take in the near future are sub-orbital flights with Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic or XCOR Spaceflight.
People are not meant for space
Exciting as that may sound, it’s debatable whether people will eventually want to be a space tourist. For one thing, people don’t do too well in space, which puts it lightly. The main reason astronauts are in space right now is that we’re still figuring out how the human body reacts to zero-G, and spoiler alert, it’s not very good. Besides the loss of bone structure and muscle mass, the human brain gets dissoriented and confused and makes you want to vomit – especially for first timers.
There’s a more important issue as well: Safety. Flying into space is notoriously dangerous, with no more than 18 people dying while in space and just about that much during training as well. Those accidents happened on certified missions from real space agencies like NASA and Roscosmos, too, and not even on private missions.
Not that private missions have been the safest. About a year and a half ago, one of Virgin Galactic’s spaceplanes crashed during a test flight of a new engine. One of the pilots died, another was severely wounded.
Safety in instutions
The point is that spaceflight is very dangerous, and astronauts are aware of these risks. During the first days of spaceflight, astronauts all came from the air force, knowing full well the dangers of new machinary and harsh environments. Current astronauts who are more scientists than military men know this too. Almost the entire premise of astronaut training focuses on safety, a lot of it about scenarios which will probably never occur on a mission.
It’s possible for astronaut training to be so rigorous about safety because NASA as a public institution is behind it. That means money and time for training, precautions, and detailed certifications for flights.
Even then, safety is not garantueed by the institutional premise of a space agency. ‘Go fever’ was the main reason behind the Challenger disaster, it was a looming fear during the Apollo program, and the Soviets were so afraid of Breznev that they didn’t dare delay the schedule of the notoriously underdeveloped Soyuz-program in the 60s.
It’s fair to ask if this will happen with private spaceflight. Even Elon Musk with has many billions of dollars of wealth can’t make SpaceX very profitable yet, and that’s a decent business with proper clients and a steady flight schedule. Will companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic ever become profitable if they offer a one time trip to space for a lot less money? Will that attract enough business to keep the company alive? And even if it does, will it leave enough money for proper safety features?
At first sight, a private trip to space is relatively cheap. Even 250,000 dollars beats the 20 million that ‘tourists’ paid to visiti the Space Station, but still… Most people won’t have a quarter million lying around, especially not for a trip that lasts maybe an hour in total.
Toys for boys
You don’t take a parabolic flight for the experience of space. You can do that for a percent of the costs doing a parabolic flight in a ‘Vomit Comet’, an empty airplane that plunges down from high altitudes to simulate weightlessness for about 30 seconds. Vomit Comets are being used by NASA as well to prepare astronauts for spaceflights.
No, short space flight are sold for the privilige of calling yourself an astronaut. It’s an experience for ‘the man who has it all’, a very expensive playground to make yourself count amongst the elite, the very few who can rightfully say they’ve ‘been to space’, without actually going through all the work and hassle actual astronauts go through.
A short lived hype?
And that’s what space tourism will be: A nice experience for the rich and famous which is dangerous and won’t have a viable business model to survive, and which will probably cease to exist after the first accident. It sounds gloom, but it might be better to leave spaceflight to the professionals.