Is space tourism just an entertainment for the rich?

Natalia Borotkanych, Noosphere Space Project Coordinator, PhD in History

News of the billionaire’s next flight into space is already not a news. Should we expect cheaper tickets, or will space tourism remain an entertainment for the rich forever?

Today, December 8, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant, cameraman Yozo Hirano, joined the ranks of space tourists. They got into space by the Soyuz spacecraft and will spend 12 days on the International Space Station in preparation for a larger mission— a flight to the moon. Maezawa, a Japanese businessman and founder of Zozo Inc., is Japan’s 14th richest man. He gained worldwide fame after Elon Musk announced in 2018 his intention to organize a tourist mission to the moon, which will be headed and financed by Maezawa, consisting of artists of various kind who can bring the beauty of space back to earth. This tourist flight to the moon will take place no earlier than 2024.
Yusaku Maezawa. Source: thejapantimes

Japanese businessmen are not the first tourists to overcome the gravity inside a ” Soyuz “. In the 2000s, this craft was commissioned by an American tour operator to take seven tourists into space, one of them twice. This fall, the ” Soyuz ” passengers were a Russian film crew — an actress and cameraman, who filmed footage for feature films. It is worth noting that professional space community was not pleased by this tour: due to the space voyage of those filmmakers, a shift rotation aboard did not happen, and two Russian astronauts have to stay on the ISS six months longer.  

In general, 2021 may be called the year of space tourism. Over the past few months, a record number of non-professional astronauts have visited zero gravity: Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, William Shetner (legendary Captain Kirk), assistant physician Gailey Arseno, who overcame cancer, former NASA staff, space industry pilots , businessmen and even a student. Tomorrow, December 9, the next flight of New Shepard is expected. This time the daughter of the first American astronaut Alan Shepard — Laura Shepard Churchley — will be on board among other tourists.

Demanding space tourists are offered a wide choice of tours: from a few minutes in weightlessness to several weeks. Despite the competition between space carriers, there is no discussion of lowering prices. Moreover, the price of a suborbital flight on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft has risen from $ 250,000 to $ 450,000.

Is it worth waiting for “hot tours” in space?

Like every brand new product, space tourism today is unattainably expensive. The cost of the flight ranges from 450 thousand to 90 million dollars per seat. But, as we know, innovative technologies in the beginning are often unreasonably expensive. Remember for instance a cell phone that had to be carried in a separate suitcase, and was affordable to nobody except the bankers on Wall Street. Elon Musk stresses, drawing a parallel with space tourism, that the earliest consumers of services are extremely important for innovation. If the owners of those technologically imperfect mobile phones had not been paying bulks of money for them, we would not have got good and cheap smartphones now.

A drastic reduction in prices is possible only if the technology and approach to space flight change, as well as the scale of the business. Today, most space transport is disposable. This is comparable to using an airplane only once. Imagine the cost of a flight if we had to put the plane into the garbage after each flight! SpaceX is working to create a fully reusable Starship orbiter that could revolutionize the space transportation market, including travel. According to Elon Mask, such a system will reduce the cost of launches by a hundred times, ie the cost of launching a cargo weighing 100 tons will cost no more than $ 1 million, ie $ 10 per kilogram. This is truly a revolutionary price.

Another option for cheap space tourism was recently offered by the American company World View Enterprises — ballooning. Currently this company are launching balloons into the stratosphere for research and imaging. However, World View has decided to expand its business to space tourism. Of course, balloons cannot fly into space, but they are able to rise high enough to clearly see the curvature of the Earth and the bottomless blackness of space. The company hopes that its voyage by a huge balloon, which lifts the passenger capsule to a height of almost 30 km, will give tourists a cosmic feeling. Currently, the cost of the flight is announced — 50 thousand dollars. The flights will start no earlier than 2024.

It is obvious that space tourism will become a trend of this decade. Demand is growing, and so will supply, which is inevitably going to lead to lower prices. And although the phrase “space travel priced as a tour of Europe” is currently just an advertising slogan, all indications are that space companies are working hard to make the weekend beyond the Earth a reality for everyone.

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