Space tourism: a small step that can lead to giant leaps
13 Jul 2021|

Think back to the beginning of commercial aviation in the 20th century. The Wright brothers flew their Wright Flyer on 17 December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, proving that heavier-than-air flight was possible. On 1 January 1914—a little over 10 years after Kitty Hawk—the world’s first passenger flight took off from Tampa and landed in St Petersburg, Florida, a trip lasting only 23 minutes. The Wright Flyer was a giant leap, and while that first passenger flight was a small step building on the history made at Kitty Hawk, it ultimately paved the way for today’s commercial aviation industry, which has transformed global society and opened up new industries and economies.

Fast-forward to July 2021. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has just demonstrated a small step towards opening up the space domain for broader access, with the successful flight of VSS Unity, a sub-orbital rocket plane. Last Sunday it flew to the edge of space, allowing its crew, and paying passengers, to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the earth as if from orbit. Critics have dismissed the flight, and an upcoming launch by competitor Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin of its New Shepard suborbital rocket, as mere stunts, and attacked space billionaires Branson, Bezos and Elon Musk for investing time and money in what they claim are frivolous efforts. The critics don’t see the bigger picture.

The start of space tourism is just as important as the early days of commercial aviation were in transforming global affairs. Initially only open to the very rich, and quite dangerous, commercial air travel is now commonplace—indeed, a globalised economy couldn’t function without it. Might similar opportunities emerge from commercial space activities in coming decades?

Space tourism needs to be considered as just one element of an effort to expand human access to the space domain and open up the final frontier for large-scale entrepreneurial activities. The era of government-run space programs—what’s been called ‘old space’ or ‘Space 1.0’, epitomised by NASA’s Apollo missions—limited the ability of societies to use space for broad purposes beyond satellites in orbit. What low-cost space access does is allow states and commercial actors to exploit space directly in new and exciting, and much more far-reaching, ways.

But to achieve this goal, the proponents of space tourism such as Branson, Bezos and Musk need to aspire to more than suborbital joyrides for the mega-rich. The industry needs to make a determined effort to provide regular, safe and affordable access to low-earth orbit (LEO) for a wide range of paying customers. If the cost can be brought down to the equivalent of a business-class airfare and paying passengers can fly into orbit with confidence in the safety of the craft, the space tourism market will take off. A failure to achieve this ‘space is for everyone’ goal will likely see space tourism wither.

The space tourism sector therefore needs to quickly take the next step to develop the technology for accessing LEO cheaply and safely. That will require new types of launch vehicles that take us beyond Branson’s air-launched rocket plane and Bezos’s suborbital rocket. There will also need to be a blurring of the line between space tourism and the broader elements of commercial space, including a desire to engage more fully with the space-based industry and space-based manufacturing sectors. Space tourism companies need to engage with commercial space companies, such as Axiom Space, that are developing commercial orbital platforms for manufacturing and research, because it will broaden their customer base and strengthen their business model.

The tourism dimension is important, though. Seeing the earth from LEO is a breathtaking experience, and many people would pay to experience hours or even days in orbit, rather than just four minutes of weightlessness. Developing a launch vehicle that can dock with an orbital platform established to support the space tourism market would be a critical next step. It’s that positive vision for a future for humanity in space, so well illustrated in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film adaption of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, that needs to be the goal. Science fiction needs to become fact or this effort won’t work.

Of course, governments can benefit from space tourism too, as paying customers. Already, Musk’s SpaceX is moving quickly to seal contracts to launch satellites for the US military, and there’s discussion on the role SpaceX’s revolutionary and fully reusable Starship launch vehicle might play in supporting the US Space Force. Imagine the potential applications for the vehicles developed for orbital space tourism, including supporting countries’ defence and national security needs. Fast, low-cost access to LEO is truly transformative for military space activities and, in the same way that the Sopwith Camel, the Spitfire and the F-35 Lightning II are all descendants of the Wright Flyer, the implications of new types of craft for low-cost space access need to be considered in a future operational context.

This isn’t simply about generating a lucrative new economic sector or getting easier access to orbit. At a broader level, space tourism contributes to transforming how humanity thinks about its future in space and increases the prospects for humanity becoming a spacefaring civilization. That future, with humans living and working in space, both for exploration and commercial activity, is a positive vision.

But realising that vision will take time, and space is an incredibly harsh environment. It will also take money. Governments alone can’t and won’t create that future suggested in 2001, so commercial companies and the space billionaires have to lead. Bezos advocates the establishment of orbital space colonies, while Musk talks about the potential for a colony on Mars. Both are very long-term visions, but the journey has to begin somewhere, and it’s the space billionaires who are taking small steps now to achieve those giant leaps in the future.