Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin finally shake up space tourism
– News of March 8, 2019 –
According to specialists, 2019 should be the year when space tourism will really take off. But it’s been decades since we heard the same sentence. 2018, 2015, 2010, 2007 or even 2001 were also years when space tourism was announced to take off. And yet, with very few exceptions, it is still impossible to sign a check to go into space. But there are good reasons to believe that this will change soon.
In recent weeks, Virgin Galactic has finally managed to take men into space, after years of painful trials. Blue Origin has also demonstrated the ability of its spacecraft to reach the space boundary in a controlled manner. The two US companies want to democratize space travel by marketing it for a few hundred thousand dollars. This remains a huge amount, but it’s a big step forward given the current costs of access to space.
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What is space tourism ?
The term “space tourism” describes a wide variety of activities. It is very different to spend a few minutes in zero gravity on a suborbital flight or stay several days in a space station. Staying on a space station for many days is much harder and much more expensive than a suborbital flight, but that’s what was done first.
Space tourism already has a long history
Even before the birth of space tourism, NASA took civilians into space in space shuttles, with the Teacher in Space Project program in the 1980s. The first participant in the program, Christa McAuliffe, died in the Challenger space shuttle accident in 1986. Fortunately, other people from civil society were luckier, like a Japanese reporter who spent a week on the MIR space station in 1990. But we can not really talk about space tourism because the participants in these programs did not pay the ticket with their money.
Orbital tourism has existed for a brief period. Between 2001 and 2009, Space Adventures allowed some very rich customers to spend a few days in Earth orbit. The first is Dennis Tito in 2001 who paid $ 20 million. The following customers have paid at least as much for the thrill of an adventure in space. But it is impossible to democratize such a model. Space Adventures has never developed its own space vehicles or space infrastructure. The company is only buying tickets from Soyuz. But the price of these places has exploded after the shutdown of the space shuttle program in 2011.
At the same time that the first tourists were sent into space, the first private companies of the New Space appeared. These private companies had to find an economic interest that justified the creation of space vehicles. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, founded in 2000 and 2004, immediately focused their strategy on space tourism. For these two companies, however, the approach is very different from Space Adventures. To create a real market, mass space tourism is needed. The two bosses of these companies have concluded that they we must drastically lower the price of the ticket and ensure much better security.
Space tourism experiences can be very different
Although Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic offer a fairly similar service, their technical solutions are totally different. Maybe commercial operations will start in 2020 or 2021.
Virgin Galactic uses a SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, which is flown up to 15 km under the wings of an airplane. Its hybrid engine is then lit for a little over a minute to climb between 80 and 110 km altitude. After four to five minutes in zero gravity, the two pilots and their six passengers enter the dense layers of the atmosphere and land. The experience will last two hours and Virgin Galactic charges $ 250,000 per ticket. Several hundred customers have already paid and are waiting for Virgin Galactic to be ready. The manned flights made in December 2018 and in February 2019 proved that this flight plan works.
Blue Origin uses its rocket, the New Shepard, and a space capsule. The booster propels the capsule before returning to land vertically like the SpaceX boosters do. The space capsule containing the passengers spends a few minutes in weightlessness before going down under a parachute. Since 2015, Blue Origin has done many flight plan tests but with no passengers on board. We don’t yet know the price of this experience but it is likely that the Jeff Bezos’ company practices the same price as Virgin Galactic.
The conditions for success of space tourism
Reuse is mandatory
The best answer to this issue is the suborbital flight which consists in climbing to a hundred kilometers of altitude, offering a few minutes in weightlessness then return to Earth. As suborbital flight is much less constraining than orbital flight, those spacecrafts are much cheaper to develop than those going into Earth orbit.
The two US companies also want their space vehicle to be fully reusable, as the aim is to offer tickets at an affordable price for a sufficient number of customers. But it is difficult to achieve an inhabited flight, even suborbital. The flight plan is now ok, but it took a long time, five to ten years longer than originally planned Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.
Security must be flawless
Now that technology is developed, the success or failure of these companies will depend on the security they can provide to their customers. Nobody is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars risking their life. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have to prove that a space flight is no more dangerous than a day at an amusement park. There’s still a lot of work technically and in terms of communication. To make innocuous an inhabited space or suborbital flight is a huge gamble. Blue Origin already communicates on the escape abilities of its space capsule during any phase of the flight. It will probably take years and maybe even decades and some price cuts before this type of activity is considered commonplace.
Prices must be affordable
Space tourism will initially be reserved for an elite. The slightest suborbital flight costs the price of a house. It’s hard to imagine how this can turn into mass tourism, although prices are expected to fall. After all, it took a few decades before airliners began to offer more affordable fares. But that might not be a good thing because mass space tourism would have a significant ecological cost. Virgin Galactic has announced that it has already received more than $ 80 million in deposits, but even with six passengers, a very large number of suborbital flights will be needed to offset the huge development costs.
The positive effects of space tourism in the world
We can however be optimistic and see the positive points of space tourism. This activity doesn’t depend on the budgets of space agencies and changing political will. New Space companies can therefore build independent projects.
Space tourism, even suborbital, could also allow to interest the general public again in the problems of the space, and perhaps these small leaps out of the atmosphere will make dream a new generation of engineers who will wish to go still further. Finally, it is an economic activity that allows to consider a real industrialization and therefore a significant cost reduction. Even space agencies and science in general could benefit from access space with low prices.
The future of space tourism
Near us, in Earth orbit
Space Adventures seems very interested in the Boeing CST-100 Starliner. Perhaps this will diversify the missions of the new US manned ships.
Space tourism in Earth’s orbit could be composed of space capsules and private space stations. Some companies like Bigelow and Orion Span have already communicated on the development of space station projects. The Aurora Space Station concept from Orion Span is a real space hotel.
The Moon makes people dream
The immediate future of space tourism is probably suborbital flight. But other companies have the ambition to take customers much further. SpaceX’s Starship is partially funded by a space tourism project. We know that a Japanese billionaire paid a huge amount of money to the Elon Musk’s company to go around the Moon.
Space Adventures, which is currently the only company to have sent tourists into space, is working on a similar project named DSE-Alpha. The idea is to use Russian spaceships and launchers to take tourists around the Moon. This seems a little more complex however because the date of this travel around the Moon is often postponed. We still know that one of the two seats available on the flight has already been sold for $ 150 million in 2011.
Tourists on Mars ?
To be continued…
Pictures by SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, NASASources