Feb 25, 2020 - Science

Space tourism gets ready for launch

Illustration of a rocket emitting dollar signs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Multiple space tourism companies are aiming to send their first customers to the edge of space before the end of this year.

Why it matters: Right now, most revenue in the space industry is tied up in government contracts, but experts say the maturing industry will need tourism to grow into the $1 trillion economy some predict it could be.

  • Tourism ventures may not bring in huge amounts of revenue when compared to the rest of the industry, but they could bolster it as a whole, bringing in new talent and making space something the public thinks about daily.

Driving the news: Two space tourism companies — Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin — are expected to fly people to suborbital space this year.

  • Virgin Galactic's stock has been rallying, though what's fueling interest in the company isn't yet clear.
  • SpaceX just penned a deal with Space Adventures to fly private citizens to orbit aboard their Crew Dragon spacecraft next year.
  • Northern Sky Research predicts the suborbital and orbital tourism market could be worth as much as $14 billion in revenue worldwide by 2028.

Details: Blue Origin — backed by Jeff Bezos — plans to use its New Shepard space system to launch customers to the edge of space in a capsule that separates from a small rocket and then comes back to Earth under parachutes.

  • Virgin Galactic — founded by Richard Branson — relies on a space plane dropped from a carrier aircraft.
  • Once dropped, the plane's rocket motor kicks on, bringing passengers high into the atmosphere.

By the numbers: Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s systems are designed to fly passengers more than 50 miles above the Earth’s surface.

  • Virgin Galactic's seats are about $250,000 a pop with more than 600 tickets sold to date. Blue Origin's tickets are expected to be comparable in price.
  • Both will allow passengers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness before coming back to Earth.
  • Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic will carry six passengers per flight, but while Virgin's system will have two pilots flying the space plane, Blue Origin's flies autonomously.

Virgin Galactic flew its first test passenger in 2019 and is expected to fly Branson sometime this year. Blue Origin has yet to launch a person with its space system.

Between the lines: The FAA is able to regulate the safety of the public under the launch licenses these companies need to fly their suborbital vehicles, but the government doesn't have the ability to regulate the safety of the systems themselves.

  • Congress placed a moratorium on FAA rule making around the safety and design of these vehicles until at least 2023, unless a major accident or close call occurs.
  • Proponents of the moratorium say it is necessary to allow these companies to develop their systems and start flying before regulations that could stifle growth are put in place.
  • Others think that these systems should be held to a high standard of safety, in similar ways to the airline industry today.

Yes, but: The market for suborbital tourism and especially orbital tourism will likely be limited to just the most wealthy people on Earth, at least for the immediate future.

  • There are also real questions about how long suborbital tourism will hold the public's interest.
  • Orbital tourism is millions of dollars more expensive than a suborbital trip to space, and it likely won't get much cheaper in the near term, so if these suborbital space travelers get a taste for spaceflight, that may be as far as they can go.
  • After an initial flurry of suborbital rides exhausts the market, people will be asking "what's next?" James Vedda of the Aerospace Corporation told Axios. "And then the next thing needs 10 more years of development, that gap is going to deflate the interest in the market."
Go deeper