Oct 18, 2022 - Science

Space travel is a long way from its destination

Illustration of an astronaut with luggage

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The private human spaceflight industry will need to scale up and find new markets to reach its goal of resembling the airline industry to take people to space.

Why it matters: SpaceX and others have already begun selling their dream of rockets launching thousands of people to orbit, the Moon, Mars and even beyond.

  • But today, the private human spaceflight industry is a relatively small portion of the space economy and several hurdles stand in the industry's way of reaching its goal.

Driving the news: SpaceX announced last week that an American couple purchased tickets to fly around the Moon aboard a Starship vehicle.

  • Instead of having potential customers buy full missions — like the dearMoon mission around the Moon — this allows those with the money to buy single seats for a lunar flight.
  • "This mission is really groundbreaking in that it really puts us on a very firm step towards airline-like operations where now for the first time you can buy an individual seat to the Moon," Aarti Matthews, SpaceX director of Starship crew and cargo programs, said during a press call last week.

The big picture: The human spaceflight industry is maturing. Blue Origin is launching paying customers regularly on suborbital flights, Virgin Galactic is working toward the same goal, and SpaceX is flying private and astronaut crews to orbit.

Reality check: It's not guaranteed that space travel will ever reach airline-like status.

  • The market is obvious for air travel that takes people from place to place for business or personal reasons. But space travel has a far less clear market for everyday people for the foreseeable future.
  • The demand for human spaceflight and activity in low-Earth orbit, planetary exploration and planetary settlement "at the moment is largely created by government policy, and by the vision and spending of individuals as opposed to a very broad-based market pull," Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of BryceTech, tells Axios.
  • In order to create something akin to airline-like operations in space, there needs to be destinations and reasons to go to orbit, including activities like tourist visits to private space stations and the manufacturing of specialized materials in space, experts say. But those anchor points for the private market are still years, if not decades, away.

State of play: The market for space travel may not resemble the airline industry anytime soon, but the regulatory environment governing key parts of the space industry may start to resemble the airline industry's process in the not-too-distant future.

  • Today, every American rocket launch has to be licensed through the FAA, a process that can be lengthy with a lot of red tape and logistical hurdles.
  • But in the future, that could be streamlined, with companies able to launch their rockets without specific launch licenses for each flight, much like an airline.
  • That will get the industry to more "normalized operations," the Secure World Foundation's Ian Christensen tells Axios.

What to watch: "Airline-like travel will absolutely be necessary when there is demand at scale for commercial human spaceflight," BryceTech's Christensen says. "The question is what will drive that demand at scale? And when will that happen?"

  • A dramatic lowering of the cost of spaceflight, which would allow more people to experience it, could spur a shift in the industry.
  • SpaceX's Starship — if it works as expected — could help to lower the cost of going to space.
  • The vehicle will be reusable and is expected to have a high capacity for delivering cargo and people to space, allowing a major cost reduction that experts say could change the way people access orbit and beyond.
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