Mankind’s fascination towards space is nothing new. With the advent of technology, the fact of man in space is now scientifically possible. It all started from the mid-1950s, when the space war between the US and the then Soviet Union (present Russia) began. The space war ended in 1969 when American Neil Armstrong left his footprints on the moon’s surface. Since then many people have gone to space. But as the world moves forward in the 21st century, space tourism evolved.
What is space tourism
Space tourism is basically human space travel for recreational purposes. It’s a very niche segment of the aviation industry, which means only of handful of people with immense wealth can afford a ticket. There are several types of space tourism, the most common ones being orbital, sub-orbital and lunar space tourism. The industry also involves manufacturing spacecraft. Today, aerospace companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are paving the way for private space travel and building related vehicles.
Motivations behind space joyrides stem from curiosity and fascination. If someone is lucky enough to hop aboard on a spacecraft as a tourist, they can get a stunning peek of planet earth juxtaposed against the vast unknown of space. Tourists can also feel moments of microgravity. Here, gravity is extremely weak which gives tourists the opportunity to float around the spacecraft weightlessly. Tourists can sometimes operate the spacecraft under supervision. Virgin Galactic riders can reach 53 miles above Earth’s sea level and stay afloat for about 90 minutes. Blue Origin riders can reach 62 miles above sea level and stay afloat for just 10 minutes. Except Blue Origin spacecraft crosses the Kármán line, the internationally recognized boundary between Earth and space. SpaceX, which is yet to take flight, announced they’ll have more offers. The overall experience is pretty much the same.
The whole experience of being in space has a name- Overview effect. Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, describes this effect as, “When you see Earth from that high up, it changes your perspective on things and how interconnected we are and how we squander that here on Earth.” Space nerds who longed to be astronauts and happens to have a lot of money are meant to enjoy these trips the most.
Why is the topic in vogue
Amidst the chaos of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, space tourism came back into the limelight thanks to billionaire businessmen Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson. We know them as founders of Amazon and Virgin Group respectively. But they also shared a common childhood dream of going to space. In July 2021, within days in between, Bezos and Branson made their space ambitions a reality. This sparked new headlines and dissections on space tourism.
It took Branson 17 years to briefly hover in space. He founded Virgin Galactic, a subsidiary of Virgin Group, in 2004 with the goal of creating a winged spacecraft capable of reaching a little more than 50 miles above sea level. The spacecraft named VSS Unity can accommodate 8 people, including 6 passengers and 2 pilots. VSS Unity took off on July 11 from the company’s Spaceport America launch site in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, USA. The entire adventure was webcast live for the world to see.
Bezos’s journey started earlier. He founded Blue Origin in 2000 with the aim of using some of his Amazon fortune to develop rocket technology for various business purposes. The technology Bezos developed to get to space is different from that of Branson’s. The New Shepard is a small, suborbital rocket that takes off vertically from a launch pad. This enables shorter yet higher-speed than Branson’s aerial-launched spacecraft. New Shepard can accommodate 4 crew members. It took off on July 20 from a private launch site on a desert near Van Horn, Texas, USA. Like Branson, the entire 10-minute flight was webcast live.
Another billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk also has plans for his own space joyride and business ambitions. He founded SpaceX in 2002 and the company’s biggest project is Starship. This rocket is designed for crewed missions to Mars and is now gearing up for its first orbital flight. Starship will take off from the Starbase facility in Texas and land off the coast of Hawaii, USA. According to Musk, the take is just around the corner as SpaceX is pending regulatory approval. Starship can hold as many as 100 people on board. The upcoming flight will last 90 minutes.
The billionaire space race is being publicized well over the years. Clearly, Branson, Bezos and Musk has bigger ambitions in the aerospace industry, regardless of the criticism for their actions.
Branson and Bezos may have achieved big but their self-funded space tour is not free of criticism. Critics are seeing their space joyrides as nothing but vanity projects and grotesque display of immense wealth. More than a few people can afford a trip to Maldives or Venice but only a handful of people can do the same for a ticket to space. Virgin Galactic is charging $250,000 per ticket in advanced sales and has said the price will eventually rise. Blue Origin hasn’t announced their ticket charge. But in a June auction, a ride on an upcoming flight was sold for $28 million. News like these are reminders about the blatant income inequality in the world. Amidst that big question mark, the space race has left many people unimpressed.
These billionaires may have reached the stars and publicized their achievements in optimistic ways but critics say they’ve missed the mark. They left a planet plagued in problems which the investments made in space joyrides could’ve fixed to some extent.
Bezos spent $5.5 billion for a few moments in space while Branson spent around $841 million. According to the World Food Program, it would take $6 billion to save 43 million people from hunger worldwide this year. COVAX is fighting vaccine inequity by securing COVID-19 vaccine doses for vulnerable communities in low-income countries. The goal is to ensure 2 billion doses by 2022, but needs around $2.6 billion to get there. Bezos alone can fund these activities. These are just two notable examples on how the money for Bezos’ “best day ever” could’ve been spent. Other philanthropic options include humanitarian interventions, fighting climate change, et cetera. Branson, Bezos and Musk are approximately worth $5.9, $205 and $190 billion respectively.
Tax is another big reason behind the billionaire space race’s criticism. Wealthy Americans like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk paid very little to no income tax year after year. On the other hand, ordinary people regularly have to pay them at regular rates regardless of economic situation.
Bezos in particular is criticized more. He saw his net worth balloon by $70 billion more during the pandemic while countless people struggled financially. His company Amazon is under fire for years over working conditions, working hours being as long as 14 and low pay. The controversy further amplified when Bezos thanked employees and customers for paying for his space joyride in a post-flight press conference. There are reports of staff urinating in bottles to avoid missing delivery rates and regularly doing 14-hour shifts.
The space tourism industry as a whole is criticized for its environmental cost. Regular airplane movement alone leaves behind substantial carbon footprint. According to experts, the space tourism industry will worsen the situation even more.
Virgin Galactic claims the carbon footprint of its space flights is comparable to that of a business class ticket on a transatlantic flight. This amounts to 0.2 kilograms per kilometer. But space flights carry much fewer passengers. So, Branson’s journey cost 12 kilograms of Carbon Dioxide per kilometer. The company says emissions offset in the future but it’s still too much for a mere few minutes of frolicking in space. Blue Origin, on the other hand, claims their environmental impact will be comparatively lower. This is because New Shepard’s engines consist of liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen, which don’t emit carbon. But producing hydrogen fuels depends heavily on fossil fuels like natural gas. The steam reformation process makes them emit carbon dioxide.
According to Eloise Maras, a physical geography professor at the University College London, the carbon footprint left behind from one of the rockets is 100 times higher than a long-haul airplane flight. This directly pollutes the stratosphere and depletes the ozone layer protecting earth from ultraviolet rays.
It’s not that Bezos and Branson are oblivious. In fact, after coming back, Bezos stated that he feels more deeply about planet Earth now. Bezos pledged to spend &10 billion on climate change combat efforts and Branson proposed a climate dividend. But their space ambitions just strengthen their place among the 1% richest among the global population already responsible for disproportionate carbon emissions.
Are there scientific merits?
Despite criticisms, experts also noted that these suborbital space flights have their share of scientific merit. It’s still a bit unclear if these trips will offer major insights. But they might provide useful information for further space exploration. These trips are also marketed as opportunities for scientific experiments. For example, the most recent Virgin Galactic flight carried plants to test how they respond to microgravity. Future missions include studying dust behavior on asteroids and practicing surgery techniques in space. Space exploration is important to better understand not just the universe but also our very own mother Earth. These space flights have set a unique platform for aerospace and scientific research.
Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX can see if their commercial vehicles are reusable at scale for further space travel. There is also the potential of making more advanced spacecraft for flights deeper in space. Suborbital spaceflights may also make new ways to travel from one place to another on Earth. According to SpaceX, travelling through space can shorten long-haul flights down to 30 minutes.
The future of space tourism looks very bright. It’s expected to be worth $8 billion by 2030. Sir Richard Branson has plans to make space travel more accessible. Virgin Galactic already has 600 tickets booked for upcoming flights. Future passengers include celebrities like Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. Tickets sold are worth around $80 million. Another 1000 people placed $1000 deposits on future ticket purchases when sales reopen. There will be two more tests this year before commercial flights begin next year. The company aims to expand its spaceports and offer 400 flights per year from every spaceport.
As for Blue Origin, since Jeff Bezos stepped down from Amazon, he’ll spend more time and money on his space firm. Another rocket named New Glenn is being developed and is set for launch later this year. Blue Origin is among 17 companies the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected to develop space tech for missions to the moon and beyond. As part of that campaign, NASA awarded Blue Origin $1 billion to develop initial designs for a human-landing system for the upcoming Artemis 3 mission. Artemis 3 is the manned mission to the Moon set for launch in 2024. Bezos also believes sustainable human habitation is possible in the Moon and he is working on achieving that goal.
SpaceX has even bigger ambitions. After the debut orbital flight later this year, the company aims to move further toward Mars’ colonization. There are plans for a tourist mission around the moon in 2023 and sending an unmanned spacecraft on Mars in 2024. Elon Musk is very optimistic about humans setting foot on Mars by 2026.
When the billionaire space flight launches was trending on social media, there was a change.org petition on not allowing Bezos to come back on Earth. The signatures were over 150,000. This petition and whatever criticism Bezos, Branson and Musk have faced, won’t stop them from achieving their space dreams. We ordinary people just have to see whether they live up to their other expectations or not.