Richard Branson speaks after flying into space aboard the Virgin Galactic spacecraft, a journey he described as the “experience of a lifetime” on July 11, 2021.
©Patrick T. Fallon/AFP
Richard Branson with his company Virgin Galactic successfully launched the first commercial shuttle into space last year. With the projects of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, will space tourism really develop in the coming years?
Atlantico: One year ago, days before Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson successfully launched the first commercial shuttle into space. A year later, were there any follow-ups to these high-profile firsts?
Gilles Rosenberger: Next to Jeff Bezos, his company BLUE ORIGIN has launched the reusable rocket NEW SHEPARD 6 times since its first flight on July 20, 2021, named NS-16, for 28 tourists, each of whom was paid about $500,000 (the price is not public).
For the record, the first flight was auctioned for $28 million.
Next to Richard Branson, his company VIRGIN GALLACTIC has not carried a new passenger since the July 2021 flight of its space glider SpaceShipTwo. Its successor, SpaceShipThree, is in the qualification stage.
Flights should resume in 2023 for a unit price of between $200,000 and $450,000.
In both cases, these are suborbital flights that allow you to go and stay a few minutes beyond the Kerman line, which is located at an altitude of about 100 km and constitutes the “scientific boundary” of space.
Space tourism is not limited to these short flights.
Between 2001 and 2010, the Russians quite regularly “offered” a place aboard the Soyuz to spend a week aboard the International Space Station ISS.
Finally offered… against a check for between 25 and 30 million dollars per flight.
And half a dozen space tourists have taken advantage of this opportunity, born out of the Russian space industry’s need for cash.
It was interrupted in 2010 with the development of research programs on board the ISS and the impossibility of dedicating a space to a useless tourist..;
NASA last year called for tenders to allow space tourists to spend a few days on the ISS using Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket.
To be continued… in 2023.
How to analyze the current situation?
The development of space tourism is just beginning.
It is initiated by 2 technological and economic processes.
NEW SPACE, the new space business of putting hundreds of microsatellites into orbit (we’re talking about countless) that requires the ability to reuse launchers and engines, where the previous model was based on single use. NEW SPACE has completely changed the economic balance of this industry: allowing private players like Bezos, Branson or Musk. Businesses have to concentrate very large investments with high risks.
Separation of NASA that changed its core business: it moved away from building rockets, shuttles, satellites (already subcontracted to Boeing, Lockheed, etc.) to being a prime contractor.
They no longer want to be co-owners of the ISS space station, but tenants, …
And suddenly, it leaves the ribbon to the private sector which no longer has only scientific and geopolitical objectives.
In all this, space tourism became the cash contribution and above all the image to attract new private investors to the companies of Messrs. Bezos, Branson and Musk (to name only the best known).
Can we imagine that space tourism will really develop in the coming years?
Crystal balls are hard to come by.
But even if Jeff Bezos claims his hydrogen engines are clean… and emit no CO2, forget to mention where his hydrogen comes from…
Richard Branson doesn’t even mention his environmental footprint, which is inherently bad with his current propulsion policy.
Same goes for Elon Musk.
To be purely scientific, in terms of global emissions, each minute of flight counts as only a few tens of tons and is therefore very small compared to the roughly 40 billion tons of CO2 emitted each year.
But we are in the symbolic domain here.
Beyond their declarations, the passengers on this flight (super-rich?) seem to have easily arbitrated between their environmental awareness and a 10-minute flight that weighs the equivalent of several years of CO2 emissions of the “average Earthling.”
But escaping Earth’s gravity always requires a great deal of energy; And in a world where energy is already becoming expensive and scarce, such excesses will eventually clash with public opinion.
One day, tycoons who have fun like this and those who have businesses that address the general public will have to choose.
And Sir Richard Branson might be the most sensitive on this list…
What options are there for the future in the sector?
An odd answer would lead to the answer: that the sector will continue to “send into the air” (and rather into space) a few dozen (or a hundred) candidates a year as long as the awareness of the emptiness of such flights remains weak. Visible in public opinion (even if at the time of writing these words, I dreamed of being one of these passengers!).
But it won’t last.
It will remain a staple in the history of aviation and space.
Just like supersonic commercial flights.
Here too, an unfulfilled personal dream… but today my environmental awareness would make it impossible.
The world is moving. Ours too.