It’s not a good week for extreme frontier tourism, considering what just happened with OceanGate. And it’s really not a good week to take your inaugural commercial flight to space with paying customers aboard. But, if you’re Richard Branson at Virgin Galactic, then you’re well prepared to strap passengers in and send them on a 90-minute suborbital flight. You can’t scrub it now. After all, the success of this flight is crucial to the promotion of future flights, where tickets are currently sitting at $450,000 a seat.
The 2020s are the decade of nascent space tourism. Private companies can send paying customers into space on their own rockets built with their own technology. Nowadays, astronauts are people with the biggest wallets, not necessarily the biggest brains. Right now the big three are SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic. Each company is headed by a billionaire — which you have to be if you want to be able to afford a ticket.
While each company’s method of getting you to outer space (or just-below outer space) is slightly different, they all have the same customer base: national governments and the wealthy. Acquiring a government contract is huge for any aerospace company and strengthens the reputation and perceived safety of its technology.
This inaugural flight, dubbed Galactic 01, will send up three members of the Italian Air Force and National Research Council to conduct experiments in microgravity. They will be accompanied by a crew of five Virgin Galactic pilots.
Reputation and reliability are highly coveted as we enter an era of commercialism in space that creates new dimensions of consideration for these rocketeers: consumerism and the customer experience. The sub-orbital transportation and space tourism market is expected to reach $2.58 billion by 2031. The potential payout for being some of the first reliable spaceflight providers makes this second-wave space race well worth it.
Exploring Government Relations
Governmental space programs offering contracts to aerospace companies are nothing new. For the future NASA-led Artemis Missions to the moon, NASA contracted both Blue Origin and SpaceX for different parts of the moon landing. Historically, aerospace firms have played a big part in American space exploration. The Apollo Missions were built by Boeing (who built all three stages of the Saturn V) and other firms like McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell.
Heather Vescent, author, futurist, and President of The Purple Tornado a, research-driven strategic intelligence consultancy, draws the conception of commercial space flight back to government funding.
“Governments partnering with private sector enables the private sector to utilize
government funding to jumpstart an industry and not necessarily be beholden
to VCs and other for-profit motivations. This is a beautiful example of how
the US [government] supports innovation through [government] contracts.”
This current Virgin Galactic mission deal was signed with the Italian government in October 2019. At the moment, there are no talks of future collaboration between Virgin Galactic and the Italian government, but I am sure a successful flight will harbor a continued partnership.
The Current Problem with Space Tourism
A lot of people dream of launching into space, myself included, but a closer look at the space tourism industry shows that it might be best to let those who can afford the $450,000 ticket iron out all of the kinks first. The space tourism industry is lacking in safety, equitability, and sustainability — three big factors that will dictate its future.
Cutting Corners on Regulation
The topics of safety, due diligence, and proper oversight have been thrust into the spotlight since OceanGate’s Titan submersible disaster. There are a lot of lessons from the accident that can be applied to any industry putting paying customers into dangerous situations.
Some experts have been keeping a careful watch over the aerospace sector over the years, like Joe Gutheinz, a former Army Aviator, commercial pilot, FAA Special Agent, DOT Office of Inspector General (OIG) Special Agent, and a retired NASA OIG Senior Special Agent. With the OIG, he’s investigated the fire and collision of the Russian Mir Space Station, defective temperature transducers that grounded the Space Shuttle Fleet, and even an investigation into several companies selling seats on a nonexistent rocket ship. Joe Gutheinz writes,
“As someone who investigated both the Russian and NASA space programs and found each willing to accept unreasonable risks and then lie about those risks, I wonder, if a private company would be more or less inclined to take unreasonable risks and lie about them. I believe that private space companies require a dedicated law enforcement agency, like NASA OIG, to make sure corners are not cut and mistakes are not covered up.”
The current level of regulation and oversight over private space companies does not match the pace at which these companies are growing. It seems like unreasonable risks are already being taken, as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law that would limit the liability of private space companies launching out of Florida.
Private companies and those aboard the spaceship are protected from lawsuits even if residents of Florida are injured or killed, under the new stipulation that the spaceflight provider “reasonably should have known of a dangerous condition.” Like Gutheinz shared, this gives a small, but open, window for private companies to “take unreasonable risks and lie about them.” Lawsuits can only occur in Florida if there was “actual knowledge of an extraordinarily dangerous condition.”
Equitability? Not anytime soon.
Anthony Buzzetta, an experienced tech expert and owner of G TIER®, brings up an important perspective on the inclusionary aspect of space tourism,
“Some [experts] argue opening up access to people from all backgrounds can lead to broader scientific exploration instead of just providing wealthy individuals a route into orbit.”
As it stands, only the incredibly privileged will be able to experience spaceflight in our lifetimes. Anthony emphasized the crucial role of diversity in space exploration, noting that it encompasses the inclusion of diverse individuals and a variety of opportunities, which could lead to new discoveries and avenues for humanity. Embracing these aspects will allow the space industry to unlock innovative ideas, foster collaboration, and drive societal progress. It is a benefit to us all to ensure the tourism industry stays inclusive.
Don’t forget the environment
Achieving sustainability in the aerospace industry is a hard thing to promote and achieve. The environmental impact is high: greenhouse gasses and pollutants from launches, used rocket stages and defunct satellites burning up in the atmosphere, and even orbital debris threatening the sustainability of our orbits. Anthony Buzzetta claims that environmental issues cannot be ignored, despite whatever innovations and successes commercial spaceflight brings. He believes,
“…most people would not be able to afford this technology-driven experience due to both ethical implications alongside issues involving atmospheric pollution on Earth exacerbated by these launches happening more regularly if true ‘space tourism’ were ever realized — making sustainability a big challenge too for this industry going forward.”
Are you buying a ticket?
It’s exciting to be alive at this time and watch outer space become our reality, but we need to stay critical of the industry leaders. They have a lot of work to do and a responsibility to make their operations safe, sustainable, and open to all humans. The sector is riding the edge of commercialization and requires careful consideration to harness its potential without compromising our future. Space is for everyone, not just the privileged.