The Future of Space Vacations: Will Affordable Trips Beyond Earth Become a Reality?
Space Tourism: Exploring the Path to Affordable Trips Beyond Earth. Delve into the recent competition and the potential for suborbital flights and low-orbit tourism.
The recent competition between billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos in the media space race has brought space tourism into the limelight once again. Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, took a suborbital flight on July 11, followed by Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin and former CEO of Amazon, a few days later on July 20.
Beyond the spectacle and the quest for attention, as demonstrated by Bezos' attention-grabbing decision to invite 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk to join him and become the oldest person to venture into space, the main driving force behind this race is economic. Both billionaires aim to position themselves as leaders in the future suborbital flight market.
Among the various options for space tourism, suborbital flights hold the most promise due to their relative simplicity and affordability. These flights involve crossing the symbolic boundary of space, typically between 80 and 100 kilometers above Earth, for just a few minutes. During this time, passengers experience weightlessness, witness the darkness of space, and marvel at the curvature of our planet.
It is important to distinguish suborbital flights from long-duration stays in orbit, such as the ongoing mission of Thomas Pesquet aboard the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits at an altitude of 400 kilometers. In the realm of adventure tourism, suborbital flights, with their brief yet intense experiences and perceived level of risk, are more akin to bungee jumping than prolonged exposure to an extreme environment.
For Virgin Galactic, the successful test flight of SpaceShipTwo sets the stage for the start of regular commercial operations, expected to commence in 2022. The company has already sold approximately 600 tickets at a price of 200,000 euros each, and their long-term plans involve conducting 400 flights per year.
Meanwhile, Blue Origin has already welcomed its first paying customer on the July 20 flight, where a seat was auctioned and sold for an astonishing 24 million euros. Subsequently, the ticket price is expected to stabilize around one million euros.
Despite the high costs, suborbital flights remain significantly more accessible compared to the International Space Station, which has already hosted seven tourists since its inception in 2001. All of these individuals had arranged their ten-day stays through Space Adventure, an American tour operator, at an approximate cost of 45 million euros.
Given the steep prices, space tourism is still far from becoming a mass-market phenomenon. Its current positioning in an ultra-niche market necessitates a shift in perspective regarding the notion of "space for all."
In a techno-economic study conducted for the "Objectif Lune" program of the National Association for Research and Technology (ANRT), we assessed the potential market size of space tourism, assuming that prospective travelers would be willing to allocate up to 10% of their assets towards the endeavor, following the precedent set by the first space tourist, Dennis Tito, in 2001.
Based on the World Ultra Wealth Report 2020 and the Forbes ranking, the distribution of global wealth (black curve) reveals that a stay on the ISS (represented by the red dotted line) is affordable for less than 10,000 individuals, while a suborbital flight (represented by the blue dotted line) is accessible to less than 10 million people. This estimation assumes that potential travelers are willing to allocate up to 10% of their wealth to the space tourism project.
It appears that nearly seven million people worldwide could afford a suborbital flight, whereas only 7,500 could afford a stay on the ISS. However, the actual market is even smaller due to factors such as the long preparation time and physical fitness requirements, which limit the number of potential customers.
These figures may change positively as the costs of space access decrease, especially with the entry of SpaceX into the market. The reusability of launchers and capsules should further reduce costs, which have already decreased by a factor of three in recent years.
Since the last tourist flight to the ISS in 2009, it has been the availability of seats on launchers, rather than ticket prices, that has hindered the development of orbital tourism. With the retirement of the American space shuttles, the Russian Soyuz became the sole means of access to the ISS for astronauts from different space agencies, making it impossible to accommodate tourists.
Fortunately, this situation has now been resolved with the introduction of a new American means of access to the ISS, SpaceX's Crew Dragon. As a result, the return of tourists to the ISS is expected to occur this fall, with three planned missions.
Looking ahead, the development of another American vehicle, Boeing's CST-100 Starliner, indicates a strong expansion of tourist activities in low orbit. This includes dedicated commercial missions by Axiom and a strategy to fill the vacant seats on the Russian Soyuz side.
Objective: Around the Moon
In the longer term, an even more distant destination could emerge: the Moon. While lunar landings are complex and costly (The Golden Spike Company announced a $750 million ticket in 2012), it is currently challenging to envision such ventures. However, the complexity could be circumvented by offering flybys without a surface stay, following the model of the Apollo 8 mission.
This approach would significantly reduce operational complexity and infrastructure requirements. The six-day flyby experience could be offered at a price comparable to that of a flight to the ISS, according to Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has already purchased a ticket for the first tourist flyby around the Moon, scheduled for 2023.
While awaiting lunar landings, space tourism must address its major image problem. As it is currently reserved for a small number of wealthy individuals, it has faced significant criticism, particularly regarding greenhouse gas emissions inequalities.
While the total impact of space tourism is expected to remain marginal within the tourism sector, which already accounts for 8% of global emissions, a single suborbital flight consumes a significant portion of an individual's annual emissions budget to limit global warming to 2°C.
As the concept of "flygskam" (flight shame) has already impacted air travel forecasts, even prior to the global health crisis, it remains to be seen if space tourism will one day attract more tourists than scientists, akin to the polar regions or Mount Everest. The public debate, provided it engages with this subject that has largely been dominated by a few enthusiastic billionaires, undoubtedly holds part of the answer.
What's Your Reaction?