The Final Frontier

July 12, 2021

There has been much discussion, and even excitement, over the last few years about the privatization of space. The resulting impacts are potentially remarkable. Some of the benefits we are already experiencing include cheaper satellite deployment and asteroid mining. Another somewhat less profound is a new service offered by the private space industry: space tourism and the ability to exit our atmosphere as private citizens. This weekend saw the first real-world example of space tourism with Sir Richard Branson taking to the stars aboard Virgin Galactic’s first successful manned flight to space.

Although the trip by Mr. Branson was 22 years in the making, he moved up his timetable to make sure he beat his closest spaceflight competitor, Jeff Bezos, to space. Mr. Bezos’ first Blue Origins flight comes right on the heels of Virgin Galactic’s, set to launch on June 20th. It must be an exciting time to be a billionaire these days, with your own private space flight company!

The goal of these companies is to not just cater to the super-rich: they both want to open the skies to those of more modest means. In Virgin Galactic’s case, the goal is to offer over 400 flights per year, each with six seats for paying customers. The initial cost per ticket is $250,000 but is expected to decrease significantly over time, as more ships are added to the fleet, and initial costs are recouped. In addition to the hard costs associated with the ticket price, any prospective astronauts must also factor in the seven days of health and safety training that are required before boarding.

Blue Origin also has a tourism-focused division though, much like SpaceX, the main goal is the efficient commercialization of space, with tourism being an incidental benefit. The company will still market to those wanting to spend a few hours in weightlessness far above the horizon, but the marketing is for a distinctly different crowd. For example, the starting price for a ticket on next week’s flight was over $4.8 million. The large cost discrepancy stems from the distinct ships taking customers to space. Virgin Galactic uses a specially designed ‘space plane’ while Blue Origins uses a more traditional (and more expensive) rocket propulsion system.

Regardless of which company you hire to take you to the stars, visitors will swell the ranks of the current group of fewer than one thousand individuals to have ever passed the Armstrong Line 50 miles above the surface of the earth. It is an exhilarating thought, despite the current costs, which will hopefully come down over time. At some point, flying to space may be just as routine as flying to New York. On a personal note, I look forward to that day, though I do not expect it any time soon. Until then, we mere mortals must continue to visit the vastness of space through books and film and hope for a day when the price is within our reach.

Carey Blakley