The Tourism Space Race: Head Start Or False Start?
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With practically every corner of the Earth accessible for anyone with means these days, where can people go for a truly new adventure? Some believe that space is the answer. The space tourism industry has seen unprecedented investment in recent years, but with tickets for a trip costing more than most of care to imagine what use does space tourism have for the average person?
Has space travel had its day?
With the final Apollo mission in 1972 spelling the end of deep space exploration for humans along with the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 you'd be forgiven for thinking that the days of ground breaking space travel are over. Government funding has been cut for an industry that no longer seems to capture the imagination of the public.
For some though, space has never lost its allure. We are of course talking about some of the most high profile CEOs and billionaires in the world, who seem willing to stop at nothing in order to make the world more and more like their favorite sci-fi movie.
These CEOs have become the architects of the fledgling commercial space industry, which has, to be honest, hit a few bumps along the road. It seems now though that finally the millions of dollars of investment are beginning to pay their dividend with companies coming very close to their first commercial flights.
The main players:
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Probably the oldest and most well-known poster boy for Space Tourism has been Richard Branson, who setup Virgin Galactic all the way back in 2004 with the hopes of sending customers up in his SpaceShipTwo aircraft for a taste of suborbital space fun. Held up in progress by a fatal crash in 2014 which killed a test pilot, his company is edging ever closer to its first flights in the coming years. Reports indicate more than 700 people have bought the 250,000 dollars tickets for their flights, including celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Step in our next CEO, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who has promised to use his 'Amazon winnings' to invest as much as it takes to get his new venture into space. The firm, Blue Origin, unlike Virgin's space plane intends to use traditional rocket launched capsules to send passengers up, where they can expect a full half hour of weightlessness as they peer down on Earth below them.
Once again America is in competition with its Cold War rival Russia though. State owned company KosmosKurs has announced its intention to take space tourists to the last frontier as early as 2020. KosmosKurs intends to charge around 250,000 dollars a trip.
But for some, suborbital flights simply aren't ambitious enough; enter Elon Musk the man who wants us to drive electric cars, ride hyperloop systems and generally live like one of the Jetsons. Musk's company SpaceX is not satisfied with suborbital flight or even trips to the ISS, they are planning to go further than mankind has for nearly half a century. Earlier this year Musk announced that they will be sending two passengers on a flight around the moon in 2018 with customers paying an estimated 100 million dollars for the privilege.
So there we have it, a rundown of the big players in today's space tourism market. It seems that for an industry which has not yet had a single paying passenger things are getting rather competitive.
Then there's the question of why should ordinary people care about an industry which for the time being will only cater to the exceptionally wealthy?
First of all there are the economic benefits with a 2010 report from the Federal Aviation Administration predicting that space tourism could become a billion-dollar market within 20 years providing jobs for thousands.
What's more, numerous experts are saying that thanks to the super rich helping to spur on the development of the industry the cost of space travel will drop year on year and when you look over the figures it's hard to disagree. The first space tourists paid the Russians around 35 million dollars for a place on a Soyuz capsule. Now you can book a seat on a space plane for around 250,000 dollars; that's a drop of over 99% in the space of a decade. Some estimates put that within the next decade space flights could costs around 10,000 dollars, still expensive, but certainly more accessible than ever before. Much in the same way air travel went from a service reserved for exclusively for the rich to daily reality for the vast majority of us. It is quite possible that space tourism will go the same way.
With every innovation made in the competitive new market the price comes down for the rest of us. SpaceX and Blue Origin have already begun to pioneer reusable rockets. This move will substantially reduce launch costs - one of the biggest barriers to affordability in space travel.
There's more to the story than the prospect of a cheap space holiday though. The commercial space industry is working in symbiosis with more serious endeavors. For example SpaceX, alongside its tourist ambitions, currently serves as delivery boy for NASA with its Dragon capsule scheduled to deliver astronauts to the ISS very soon. This is thanks to NASA's Commercial Crew Programme which was setup to use the private sector's best offerings in order to supplement their own. The Dragon capsule that SpaceX has developed already makes supply deliveries to the ISS and is planned to be used on their high profile tourist lunar flyby. With NASA planning its own lunar missions in the coming years we will be able to directly compare the two sectors successes and failures. It is this both complementary and competitive relationship between public and private sectors that is spurring on space exploration to new frontiers.
This is not to say that progress has been a (space) walk in the park. For every success in the private sector there has been has missed its deadline, resulted in massive overspending and there were even explosion or two. There's no doubt the learning curve is steep, but for the most part it is outweighed by the sheer ambition of the sector. Musk is adamant on getting people to Mars by 2030 and there's no doubt he will stop at nothing to realize this goal.
A bright future
Planning to send Dragon to Mars as soon as 2018. Red Dragons will inform overall Mars architecture, details to come pic.twitter.com/u4nbVUNCpA
The simple fact of the matter is that the rise of commercial space travel has injected a new life into an industry that many had begun to write off as a wasteful relic of the Cold War. While the price tags remain astronomical for most in the coming years, the opportunity for a true adventure will become more and more accessible to the general public as time goes by.
Perhaps most importantly though is that commercial space travel is complementing serious space exploration. At a time where the planet faces unmatched problems in the coming years there's no doubt finding resources beyond our home will be vital; a future without humans in space is far bleaker than one with.