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New Glenn Rocket (Blue Origin)

Space Tourism Is Already Five Years Overdue, So What's The Big Hold Up?

MIKE MCRAE, /BEYOND
28 JUN 2018

Jeff Bezos' aerospace company Blue Origin has just announced plans to open the ticket booth next year for commercial flights to the edge of space.

There's no word on how much you'll need to save to have a seat set aside in a reusable rocket, but we're betting 'not cheap'. This is all sounding rather familiar. Is it worth the gamble, or is space tourism just a scam for the absurdly wealthy?

 

Gone are the days when young, uber-rich entrepreneurs would satisfy their hunger for adventure by sailing around the world. Space is the new frontier, and big bucks are being poured into dreams of making a profit by overcoming Earth's hold on us.

While Bezos is in the news now, it didn't seem all that long ago that Richard Branson was promising a similar trip high into the atmosphere with Virgin Galactic.

In 2008, Branson unveiled a new commercial space-faring venture that intended to carry half a dozen keen tourists per trip to an altitude of around 100 kilometres – high enough to see the sky darken and experience a brief period of weightlessness in free fall.

More than 250 people put down a deposit on the US$200,000 tickets, with testing of the technology to get them there set to launch within 18 months.

The first public flight was touted for Christmas Day, 2013. Needless to say, predictions were a little off the mark.

By mid-2014, the view was for commercial launches to start in 2015. Just a few months later tragedy struck when a test flight of the spaceplane VSS Enterprise saw it break apart mid-air, taking the lives of its pilots.

 

Only last year Branson was still keen to get up in the air, claiming he'd be "very disappointed" if the program wasn't well underway by the end of 2018 – five years behind original expectations, and with now more than 650 passengers in waiting.

Branson probably envisioned something a lot bigger by now, it seems.

"Let's go 20 years forward, if all of this goes to plan, I hope that we will have a hotel in space; and in that hotel I hope we will have small spaceships that can go around the Moon – an excursion," he told the BBC in 2008.

SpaceX hoped to have tourists whizzing around the Moon this year, but has pushed that forward by at least another year.

Are sub-orbital joyrides doomed to be eternally just over the horizon for a generation to come? Or is technology finally catching up to visions of Instagramming your house from the Kármán line?

It's hard to tell. If Virgin Galactic's story is anything to go by, it's easy to be overly optimistic when it comes to the big picture of commercial space travel that goes beyond a rare trip for millionaires.

 

Branson's efforts no doubt contribute a tonne of newfound knowledge, but it's unlikely Bezos and co. would have a copy of Virgin's Guide On How To Space on his shelf.

Space isn't just a sky above the sky, and safely lifting even a small busload of cashed-up enthusiasts isn't the same as shooting a tin-can of fit, trained astronauts into orbit. Even a short trip up and back into sub-orbit has posed risks and hurdles that weren't clear from the outset.

Ultimately, when we're struggling to rocket a handful of humans 100 kilometres up into the sky, Hotel Lunar seems unlikely to arrive in even our children's lifetimes.

Current projections suggest the target tourists would be those worth more than US$5 million, which means most of us aren't even in the running.

So the question is – are there enough rich folk with the desire to be early adopters and sustain the industry until prices drop sufficiently?

Recent analysis suggests the market has a compound annual growth rate of just over 14 percent, so it appears to be an area that investors will probably be keen to feed for a while yet.

 

Past projections by the US Federal Aviation Administration have suggested that if all goes to plan, the industry could be fishing out of a billion dollar pond in the next decade or so.

Time will tell. From Virgin Galactic to Space X to Blue Origin to Axiom Space, an increasing number of space faring companies are eyeing off thrill rides as a future revenue stream. We can bet there'll be more in coming years.

Sometimes it's good having the luxury of being wrong in science. Maybe our own retirement will be spent telling our grandchildren of the days when rich folk paid insane sums to fly a quarter of the way to Hotel International Space Station.

Fingers crossed, but going on track record it's hard to keep much optimism.

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