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Space Tourism Has Arrived — For the Second Time

David W. Brown
July 13, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

For the last 20 years, you’ve had three options for going to space:

1. Become an astronaut. Upon applying, your odds of selection are about 1-in-1,800, but much lower in practice, considering NASA isn’t choosing astronauts at random, and you aren’t a perfect physical specimen with a doctorate and flight experience. (For comparison, your odds of drowning are much better than going to space, at 1-in-1,135). 

2. Pay the Russians $20 million to fly on a Soyuz.

3. Build your own rocket.

And that’s it.

Fewer than six hundred people have ever been to space. This past weekend, Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, joined that very short list. Later this month, Jeff Bezos, former CEO of Amazon, will add his name as well. For an enterprise that has never once since 1961 been egalitarian, these flights have attracted surprising, undue consternation. But throwing rocks at space tourism is an error at best. History suggests that in order to get poets, line cooks, and truck drivers to space, we should pray nightly that every billionaire becomes a frequent flyer in low Earth orbit, and every millionaire, seven digits to nine, follows close behind. Sooner is better.

Private space tourism remains frail in its nascency — promising, but as-yet unproven. The challenges ahead, both technical (keeping things from exploding) and psychological (what happens when things explode), are daunting.

The industry emerged from the ashes of the space shuttle program. After America lost its human spaceflight capacity, NASA paid the Russian space agency Roscosmos about $4 billion total to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. In that time, through its Commercial Crew program, the agency also directed $6 billion to private industry to build American rockets and capsules. (The space shuttle, in comparison to Commercial Crew, cost approximately $49 billion to develop, adjusted for inflation.)

There seems to be a solid consensus that the Commercial Crew program was far-sighted, well managed, and has proven to be a great boon to NASA. Unlike during the development of the shuttle or the Space Launch System rocket, the companies who participated in Commercial Crew were only paid upon hitting development milestones, and when they went over budget, they had to cover excesses themselves. Already, SpaceX is carrying astronauts to the International Space Station. Space tourism and the commercialization of low Earth orbit is right behind them. Moreover, Commercial Crew has yielded spaceflight capabilities not requested by NASA. Vertically landing reusable rockets, whose successes scarcely merit mention today, were science fiction only five years ago, and laughable five years before that. Private funds paid for Starship, the Mars-intended super heavy lift vehicle under development by SpaceX. Nor are taxpayers on the hook if a failed Starship test flight destroys local property. The rocket is part of Elon Musk’s private multi-planetary ambitions, and was not paid for, requested by, or even allotted launch facilities by NASA.

It is perhaps the most absurdly ambitious side project in human history.

But those names! Bezos, Musk, Branson: billionaires all, which yields spite toward what has proven to be an astonishingly successful human spaceflight program. It is common to conflate one’s dislike of the people who own private spaceflight companies with the services these companies provide. But it is possible to detest the economic conditions that allow for billionaires — or hate the billionaires themselves — while still acknowledging that if not for these people and the companies they founded, space tourism and civilian access to space would simply not exist.

We know because NASA has run that experiment.

In the 1970s and 80s, the agency had an interesting problem. The space shuttle was not yet built, and during those halcyon days of development, it seemed that “America’s space truck” would launch so often that NASA would have to find a way to fill all those seats.

“Originally, we were told there would be as many as sixty shuttle flights a year and that you only needed a crew of three,” said Alan Ladwig, manager of what NASA called the Space Flight Participant Program, a shuttle-era agency effort to put non-astronauts in Earth’s orbit. “There was room for four passengers, and everybody started getting excited about it.”

The Office of Spaceflight, which managed the shuttle, considered two strategies: one was to fly journalists, who could report back what it was like in space; another concept was dubbed “Unique Personalities,” and would fly politicians, celebrities, figures of state, and educators. The ideas merged, and then were eventually dropped. The dreams of what the shuttle might be gave way to what the shuttle actually was. Budget overruns and delays beset the project. Eventually, the number of annual potential flights would diminish to forty, then thirty, then twenty, and contemporaneously the crew of three grew to seven. Suddenly the seats that made the shuttle such an exciting paradigm shift for civilian space access dwindled to almost none.

Still, the shuttle did fly, and spectacularly, and people from all backgrounds wanted to be part of it.

“James Beggs, the NASA administrator, was starting to get besieged by self-appointed VIPs and celebrities bugging him to get a ride on the shuttle,” Ladwig, author of See You in Orbit, told Supercluster. Lacking a formal procedure for civilian crew selection, Beggs wrote a letter to the NASA Advisory Council asking for guidance. Would it even be appropriate to fly a non-astronaut? Was this the right time for it? If so, for what purpose?

The agency formed a committee to study the problem. They spent the next year visiting each of the NASA human spaceflight centers to interview managers, engineers, and astronauts, and sent out one hundred letters to external “opinion leaders” for insight and counsel. Ultimately, the committee advised the administrator that yes, it would be appropriate to fly citizens in space, but only purposefully. Communications, they said, was the perfect role for such a passenger. The committee suggested that among others, NASA might fly a print journalist, a television journalist, or an educator. No matter what, though, the endeavor could not be seen as a publicity stunt or joyride.

The Space Flight Participant Program was thus established to give the public a view of what space travel was like through the eyes of a non-engineer or professional astronaut. A different set of experiences might better inform and engage the people paying for the space program. NASA formed an internal committee, with Ladwig as its executive secretary, to decide who should fly first. In August of 1984, Reagan announced that it was time to fly a citizen on the space shuttle. Thus began a massive, national competition to find and fly who the committee had recommended: “One of America’s finest: a teacher.”

Forty thousand classroom instructors requested applications. Fourteen thousand completed it. “That was our first cut,” said Ladwig. “Who's got enough perseverance and passion to want to fill out a twenty-plus-page application form and send it in?”

Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from New Hampshire, would eventually be selected, with Barbara Morgan, an English and science teacher from Montana, as her backup.

Once a teacher went up, the next communications category to fly would be a journalist. An artist would fly subsequently, though few details were worked through on what defined an artist. (“Should it be a painter?” asked Ladwig “Should photographers be eligible? What about people that do it part time? I mean, it was really something to get into.”) On January 28, 1986, the shuttle Challenger blew up on launch, killing all aboard, including McAuliffe.

The program essentially died with them, and was officially canceled three months later.

“We just didn't know how long it was going to take for the shuttle to even fly again,” Ladwig said. “After the accident, there was a lot of criticism that it was too early to fly a civilian — even though Christa had nothing to do with the accident. And many senators and representatives spoke out against doing it again. On the other hand, there were editorials and we received thousands of letters from people asking us to continue the program. But it just became such a hot potato over the next several years, and it always got kicked down the road.”

(Barbara Morgan, who was fully trained as an astronaut, was eventually hired by NASA as an astronaut, flying on the shuttle in 2007 not as an educator, but as a mission specialist.)

Meanwhile, one avenue to space closed off to them, wealthy would-be space tourists started writing checks to the cash-strapped Russian space agency to buy spare seats on their Soyuz launches. That option mostly vanished, however, when NASA discontinued the shuttle program. NASA, no longer able to launch humans to space, bought the available seats for American astronauts.

Until the Commercial Crew program and the burgeoning development of space tourism, the three ways to space — get hired as an astronaut, pay the Russians, or build your own rocket — were thus reduced to two.

Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and a handful of other companies would add a new third way to the list: hire a private rocket. Blue Origin auctioned a seat on its first flight, the proceeds going toward its outreach charity. The winning bidder paid $28 million, though even Blue Origin called that figure anomalous. (Being the first at something comes with a premium.) Though Virgin Galactic has been cagey about its pricing, initial tickets went for $250,000. Analysts, according to the Washington Post expect prices to settle at $500,000 per flight.

Notably, on its July 20 inaugural flight, Blue Origin will fly, in addition to Bezos, Wally Funk, the celebrated 82-year-old aviator who was part of the original “Mercury 13,” a group of women who went through the same training as NASA’s original seven Mercury astronauts to go to space.

All this raises the question of whether NASA has some kind of program to get taxi drivers and construction workers up there, too. After all, it seems crosswise the zeitgeist that only millionaires get to go somewhere (even though previously, to be clear, the only people permitted to go to space were millionaires, by way of Russia, or paragons of human physical perfection and mental acumen, by way of the astronaut corps). What about the average person? If we had a program in the eighties to fly teachers and journalists, why not now?

“In the eighties, we did not have a commercial program,” said Angela Hart, the manager of the Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “NASA should not, where possible, be competing with industry for items that can be provided commercially.” She explained that during the shuttle’s heyday, NASA could not rely on programs such as Commercial Resupply Services, which sends cargo to the International Space Station, and Crew Transport Vehicles, which sends humans. Both programs have proven successful and cost effective, and have enabled companies to concurrently build the space tourism industry. “We are seeing now that this is attainable commercially, and there are a number of companies that are interested in doing this. That, to me, is one of the reasons that my office is not pressing an initiative to do those kinds of things.”

She compared private spaceflight today to the dawn of private air travel. “When the aviation industry started, the average person could not fly on an airplane,” she said. “We fully believe that the commercial industry will evolve and the prices to get to the space will go down as supply and demand work themselves out. We're really relying on that.”

In the 1940s, when commercial air travel was new, we all smoked Lucky Strikes between martinis, from sofa-sized seats. A round trip ticket from Los Angeles to Boston ran about $4,500, adjusted for inflation. There were 12 stops along the way. But no one was taking a family vacation at those prices. By 1950, that number halved as dozens of new airlines entered the fray, realizing that economy-class flights could turn a profit. Today, the same flight is about $400 nonstop.

“In any of those types of revolutions, things are going to be really expensive at first,” she told me. “Will an average person ever be able to go to space? In my lifetime? I don't know. But will the prices go down? I fully believe that is the case.”

Which is one reason we should all hope those billionaires and millionaires fill every launch by Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and anyone else with a seat for sale. The sooner these companies prove successful, the more launches they will see at lower prices in volume, and the sooner they will face upstarts to further drive down the cost of access to space.

Already, we saw the power of competition in Blue Origin's sniping at Virgin Galactic’s maximum altitude. Branson’s flight “only” flew fifty-three miles from Earth. (NASA sets the boundary of space at 50 miles.) Blue Origin, however, flies 62 miles up (the internationally defined boundary). Bezos’s company is also marketing the size of its windows relative to what it describes as Virgin Galactic’s “high altitude airplane” and its superior environmental friendliness. Sure, it’s petty, but when Virgin Galactic builds its next suborbital spacecraft, do you think it will make its windows larger? Do you think it will try to up its environmental game? When SpaceX begins flying tourists on orbital flights, do you think “mere” sub-orbital flights will become more expensive or less? What about when tourists circle the moon?

“Why settle for the curvature of the Earth when you can see the whole thing?” The ad copy writes itself.

Things are going to move fast from here.

During all this, however, private spaceflight must demonstrate a commitment to safety.

Since the ascent of commercial space and the promise that space tourism might finally be a reality, it has seemed that none of the billionaires promising the stars have actually been all that keen to fly on their rockets. After all, they took option three! Who builds a spaceship and then says: “Nah, Earth is fine?”

People who aren’t sold on the safety of their spaceships. That’s who.

Which is what makes flights by Branson and Bezos and others worth watching. Not only will they both have left Earth, but, in fact, they raced to be the first to do so on their own vessels. Neither came across as sincere, previously, when they were saying: “Hey everyone! Check out this totally safe rocket I built that can carry humans safely to space and safely return them home where they will be totally safe… You go first.” Now, though? They are standing behind their products: a necessary step to convince more people to follow. The people who can presently afford to go to space have pretty nice lives. This will help convince them that space travel will not pose undue risk. Going to space has until now been an event. History might remember July 11, 2021 as the first day it became routine. Five years from now, it could be boring. 

There are a lot of reasons to dislike the concept of the “billionaire,” but space — a distraction relative to the excesses and wrongs inherent to radical wealth inequality — is not one of them. The human imagination has ever been fixed on the stars, and at long last, we know how to sail among them. We have built the machines to do so and understand how to make exploration accessible to all. Using space as a cudgel will not get any of us to orbit any sooner. It might, however, delay our departure indefinitely.

David W. Brown
July 13, 202110:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)