Billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space launch company Blue Origin has announced that it will sell its first microgravity flights to the highest bidder.
Blue Origin and its two biggest competitors in the field of “space tourism”, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, claim to advance humanity through the “democratization” of space. But these rides do not open access to the space for everyone.
A changing landscape
At first glance, the prospect of a space tourism industry is exciting.
It promises an easier path to space than that followed by astronauts, who must go through higher education, intensive training and extremely competitive selection processes. Astronauts must also have the correct nationality, as few countries have access to manned space flight programs.
In theory, opening up a commercial space flight industry should make space more accessible and democratic. But this is only partially the case; what was once the domain of only the richest countries is today an industry run mainly by commercial entities.
Moreover, these companies are willing to take more risks than government programs because they do not have to justify their expenses – or their failures – to the public. Blue Origin and SpaceX have seen plenty of explosions in previous tests, but fans are watching with excitement rather than dismay.
This has promoted the rapid development of space technologies. Reusable rockets – especially SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which just made its tenth successful launch – reduced the cost of launch by ten.
In addition to reducing costs, reusable technology also strives to solve the problem of sustainability.
There have been thousands of launches since 1957, when the first man-made object (Sputnik I) was launched by the Soviets. Outside of the Falcon 9, however, every launcher was used once and scrapped immediately – much like throwing an airplane after a flight.
The number of launches increases each year, with 114 carried out in 2020 alone. Over the weekend, the uncontrolled re-entry of debris from the Chinese rocket Long March 5B made global headlines due to its size and risk. damage. This is just one example of the problems of space debris and traffic management.
Safety is a key issue for human spaceflight. Currently, there are approximately 3,400 operational satellites in orbit and approximately 128 million pieces of debris. There are hundreds of collision risks every day, avoided by expensive and difficult maneuvers, or, if the risk is low enough, operators wait and hope for the best.
If we add more manned spaceflight to this traffic, countries will have to adopt more stringent requirements to de-orbit satellites at the end of their life, so that they burn out by re-entry. Currently, it is acceptable to desorbit after 25 years or place a satellite in an unused orbit. But that only delays the problem for the future.
Nations will also need to implement the 2019 United Nations guidelines on the long-term sustainability of activities in outer space.
Read more: Space can solve our looming resource crisis – but the space industry itself must be sustainable
Another important factor is the environmental impact of launches. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 uses as much fuel as an average car would over 200 years, from a single launch.
On the ground, there are land and waterway impacts, which we need to keep in mind when building future launch sites in Australia. Launch permits currently require environmental impact statements, but these should also include long-term effects and carbon footprint.
Keep billionaires in check
In the years to come, it will be crucial that independent spaceflight companies are tightly regulated.
Virgin Galactic has long advocated a “shirt sleeve” environment in which customers can experience the luxury of space flight without being embarrassed by awkward space suits. But the death of one of its test pilots in 2014 is proof that spaceflight remains dangerous. High altitudes and pressures require more care and less concern for comfort.
Although regulators such as the United States Federal Aviation Administration have strict safety requirements for space tourism, pressurized space suits are not one of them – but they should be. In addition, space tourism operators can require passengers to sign statutory liability waivers in the event of an accident.
And while it’s laudable that SpaceX and Blue Origin are making technological leaps, there is little in their business plans that speak of diversity, inclusiveness, and global accessibility. The first space tourists were all wealthy entrepreneurs.
In 2001, Dennis Tito traveled to a seat on a Russian Soyuz rocket to visit the International Space Station (ISS). Since then, there have been eight other space tourists, each paying between US $ 20 million and US $ 30 million to fly through the Russian program.
In 2022, the Axiom crew is expected to perform a SpaceX Dragon flight to the ISS. Each of the three wealthy white male passengers will have paid US $ 55 million for this privilege. Meanwhile, Blue Origin’s next auction will run for five weeks, with the highest bidder winning a seat for a few minutes of microgravity.
Virgin Galactic’s 90-minute rides, which are also slated to fly as early as 2022, have already sold for US $ 250,000. Future tickets should cost more.
A matter of time?
Of course, conventional recreational air travel was also originally reserved for the wealthy. The first intercontinental flights to the United States were about half the price of a new car. But technological advancements and business competition meant that in 2019 (pre-COVID), nearly five million people were stealing daily.
It may only be a matter of time before space tourism becomes accessible as well. Ideally, that would mean being able to fly from Sydney to London in a matter of hours.
Again, spaceflight carries much greater risks and much higher costs than airflight, even with reusable rockets. It will take a long time before these costs are sufficiently reduced to allow the “democratization” of space.
It’s a compelling story that commercial spaceflight companies are eager to embrace. But there will always be a part of society that will not have access to this future. Indeed, as many sci-fi tales predict, human spaceflight or habitation in space may never be accessible to anyone but the very wealthy.
We know that space technologies have benefits – from tracking climate change, to building global health services and communications, to learning about science experiments on the ISS. But when it comes to space tourism, the return on investment for the average person is less clear.
Read more: Yuri Gagarin’s Boomerang: The Story of the First Person to Return from Space and His Brief Encounter with Australian Culture