Earlier this month, British billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson successfully flew into outer space, tracing his brand, Virgin Galactic, at the edge of the outer hemisphere. This week, his billionaire partner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, took his own Blue Origin spaceship for a ride to the outer limits, managing to get an entire 10 miles (16km) higher than Sir Richard.
The trips were heralded as marking a new era of “space tourism,” where untrained people could become astronauts, a title previously reserved for highly trained scientists and professional pilots, to see the curvature of the earth and enjoy a few minutes of greasing. Perfect for that viral Instagram photo for its millions of followers.
But could the idea of space tourism really become anything more than just an expensive joy for the rich?
The idea of traveling in space has fascinated humans for millennia. Humanity has looked to the stars as a tool of navigation and as a source of spiritual realization. Even now, research from the U.S. think-tank, the Pew Research Center, suggests that 29 percent of Americans believe in horoscopes.
In the 20th century, as scientific discovery advanced, space travel became a symbol of political and ideological prestige, with the superpowers of that era, the United States and the former Soviet Union, battling them for spatial supremacy.
The two sides have poured billions of dollars into a series of space programs that have created new races, satellites and more famously, led to man touching the surface of the moon. He has also turned to a number of inventions that have been commercialized for wider use, such as scratch-resistant lenses for glasses, memory foam, and LASIK eye surgery.
These days, with the long Cold War, political pressure to push forward state-funded space programs has diminished, with governments even more reluctant to spend after the global financial crisis that shattered government budgets in the US. 2007. Thus, a gap has emerged for the private sector to intervene.
For Branson, this month’s venture was the culmination of a long dream to embark on space tourism, after promising to build a spacecraft in 2004, with hopes of starting a commercial service by 2007. has faced years of delays due to, unsurprisingly, having to deal with enormous technical challenges, including a fatal crash during a development flight in 2014. The current pandemic has made it even more difficult, after forcing Branson to sell 650 million dollars of Virgin Galactic shares in the last two years to support its largest Virgin trading empire.
Yet, despite the delays, Virgin Galactic has been successful in its research and has pushed space science forward as a consequence. He developed a unique flight path, with a “mother ship” carrying the main vehicle, VSS Unity, over 15 km (9 miles) in air before Unity was released and then activated its rockets to fly 70 km. in addition (43 miles) above the earth’s surface, to reach the edge of space. Unit is then re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere with rotating wings – a technology known as feathering – to glide slowly on the ground without the need for a parachute. This meant that no part needed to be discarded, making it completely reusable, with the plane landing in the same place at Spaceport America in New Mexico, USA, making it hassle-free for space tourists to get on and off. , as in a commercial flight.
Similarly, Bezos ’Blue Origin, which flew higher than its rival Virgin Galactic, also uses advanced science with a fully automated two-part race system, which requires no pilot. The launcher, which accommodates the rocket engine and propellant, separates after launch, flying by itself to return to the launch pad, while the top of the boat – the crew capsule – emerges safely. with parachute. It is also equipped with an equipment ejection system for added safety if part of the launch goes wrong. Fortunately, there was no need for this occasion.
Both companies, after years of research and development and sustaining losses, are now finally ready to make money, with 8,000 individuals reportedly already booking tickets for Virgin Galactic flights, costing at least $ 250,000 each. Tickets to fly on Blue Origin are speculated to be priced at similar levels. About 7,600 people with large numbers of money have registered for the ticket auction for this week’s flight, with the winner paying $ 28 million, suggesting there will also be strong demand, at least from the wealthiest. Indeed, investment banking analysts Bank of America estimate that the total value of the space industry will go from $ 350 billion to $ 2.7 billion by 2040.
However, before we get too excited, we should call this what it is. This is a fun affair for the super-rich, backed by a formidable PR operation.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are suborbital spacecraft. They don’t even fly high enough to orbit the Earth and are therefore in a completely different category from – for example, NASA or SpaceX – founded by another hugely successful billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk – which has become the preferred launch vehicle. from NASA, capable of refueling the International Space Station or launching new satellites.
Virgin Galactic has confirmed so much, recently replacing its first CEO, former NASA chief of staff George Whitesides, who led most of the research development phase of Virgin Galactic, with Michael Colglazier, who has no funds space and was first head of Disneyland parks.
New space tourism companies are marketing these joy tours as “bringing space to the masses”. It is true that, before that, if you wanted to fly as a space tourist, you had to do an intermediary with the Russians to pay for a seat on the Soviet-era Soyuz-class spacecraft for a good $ 25 million, as seven people did between 2001 and 2009.
But ticket prices for Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights will still be high, which makes the claim absurd. There is no doubt that seeing the curvature of the earth could be a life-changing experience but who are we really inspiring here? Emerging scientists or children of the billionaire set? Meanwhile, despite these new crafts being relatively energy-efficient compared to the old space races, they still burn tons of fuel to go up and down into the atmosphere – barely in the spirit of tackling climate change.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. After all, compared to state-funded programs, private companies have the political coverage of not spending – openly – taxpayer money. Virgin Galactic has funding from Virgin Group, the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, the Aabar Investment Group and Boeing, in addition to being publicly traded on the New York market. Blue Origin was funded by the sale of Amazon stock.
In contrast, NASA’s Apollo program, which launched man to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the most recent Space Shuttle program, which retired in in 2011, it cost U.S. taxpayers $ 415 billion in current money.
Private space companies are following market forces, competing against each other in a new market. The ego contest has also begun, with Bezos mocking Branson that his ship can fly higher.
This is good. Competition drives creativity, efficiency and the development of new security procedures, since a launch failure would cause a fatal loss of confidence for future customers. Having highly guided charismatic entrepreneurs who are the face of private space companies also gives them a sensuality that has galvanized the entire space industry.
However, this masks the reality that these companies still benefit from a sector that has been funded with taxpayer support. For example, the New Mexico government has invested nearly $ 200m in the Spaceport America facility, with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world who founded Amazon, runs a multinational technology company that pays very few taxes.
For example, in Europe, Amazon made record sales of 44 billion euros ($ 51.9 billion) in 2020, but the filing of the tax suggests that it has not paid any corporate taxes in Luxembourg, where it has submitted tax documents. And while Bezos generously thanked Amazon workers for helping them realize their dream of reaching the space, warehouse workers at just $ 15 an hour might wonder if those profits – $ 8 billion in net income l last quarter, a record – could they be better reinvested elsewhere?
While it’s somewhat plausible that the rich may now call themselves “astronauts,” no doubt raising eyebrows among professionally trained current astronauts, we shouldn’t underestimate the science behind people flying safely in such hostile environments. Normalizing space travel could provide opportunities. With Virgin Galactic aspiring to almost daily flights into the future, these suborbital journeys will provide a new platform for science, for example, by providing a relatively affordable way to test in micro-gravity environments. Blue Origin has also developed larger spacecraft, called New Glen, which aspires to compete with SpaceX on longer-distance spaceflight and Blue Moon, to create lunar spacecraft in collaboration with NASA.
Cynics may despair over money laundering, given that there are so many other urgent issues to be dealt with here on planet earth, such as human poverty. Yet perhaps space travel is a way to capture the imagination and act as a symbol of human advancement. Perhaps, as refinements continue and economies of scale further reduce costs, spaceflight could become accessible to all, with spaceflight changing as people view our precious land and provide a new way to advance the science that drives it. to new inventions that benefit all of humanity. There is only so much to ask.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.