Now that commercial spaceflight is possible, we must question the purpose of these exclusive trips. Who are these tickets for, can the average citizen ever hope to reach those heights?
During the period of 2001 to 2009 only seven space tourists reached the stars, making eight spaceflights aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the international space station. Private companies have been itching to gain dominance in this lucrative industry for many years, Virgin Galactic which was founded by Richard Branson predicted the rise of commercial spaceflight for paying customers would only be a couple of years away however his company was delt two serious blows.
In 2007 a pre-launch test of SpaceShipTwo’s rocket systems killed three people when it exploded, and in 2014 a pilot was killed during a test flight these two major incidents scarred the successes of the otherwise hopeful company leading to the deaths of four people in total.
Before 2021 only vehicles operated by governments had ever visited the ISS, SpaceX’s Dragon was the first commercial vehicle to dock and since then this milestone has permanently altered the spaceflight industry over the last 10 years
Now, in 2022 we’ve come a long way. Virgin Galactic took Branson and three crew members to the edge of space, founded in 2004 they have learnt much since the previous two incidents. Two other companies fight for the limited market, SpaceX and Blue origin have both had their own recent successes.
SpaceX won a NASA contract to support humans’ journey back to the moon, it awards Elon Musk’s company with $2.9 Billion to use their Starship rocket. This extends NASA’s trend of relying on private companies to ferry people and more into space due to defunding and other internal issues as of late.
In September Elon Musks’s SpaceX Dragon spacecraft reached an orbit above the ISS. They stayed in orbit for three days before splashing down off the coast of Florida In 2021, Jeff Bezos and three other crew members made a similar journey to the stars, reaching an altitude of 63 miles, experiencing weightlessness for a few minutes.
Currently tickets to the edge of space go for six figures or more, with the $200,000 price tag topping the annual income of 90% of Americans while orbital expeditions cost up to eight figures. At a time of growing awareness around inequality we must question this, each seat aboard a spaceflight is the price of a house at a time when 219,000 people are unhoused in the UK alone.
Others question the purpose of space tourism too. “These are technological achievements, there’s no doubt about that,” says Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist and space ethics researcher at York University in Toronto. But, she suggests, “their most significant achievement is the domination of the airwaves and television coverage.”
“I honestly think that we are at the dawn of an incredible inflection point in history for human spaceflight. I truly believe that seeing Earth from space is transformative and will ultimately help humanity and the Earth in unknown ways,” says Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, who previously worked for NASA and who flew with Branson in July.
An up-and-coming Houston based company known as Axiom Space will deliver four crew members to the ISS in February for an eight day stay where they will be conducting scientific experiments, “It is a pathfinder, pioneering mission for this new era of commercial human spaceflight to the ISS and in the future to commercial space stations. The long-term goal is to open low Earth orbit to become its own marketplace,” says Michael López-Alegría, Ax-1’s commander, Axiom’s vice president of business development, and a former NASA astronaut
“Until this year, it’s predominantly been government-focused—NASA propelling astronauts to the space station. That’s an achievement, but also a turning point where we’re noticing the effects of the democratization of space. You don’t need to be an astronaut to go to space,” says Danielle Bernstein, co-lead of the Aerospace Corporation’s Space Safety Institute.
After decades of research, disaster, trial and error the spaceflight industry might be around the corner, while private passengers have previously hitched rides on NASA shuttles and aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the three billionaire titans of the industry continue to progress rapidly.