Let’s be frank: Contemporary space travel is sexy. It’s dangerous, alluring and dominated by dashing billionaires, from Tesla’s Elon Musk to Virgin’s Richard Branson to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (okay, Bezos isn’t as dashing). These men have promised to build lavish spacecraft and open the heavens for the paying masses.
“This whole market is predicated on people who are affluent,” says Dale Ketcham, chief of strategic alliances at Space Florida, the state’s economic agency tasked with developing space-related businesses. “Once flights become reasonably routine and reasonably safe—which inevitably they will—spacecraft will become like private jets or yachts.”
But the truth is, you’ll probably never leave this atmosphere. There are very real reasons why sci-fi spaceflight will not become as routine, safe and affordable as booking a ticket on an airliner.
Right now and into the distant future, the cost of spaceflight will be prohibitively expensive. To go into outer space today you would have to pay up to $70 million and do as NASA astronauts do: fly Russian. Since 2001 seven private citizens have traveled into orbit, and all of them booked their seats on a Russian Soyuz flight out of Kazakhstan. Private American companies are promising suborbital and orbital rides for a lot less money—around $250,000—but until a craft is ready to launch, which still may be years away, the no-frills Soyuz is the only viable ride off this planet.
Many of these American companies can offer cheaper tickets because their programs were initially funded under NASA contracts. After the space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA subsidized private industry’s efforts to develop commercial “space taxis” capable of transporting American astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station and beyond. The private companies believe additional money can be made selling seats to adventurous civilians.
“If your colleagues at all your damn cocktail parties are talking about how exciting it was to see the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space, then you’ll need to see it too,” Ketcham says.
Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, believes businessmen such as Branson and Musk are set to make billions. “They’re investing their money in their dreams,” Stallmer says. “And their dreams are shared by millions and millions of other people. That’s a fantastic thing.”
But insiders say current ticket prices are artificially low and will start to go up because of astronomical insurance rates and R&D costs. A typical space industry refrain is that once commercial spaceflights become routine, competition will force prices down. “It’s a matter of scale,” says Jane Poynter, chief executive of World View Enterprises, a company that intends to take tourists into near space in a capsule strapped beneath a helium balloon. “When you’re doing only one flight per week or month, prices are going to be expensive. But once you get the flight rate up, everything gets more efficient. Then you’ll start seeing prices fall. I can’t put a date on that, but they will; there’s no question.”
Many experts estimate that regular flights will begin within the next decade, but no one can pinpoint what will trigger a downward trend in prices. Once the initial vehicles prove successful, companies will build more and distribute them around the world. The more craft that are built, the more these companies will streamline their operations, and with efficiency, safety and reliability will come lower operational costs.
But for most, those prices will still be too high. “I don’t think it will come down dramatically anytime soon. In this business, things cost more and take longer than you plan,” Ketcham says.
Up until a few months ago, Virgin Galactic’s experimental SpaceShipTwo was the most hyped spaceplane in the world. Branson had been booking seats on the suborbital vessel for hundreds of wannabe astronauts, including Stephen Hawking and Justin Bieber. Then in October, disaster struck: A SpaceShipTwo test flight ended in a catastrophic crash, killing one of its pilots and totaling the craft. (Just three days earlier, an unmanned rocket built by Orbital Sciences exploded shortly after liftoff; it had been carrying supplies for the ISS.)
“Getting into space is, always has been and probably will be a dangerous activity for the foreseeable future,” Ketcham says. As the number of test flights increases, so too will the number of accidents. “Eventually, tourists are going to die in space,” he says.
After the October accidents, many questioned if these companies’ timelines were overly aggressive. They may have been pushing too fast and too hard. Dozens of people who had put deposits down on a SpaceShipTwo flight asked for a refund. Poynter says some of those people transferred their money to her company, thinking World View’s craft will be a safer ride because it doesn’t use rockets.
Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation licenses experimental spacecraft that will launch or land in the U.S. (NASA and the U.S. Air Force do not need licenses from the FAA for their launches.) If a launch company wants to make money off of paying customers, it must get a commercial operator’s license from the FAA. The 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act prohibits the FAA from regulating the vessels beyond that—unless the craft has killed people.
“We were very concerned that, given just the coincidence of the timing of the two mishaps, there would be this cry for more regulation and more oversight,” Stallmer says. “In the case of the Virgin Galactic accident, the key is that it was an experimental test flight. You have to test these things before you can open them up to the general public.”
The FAA could force additional licensing and insist on vetting the design and operation of spacecraft as it does for commercial airliners. The goal is to make flights safer, but more oversight dramatically increases the complexity and costs of getting into orbit—costs that would eventually get pushed onto the consumer.
Such restrictions would not sit well with the dreamers, schemers and engineers at the heart of the young but ambitious private spaceflight industry. “We the industry and we the public have been waiting for this for so long,” Poynter says. “I don’t see any way but up.”