A lot of folks want to get away from it all, as in way away. Is space tourism ready for takeoff?
“The sky is not a limit anymore.”
It utterly lacks atmosphere or nightlife. At various times, it lacks night, period, and it has a legendary “dark side.”
Yet within the next 15 years, the moon might become a tourist destination, space-tourism experts say.
“I think it’s quite possible, said Rachel J.C. Fu, chair of the department of tourism, hospitality and event management at the University of Florida. “I think technology can catch up with our imagination.”
Decades after the first human spaceflights, space is becoming the new frontier in tourism, said Derek Webber, founder of Spaceport Associates, a space-tourism consulting firm.
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa plans to take eight artists on a lunar orbital mission in 2023, and his dearMoon project claims it has a million applicants.
Two companies, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, already are offering suborbital flights. Two months after its highly publicized venture in which Star Trek legend William Shatner participated, Blue Origin launched another flight Saturday morning from its Texas site, this one featuring TV celebrity and former NFL star (and Eagles’ nemesis) Michael Strahan.
The first two Blue Origin flights carried six passengers, and six were on board Saturday.
» READ MORE: ‘Star Trek’ actor William Shatner, TV’s Capt. Kirk, blasts into space
Space X might be offering orbital flights “very soon,” Webber said, adding that a commercial company might even beat NASA to Mars. “Certainly, the data shows that folks want to go,” he said.
Webber and other proponents say this is not lunacy, that space tourism holds tremendous potential economic, scientific, environmental, and even existential benefits.
Not everyone is on board with the movement, and it has raised questions about safety, national priorities, and damage to the atmosphere.
Those reservations notwithstanding, for whatever reasons — and Fu says COVID-19 fatigue may be a factor — a whole lot of people want to get away from it all.
The astronomical costs
If you harbor dreams of space travel, be aware that it will cost a bit more than a SEPTA train ride to Paoli.
Bezos has said that Blue Origin already has sold $100 million worth of tickets for suborbital flights.
» READ MORE: Billionaire Richard Branson reaches space in his own ship
While the company declined to disclose ticket prices, Erik Seeder, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, estimated they could cost up to $400,000 each.
The price tag for an orbital flight would be in the $55 million range, he added, and suffice it to say that the cost of a ticket to the moon and back would be astronomical.
A more affordable option might be the Spaceship Neptune “spaceballoon,” a mere $125,000 per person, including free WiFi. And it wouldn’t require the 14 hours of flight training that the Blue Origin passengers had to undergo under FAA regulations. The company, Space Perspective, calls it a “radically gentle” experience requiring “minimal” preparation.
The “capsule” will rise about 20 miles at about 12 mph and afford passengers a dramatic view of the planet and yield what company founder Jane Poynter calls “a unifying and profound encounter.”
While that may be a bit short of conventional definitions of “space,” Webber points out the atmosphere has no hard boundaries, that it “simply gets thinner and thinner.” At 20 miles, the company says, passengers will get 450-mile views in every direction.
But don’t get your hopes up: The company says it’s sold out through 2024.
While space ventures might be awesome experiences for the ultra-wealthy and the well-connected, other earthlings could be victims of collateral damage, said Eloise Marais, a professor at University College London.
If the industry “grows substantially,” emissions could both degrade the ozone layer that screens out harmful UV radiation and contribute to worldwide warming. She added that while Blue Origin’s current rocket doesn’t produce carbon dioxide, its next iteration will use CO2-producing methane.
Asli D.A. Tasci, a University of Central Florida professor, concurs regarding the environmental hazards and calls space tourism a “dangerous endeavor” for participants. In 2014, a Virgin Galactic spaceship exploded during a test run in the Mojave Desert, killing the pilot.
England’s Prince William has argued that attending to problems closer to Earth’s surface would be a more responsible investment.
» READ MORE: Billionaires’ space frolicking means mega pollution for the planet | Opinion
Webber counters that those are short-sighted views.
“This is how aviation began. Only the very rich could fly in the early days (and suffer the risk and discomfort of doing so),” he said. “And because of the revenues resulting from their expensive early tickets, it became possible for the airline industry to emerge, become safer, more routine, very much cheaper, and almost ubiquitous.”
Astronauts have spoken about being in awe of the planet as they viewed it from space and of having a heightened sense of responsibility for it, a phenomenon known as “overview effect.” The term was minted in a 1987 book by writer and philosopher Frank White, who had interviewed astronauts about their experiences.
“It would presumably help even more if wealthy and influential people have it,” said Webber, “because in principle they may be able to do something about spreading the word.”
Ultimately, he said, it might happen that people will be able to fly to anywhere on the planet, across 12 time zones, in 45 minutes.
Given that this still is a nascent industry that will take years to ripen, it is impossible to predict which companies will thrive and endure, said Fu.
That said, she added: “The sky is not a limit anymore.”