LittleLaw Looks At… Space Tourism

May 3, 2022

7 min read

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What’s going on here?

Space tourism is a sector of the aviation industry, which allows (extraordinarily wealthy) consumers to go to space for leisure, recreation, or simply the experience.

A brief history...

Space tourism was born in the 1990’s through a deal between MirCorp, a Russian company, and Space Adventures Ltd, an American company. The purpose of their deal was to monetise space travel in order to fund the maintenance of MirCorp’s ageing space station, Mir, by allowing paying customers to travel to the station.¹

Dennis Tito, an American businessman, signed up to be the first space tourist, for the miserly sum of $20m. However, by the time he lifted off on 28 April 2001, the Mir station had been taken out of orbit. Instead, he spent seven days aboard the International Space Station (ISS).2 Tito himself objected to the word “tourist” being used, preferring “spaceflight participant”, due to the training and preparation he undertook to reach the final frontier.3

Over the ensuing years, orbital space tourism – where one takes a trip to an orbiting space station – grew. Six more tourists stayed on the ISS between 2002 and 2009. However, the 2009 trip was the last orbital tourist flight, until Space Adventures flew Japanese entrepreneur, Yusaku Maezawa, and his production assistant to the ISS in 2021.4

SpaceX, the aerospace company run by the enigmatic Elon Musk, launched its first orbital tourist flight for four private passengers in September 2021 aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft.5 Axiom Space, another American company, is planning a mission to take three passengers to the ISS.6

Other companies have preferred to pursue suborbital space tourism, carrying passengers to an altitude of around 100km. Designed to encourage investment in space tourism, the Ansari X Prize offered $10m to the first non-governmental organisation to successfully launch a reusable spacecraft twice in two weeks.7 The prize was won on 4 October 2004 by SpaceShipOne, a project funded by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.8

This suborbital space tourism is what we now think of when we hear space tourism: billionaires taking joyrides in rockets for a few minutes in space. The technology used in these spacecraft could be crucial to allowing interplanetary travel, particularly the reusability of the vessels, and companies like Blue Origin intend to use this tourism to fund their ultimate aims.

Another company, World View, has taken a different approach. They plan to launch a space balloon tour, which would allow tourists to experience sunrise from 30,000 metres, high enough to see the Earth’s curvature, where it will hover for several hours, allowing tourists to experience a different perspective of Earth.9 Rather than the high-adrenaline thrills of a rocket flight, this experience includes dining, a bar and reclining seats.10 While this option is far less detrimental to the planet, as it is powered only by helium, it lacks the interstellar ambition of SpaceX or Blue Origin.

China meanwhile has announced that it would open its Tiangong Space Station to tourists, within a decade,11 which could create a new space race, similar to the competition to reach the moon in the 1960s.

Billionaire space race

In recent times, there has been focus on a handful of companies fronted by billionaires, namely Virgin Galactic (Branson), SpaceX (Musk) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos). These companies, driven by polarising figures with money to burn, have driven the space tourism narrative, turning it into a battle of competing egos and investment.

Virgin Galactic has sold hundreds of tickets for its suborbital tourism for $300,000 each, launching its missions from a permanent space port in New Mexico.12 The VSS Unity, as its SpaceShipTwo has been called, made its first fully crewed flight on 11 July 2021, carrying four passengers, including Branson.13

Never to miss a commercial opportunity, Jeff Bezos, of Amazon fame, has flung himself into the space tourism arena alongside fellow billionaires Musk and Branson, with his aerospace company Blue Origin. Its first passenger flight, aboard spacecraft New Shepard, launched on 20 July 2021, carrying four passengers including Bezos.14 Its second flight, on 13 October 2021, carried William Shatner, the Star Trek actor, into space, at the age of 90, making him the oldest person in space.15

Future ambitions for these space tourism companies include lunar orbits and Mars explorations,16 with Musk stating that he intends to establish a colony on Mars.17

But is this good?

Musk, Branson and Bezos have all poured money into this pursuit, alongside a myriad of investors. But will this ultimately benefit humanity or is it just a case of billionaires stroking their egos, with a callous disregard for the rest of the human race? It is hard to argue that Branson’s 20-minute sub-orbital flight, just nine days before Bezos’ flight, was not motivated in part by their competition and ego.18

At a time of climate emergency, where the whole world is trying to reduce the amount of carbon they are burning, is it right for a select group of very wealthy men to burn it by the ton for pursuits which may only benefit the 1% of the 1%?

It is unquestionable that investment on the scale of SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin ($15bn of venture capital investment in 2021 alone19) will lead to technological leaps forward in the field of space travel. History also suggests that these new technologies will find uses in other fields. NASA’s moon landings gave us the basis for technologies which have dramatically improved sectors such as medicine, commercial flights and the automobile industry.20

But is this a fair trade-off, when each flight made by a billionaire burns over 270 tonnes of carbon dioxide and emits other chemicals into the atmosphere?21

Musk is famously an environmentalist and has been a big supporter of efforts to “go green”, particularly through Tesla, which revolutionised the electric car industry. He has said that establishing a self-sufficient Mars colony is the ultimate goal of SpaceX;22 he believes the best way to avoid the climate emergency is for humanity to become multi-planetary, and then interstellar. This could dramatically reduce the burden on the planet, once achieved, simply by reducing the number of people dependent on its limited (and already scarce) resources, while also increasing the available resources for the species as a whole. Critics argue that our first priority should be to resolve the issues already present on Earth, before we seek to spread similar environmental devastation throughout the solar system and the galaxy beyond.23

The question appears to come down to whether technology can advance at a rate fast enough to outrun the negative impact it has on the environment, through technologies that minimise and prevent further harm.24 Musk argues that infinite growth, both economic and technological, cannot happen inside the closed system of Earth, meaning we must open the system to allow growth to continue and technology to save us from ourselves. Bezos has been quoted as saying the solar system could contain a trillion humans, through the colonisation of other planets.25

LittleLaw’s verdict: We're not ready to give up on Earth

Science fiction is littered with stories of humanity’s escape from a dying Earth and pilgrimages across the galaxy in search of a new home. Is this the stage at which we find ourselves? Where the planet has reached the point of no return, so the resources that remain would best be used finding Musk’s “Planet B”?

Silicon Valley has changed the world countless times by following the mantra “move fast and break things”, but what about when the thing it’s breaking is Earth? Regardless of Musk’s or Bezos’ success in colonising the solar system, Earth will remain the planet on which a significant majority of humans (at least for the next few decades) live and die on. It should be here that we look for humanity’s survival.

The cost to the planet of the space tourism industry outweighs its professed ideals. The continued pursuit of a multiplanetary human race funded by the destruction of the planet creates a dangerous downward spiral likely to highlight the wealth inequality of the world, whereby billions of humans are abandoned on a dying planet, while the richest few escape the devastation they have wrought.

Report written by Joshua White

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