Earlier this month, the British billionaire entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson, successfully flew to outer space, trailblazing his brand, Virgin Galactic, to the edge of the outer hemisphere. This week, his fellow billionaire, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, took his own Blue Origin spacecraft for a spin to the outer limits, managing to get a whole 10 miles (16km) higher than Sir Richard.
The journeys were heralded as marking a new era of “space tourism”, in which untrained people could become astronauts, a title previously reserved for highly trained professional scientists and pilots, to see the earth’s curvature and enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness. Perfect for that viral Instagram photo for one’s millions of followers.
But could the idea of space tourism really become anything more than just an overpriced joyride for the rich?
The idea of travelling into space has fascinated human beings for millennia. Humanity has looked to the stars as a tool for navigation and as a source of spiritual fulfilment. Even now, research from the US think-tank, the Pew Research Center, suggests 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 US and the former Soviet Union, battling it out for space supremacy.
Both sides poured billions of dollars into a series of space programmes that created new rockets, satellites and most famously, led to humans touching the surface of the moon. It also spun a range of inventions that were commercialised for wider use, such as scratch-resistant lenses for glasses, memory foam and LASIK eye surgery.
These days, with the Cold War long over, political pressure to push forward state-funded space programmes has diminished, with governments even more reluctant to spend after the global financial crisis crippled government budgets in 2007. Thus, a gap has emerged for the private sector to step into.
For Branson, this month’s venture was the culmination of a long-held dream to embark on space tourism, having first promised to build a spaceship in 2004, with the hope of starting a commercial service by 2007. The programme faced years of delays due to, unsurprisingly, having to battle huge technical challenges, including a fatal crash during a development flight in 2014. The current pandemic has made it harder too, having forced Branson to sell $650m worth of Virgin Galactic shares over the past two years to shore up his wider Virgin business empire.
Yet despite delays, Virgin Galactic succeeded in its quest and has pushed space science forwards as a consequence. It developed a unique flight path, with a “mothership” carrying the main vehicle, VSS Unity, up 15km (9 miles) in the air before Unity was released and then activated its rockets to fly an additional 70km (43 miles) above the surface of the earth, to reach the edge of space. Unity then re-entered earth’s atmosphere with rotating wings – a technology known as feathering – to smoothly glide back down to earth without the need for a parachute. This meant no parts needed to be discarded, making it fully reusable, with the plane landing at the same location at Spaceport America in New Mexico, US, making it hassle-free for space tourists to get on and off, just like on a commercial flight.
Similarly, Bezos’s Blue Origin, which flew higher than its archrival Virgin Galactic, also utilises advanced science with a fully automated two-part rocket system, requiring no pilots at all. The launcher, which houses the rocket engine and propellant, separates after launch, flying back by itself to return to the launch pad, while the top part of the craft – the crew capsule – safely lands using parachutes. It is also equipped with a crew ejection system for added safety if any part of the launch goes wrong. Thankfully, there was no need for that on this occasion.
Both companies, after years of research and development and sustaining losses, are now finally poised to make money, with a reported 8,000 individuals already reserving 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. Some 7,600 people with a lot of spare cash had registered for the auction of tickets for this week’s flight, with the winner paying $28m, suggesting there will be strong demand too, at least from the ultra-rich. Indeed, analysts at the investment bank, Bank of America estimate the total value of the space industry will balloon from $350bn to as much as $2.7tn by 2040.
However, before we get too excited, we must call this out for what it is. This is an entertainment business for the super-rich, backed by a formidable PR operation.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are suborbital space vehicles. They do not yet fly high enough to orbit earth and are therefore in a wholly different category to – say, NASA or SpaceX – founded by another very successful billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk – which has become NASA’s preferred launch vehicle, able to resupply the International Space Station or deploy new satellites.
Virgin Galactic has confirmed as much, recently replacing its first CEO, the former NASA Chief of Staff George Whitesides, who led much of the research development phase of Virgin Galactic, with Michael Colglazier, who has no space background and was previously head of Disneyland parks.
The new space tourist companies are marketing these joy rides as “bringing space to the masses”. It is true that, before this, if you wanted to fly as a space tourist, you had to broker with the Russians to pay for a seat on the Soviet-era Soyuz class spacecraft for a cool $25m, as seven people did between 2001 and 2009.
But ticket prices for Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights will still be sky-high, which makes the claim absurd. There is no doubt that seeing the earth’s curvature could be a life-changing experience but who are we really inspiring here? Emerging scientists or the children of the billionaire set? Meanwhile, despite these new crafts being relatively energy-efficient compared with older space rockets, they still burn tonnes of fuel to go up and down through the atmosphere – hardly in the spirit of tackling climate change.
Perhaps it does not matter. After all, compared with state-funded programmes, private companies have the political cover of not – overtly – spending taxpayers’ money. Virgin Galactic has funding from the Virgin Group, the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, Aabar Investment group and Boeing, alongside being publicly traded in the New York stock market. Blue Origin was funded by the sale of Amazon stock.
In contrast, the NASA Apollo programme, which launched humans to the moon in the late 60s and early 70s and the more recent Space Shuttle programme, which retired in 2011, cost US taxpayers an eye-watering $415bn in today’s money.
Private space companies are following market forces, competing against each other in a new market. The ego contest has also begun, with Bezos taunting Branson that his ship can fly higher.
This is good. Competition drives creativity, efficiencies and the development of new safety procedures, given that a launch failure would cause fatal loss of confidence for prospective customers. Having highly driven, charismatic entrepreneurs being the face of private space companies also gives it a sexiness that has galvanised the entire space sector.
However, this masks the reality that these companies have still benefitted from a sector that has been financed with taxpayers’ 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 world’s richest man who founded Amazon, runs a multinational technology firm that pays very little tax.
For example, in Europe, Amazon made record sales of 44 billion euros ($51.9bn) in 2020 but tax filings suggest it did not pay any corporation tax in Luxembourg, where it filed tax paperwork. And while Bezos generously thanked the workers of Amazon for helping to realise his dream of reaching space, warehouse workers on just $15 an hour might be wondering whether those profits – $8bn in net income this past quarter, a record – might be better reinvested elsewhere?
While it is a bit cringe-worthy that rich people can now call themselves “astronauts”, no doubt raising eyebrows among professionally trained, actual astronauts, we should not underestimate the science behind flying people safely under such hostile environments. Normalising space travel could provide opportunities. With Virgin Galactic aspiring to near-daily flights in the future, these suborbital journeys will provide a new platform for science, for example by providing a relatively accessible way to carry out testing in micro-gravity environments. Blue Origin is also developing larger rockets, dubbed New Glen, which aspires to compete with SpaceX on longer distance space flights and Blue Moon, to create lunar landers in partnership with NASA.
Cynics may despair at the waste of money, given there are so many other pressing issues to deal with down here on planet earth, such as human poverty. Yet perhaps space travel is a way of capturing the imagination and acting as a symbol of human advancement. Perhaps, as refinements continue and economies of scale further reduce costs, space flight might indeed become accessible to everyone, with space flights changing how people view our precious earth and provide a new way to advance science that leads to new inventions that benefit all of humanity. One can only wonder.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.