SciTech

Space tourism has become a reality thanks to startups

Credit: Tracy Le/Junior Designer Credit: Tracy Le/Junior Designer An image of World View Enterprise’s Stratollite in the stratosphere. (credit: Courtesy of Space.com) An image of World View Enterprise’s Stratollite in the stratosphere. (credit: Courtesy of Space.com)

It seems tourism is exploring its final frontier: space. In late 2018, SpaceX will place two tourists in its Dragon capsule and slingshot them around the moon. The journey will take seven days. Another startup, World View Enterprise, will lift customers up into the stratosphere on hot-air balloons. At such a height, tourists could gaze down at the Earth’s continents and curvature, or directly up at the stars. We expected space tourism to arrive earlier, as is depicted in science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nonetheless, it is here, and astronauts will soon be joined by (exorbitantly rich) everyday citizens.

The technological advances of the 21st century make space tourism not only a possibility but a reality. Two unidentified people placed considerable deposits with SpaceX to be the first space tourists ever. The price probably exceeds the $150 million two customers paid Space Adventures, another space tourism company, to travel to the International Space Station (ISS). The moon is much further than the ISS, and such a journey would require tremendous resources and redesigns to SpaceX’s capsule. The Dragon capsule will fly close the moon, following a looped path that directs it back to Earth after a week. World View Enterprises offers a more modest approach to space. Using its Stratollite vehicle, World View plans to carry researchers and tourists alike to the edge of the atmosphere. There, weather information or geological changes can be studied. This reduces research organizations’ needs for expensive satellites and rocket launches. The benefits of space tourism are far reaching. As more startups emerge to take on the dark void, the costs of space travel may plummet as a result of competition.

The regular presence of people in space may spur more space exploration with humans, urging us further out into the solar system. Many of the worlds and moons in our solar system have barely been explored at the surface level, so this is a chance to collect far more information about them.

However, this is all very optimistic. A new, fast growing industry is not likely to emerge any time soon. The cost of being a space tourist currently far exceeds the budgets of most people on the planet. It seems tickets currently cost in the millions, amounts most of us will not see in our lifetimes, let alone spend on a trip. It is difficult to see space flight prices being comparable to, say, airline prices in the decades to come.

Unfortunately, this means space tourism does not have a good business model and cannot morph itself into a steady market. Consider, for example, the headache such an industry would be for insurance companies. Space flight is incredibly dangerous, and something as little as an expanding ring can cause a space craft to explode upon lift off. SpaceX’s plan to carry people around the moon is even more daring, expensive, and life threatening. For example, the Apollo missions to the moon were infamously dangerous. Nonetheless, someone has to take that first step. Many of the technology advances in transportation we relish today were extremely risky endeavors in the past. Space is simply another frontier that must be reached. It may be worth the risk — at least, these startups think so.