by Paul Ng
Space: the final frontier. These are the hopes and dreams of humankind. Our lifelong mission: to explore beyond what we know, to seek out new answers in our galaxy. The famously aspirational opening line of Star Trek was originally aired in 1966, and nearly 60 years later today, it feels almost endearingly naive. These days, depending who you ask, space is increasingly seen as either a future for humanity, or a tourism destination.
Governments and various corporations are willing to go to the lengths of investing time, effort, as well as taxpayers’ money to explore our galaxy. Everyone – from the US, China, and Russia, to billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson – is looking to carve a piece of the action.
As it stands, Blue Origin has just successfully launched its fifth flight with a crew into space. Their goal: to create a future where people can live in space one day. But with a ticket price of USD$200,000, is it really feasible? Plus, with our current global geopolitical situation, and profit-driven interests of private space companies, what will it take for us to reach for the stars?
The corporate space race needs tourism
During the Cold War, it was “do or die” which drove innovation in the space race. Our biggest innovations these days, in almost every area, seem to be profit-driven by private companies. Even NASA has farmed out space flights to the ISS to private companies who can do it cheaper and more efficiently.
Just last year, private space companies received nearly US$15 billion of private investments — including a whopping US$4.3 billion in the fourth quarter. The amount has more than doubled from 2020 as investors continue to bet on the “space economy.”
Those in the space industry are increasingly looking towards space tourism as a business model. There are companies that focus on getting passengers into space, as well as those housing people in space. Some are even providing space hospitality services.
To make space tourism viable, companies will need to make space more accessible to the public in terms of cost and safety.
Hurdles of space tourism
Travelling to space isn’t as simple as stepping into a rocket. In addition to being healthy, NASA astronauts need to be qualified scuba divers, do military water survival training, and undergo swimming tests. Their training includes exposure to high and low atmospheric pressures, and a low-gravity environment.
Once they’re in space, the environment will tax their bodies; bones become less dense, and muscles weaken. They have to exercise at least 2 hours a day to maintain what they have on Earth. Astronauts on board the ISS are exposed to radiation, zero gravity, and countless dangers, including psychological health issues.
If space tourism is ever going to really take off (no pun intended), then there will need to be options that are less taxing on the body.
For instance, Space Perspective is a luxury space-tourism company that “floats” passengers to suborbital space in a vehicle that resembles a hot-air balloon. This eliminates the dangers of high-G exposure and vibrations of rocket travel. If all goes well, the first flights are scheduled for 2024.
Even if we do get the vehicles to be more human body-friendly, there’s still one more huge issue to address: the cost.
The cost to blast off
The goal in the future is to drive the price of space travel to hundreds of dollars per kilogram. And it looks like we’re heading the right way with reusable rockets that SpaceX uses. Scientists are also exploring other forms of accelerators, like electric rockets powered by plasma.
Ironically, a highly efficient propulsion technology already existed in the 1960s. NASA’s NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) used a nuclear reaction instead of an inefficient combustion process – and it doesn’t spew radioactive ash or anything of that sort. Sadly, the programme was defunded after the space race ended.
For now, the availability of space tourism is only for the rich. SpaceX recently sent a group of four private citizens into orbit for a first-of-its-kind trip to the International Space Station (ISS). The trip was organised by Axiom Space, a private startup that’s booking trips to the ISS for anyone who can afford it. Each passenger paid a cool US$55 million for their all-inclusive space package!
One has to bear in mind that getting there takes a big chunk. Virgin Galactic’s space flights are currently priced at US$450,000 per passenger, Blue Origin’s is currently US$200,000, and Space Perspective will float you into space for US$125,000.
Once you’re in space, what do you do? You’ll probably need a place to stay and enjoy the view. Enter space hotels.
What we have in space now
We’ve had a continuous human presence in space on the International Space Station (ISS) since 1998. Over those 22 years, we’ve built an amazing orbital outpost and continue to operate it as an orbiting laboratory. It also recently became a hotel for Axiom Space customers. While there’s been plenty of talk of decommissioning the ISS, we’ve extended its lifespan from its original end date of 2020 to 2024, then to 2028, and now to 2030.
But with rising geopolitical tensions and the recent war in Ukraine, future inter-government collaborations like the ISS are at stake. Russia recently announced plans to pull out of the ISS programme by next year. It is currently responsible for a huge segment of key ISS infrastructures, like its propulsion and navigation guidance systems.
So what other options are out there? We may need to look at the moon.
Space tourism in the future
The moon is a very possible site for human habitation. One of its selling points is that it’s not very far from Earth. This makes it convenient if something isn’t going right, or if you need a resupply mission.
There’s currently an international partnership with NASA under the Artemis programme that’s intended to take humans back to the moon. It’s been over 50 years since mankind last stepped on this lonely rock. The purpose of Artemis is to establish a permanent and semi-permanent human presence in the lunar system. This includes a space station orbiting the moon, as well as periodic activities on the surface of the moon.
There are also plans to open a new space hotel on the moon by 2027. Interstellar Lab is working on producing inflatable, climate-controlled “biopods” which can be deployed like tents. They’re self-contained ecosystems that’ll allow humans and plants to grow even in space. If these work, they may also provide a life support system for life beyond the moon.
The moon is actually a very attractive stepping stone for interplanetary travel. Since it doesn’t have an atmosphere, you can operate centrifuges and mass drivers to launch stuff without any propellant on board. This means you can launch off the moon with a third less energy than you need to launch from Earth. In essence, you can get into different trajectories faster and carry more payload, keeping things cheaper.
So in effect, the moon may eventually be the Changi Airport of the solar system. In the next 10 or 15 years, we may even have larger scale spaceflights for tourists.
Beyond the moon
Looking beyond the moon, the next target that everyone talks about is Mars. The UAE (who currently has a satellite orbiting the red planet) as well as Elon Musk wants to colonise it. If we do, it would be the biggest undertaking in human history.
Given that governments and geopolitics change, Mars as a multi-generational public project probably won’t do well, as priorities change from administration to administration. This means the only group with an incentive to innovate is probably the private space industry.
If it already costs US$55 million just for a trip to the ISS, what would a trip to Mars cost? Ever the optimist, Elon Musk has reiterated his aims to colonise Mars by building a self-sustaining city of a million people on the planet by 2050. And the cost for a ticket there on SpaceX? He estimates it to be between US$100,000 and US$500,000, if you’d believe it.
Futurists are optimistic that in about 100-200 years’ time, the average person can have a vacation in outer space. Even with the optimism, space itself is an expensive endeavour and isn’t something too accessible to everyday people now. But if you think about it, humanity has been around for roughly 1,000 generations, and we’re the first ones where private space travel exists. Never mind that we’d need at least US$200,000 to get there.