Earlier this month, British billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson successfully flew into outer space, paving the way for his brand, Virgin Galactic, to the far reaches of the Outer Hemisphere . This week, fellow billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took his own Blue Origin spacecraft for a ride to the Outer Limits, managing to get 10 miles longer than Sir Richard.
The trips 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 curvature of the earth and enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness. Perfect for this viral Instagram photo for her millions of followers.
But could the idea of space tourism really become more than just an expensive ride for the rich?
The idea of space travel has fascinated human beings for millennia. Mankind has viewed the stars as a tool for navigation and a source of spiritual fulfillment. Even now, research from the American think tank, the Pew Research Center, suggests that 29% of Americans believe in horoscopes.
In the 20th century, as scientific discoveries advanced, space travel became a symbol of political and ideological prestige, with the superpowers of that time, the United States and the former Soviet Union, fighting for space supremacy.
The two sides have invested billions of dollars in a series of space programs that have created new rockets, new satellites and, most importantly, have resulted in humans touching the surface of the moon. He also created a line of inventions marketed for wider use, such as scratch-resistant lenses for eyeglasses, memory foam, and LASIK eye surgery.
Nowadays, with the end of the Cold War, political pressure to advance publicly funded space programs has diminished, with governments even more reluctant to spend after the global financial crisis crippled government budgets in 2007 Thus, a gap has appeared for the private sector. sector in which to engage.
For Branson, this month’s adventure was the culmination of a long-held dream of getting into space tourism, having first promised to build a spaceship in 2004, with the hope of launching a commercial service by 2007. The program has experienced years of delays due to, unsurprisingly, facing enormous technical challenges, including a fatal accident during a development flight in 2014. The current pandemic also made it more difficult, having forced Branson to sell $ 650 million in Virgin Galactic shares over the past two years to solidify his larger Virgin business empire.
Yet despite the delays, Virgin Galactic has succeeded in its quest and has advanced space science accordingly. It developed a unique flight path, with a “mother ship” carrying the primary vehicle, VSS Unity, up to 15 km (9 miles) in the air before Unity launched, then activated its rockets to fly. An additional 70 km (43 miles) above the surface. from the earth, to reach the edge of space. Unity then re-entered Earth’s atmosphere with rotating wings – a technology known as feathering – to gently descend to earth without the need for a parachute. This meant that no parts needed to be thrown away, making it fully reusable, with the plane landing in the same location at Spaceport America in New Mexico, USA, allowing tourists to the space to get on and off without hassle, just like on a commercial flight.
Likewise, Bezos’ Blue Origin, which has flown higher than its big rival Virgin Galactic, also uses advanced science with a fully automated two-part rocket system, requiring no pilots. The launcher, which houses the rocket motor and thruster, separates after launch, returning on its own to return to the launch pad, while the top of the craft – the crew’s capsule – lands safely using parachutes. It is also equipped with a crew ejection system for added safety in the event of a problem during launch. Fortunately, this was not necessary on this occasion.
The two companies, after years of research and development and sustained losses, are now poised to make money, with 8,000 people reportedly already booking tickets for Virgin Galactic flights costing at least $ 250,000. each. Tickets to fly on Blue Origin are supposed to be priced at similar levels. Some 7,600 people with plenty of cash on hand had signed up for the auction of tickets for this week’s flight, with the winner paying $ 28 million, suggesting there will be high demand as well, at least from the ultra-rich. Indeed, analysts at the investment bank Bank of America estimate that the total value of the space industry will grow from $ 350 billion to $ 2.7 billion by 2040.
However, before we get too excited we have to call it for what it is. This is an entertainment company for the super-rich, backed up by a formidable public relations operation.
Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are suborbital space vehicles. They are not yet flying high enough to orbit the Earth and therefore belong to an entirely different category than – say, NASA or SpaceX – founded by another very successful billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk – which has become the preferred launcher of NASA, capable of resupplying the International Space Station or deploying new satellites.
Virgin Galactic confirmed this by recently replacing its first CEO, 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 training and was previously the head of the Disneyland parks. .
New space tourism companies are marketing these rides as “bringing space to the masses”. It is true that before that, if you wanted to fly as a space tourist, you had to negotiate with the Russians to pay for a seat on the Soviet-era Soyuz-class spacecraft for $ 25 million, like seven people l ‘did between 2001 and 2009.
But ticket prices for Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights will always be sky-high, which makes that claim absurd. There is no doubt that seeing the curvature of the earth could be a life-changing experience, but who are we really inspiring here? Emerging scientists or children of the billionaire group? Meanwhile, while these newer contraptions are relatively energy efficient compared to older space rockets, they still burn tons of fuel to move up and down the atmosphere – barely in the spirit of tackling climate change.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. After all, compared to publicly funded programs, private companies have the political cover of not – blatantly – spending taxpayer dollars. Virgin Galactic is funded by Virgin Group, Abu Dhabi Sovereign Fund, Aabar Investment Group and Boeing, in addition to being publicly traded on the New York Stock Market. Blue Origin was funded by the sale of Amazon shares.
In contrast, NASA’s Apollo program, which launched humans to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the more recent Space Shuttle program, which retired in 2011, have cost US taxpayers $ 415 billion in today’s money.
Private space companies follow market forces and compete in a new market. The ego contest has also started, with Bezos taunting Branson that his ship can fly higher.
Its good. Competition stimulates creativity, efficiency and the development of new security procedures, as a failed launch would lead to a fatal loss of trust for potential customers. Having highly motivated charismatic entrepreneurs being the face of private space companies also gives it a sensuality that has galvanized the entire space industry.
However, this masks the reality that these companies have again benefited from a sector that has been funded with taxpayer support. For example, the government of New Mexico has invested nearly $ 200 million in the Spaceport America facility, with Virgin Galactic as the primary tenant. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world who founded Amazon, runs a multinational tech company that pays very little in taxes.
For example, in Europe, Amazon achieved a record turnover of 44 billion euros ($ 51.9 billion) in 2020, but income statements suggest it paid no corporate taxes. in Luxembourg, where he filed tax documents. And while Bezos generously thanked Amazon workers for helping realize his dream of reaching space, warehouse workers with just $ 15 an hour might wonder if those profits – $ 8 billion dollars of net income in the last quarter – a record – could be better reinvested elsewhere. ?
While it is a little shocking that the rich can now call themselves “astronauts,” no doubt raising real, professionally trained astronauts eyebrows, we should not underestimate the science behind stealing people safely from spaceships. equally hostile environments. The standardization of space travel could offer 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 perform tests in microgravity environments. Blue Origin is also developing larger rockets, dubbed New Glen, which aspires to compete with SpaceX on longer space flights and Blue Moon, to create lunar landers in partnership with NASA.
Cynics can despair of a waste of money, given that there are so many other pressing issues to be addressed here on planet Earth, such as human poverty. Yet perhaps space travel is a way to capture the imagination and act as a symbol of human progress. Perhaps as improvements continue and economies of scale reduce costs further, spaceflight could indeed become accessible to all, with spaceflight changing the way people view our precious earth and providing a new way to advance science that leads to new inventions that benefit all mankind. . One can only wonder.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.