Can tourism propel space exploration to new heights?

Why We Wrote This

A ticket to the moon may seem like the ultimate billionaire's indulgence. But space tourism just might broaden horizons in space for us all.

SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket (shown in this artist's rendering) may become the first commercial spacecraft to take civilians to space.

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Space travel has long been the domain of scientists, military personnel, and government officials, not well-heeled tourists. But that may be about to change. On Monday, spaceflight company SpaceX announced that Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa has purchased the company’s first joyride around the moon. He's not the first space tourist and certainly won't be the last. Multiple companies are building luxury spaceships and space hotels with wealthy space tourists in mind. And an influx of these newcomers could launch human spaceflight into high gear and profoundly change space exploration. By purchasing high-priced tickets in advance, billionaires like Mr. Maezawa help fund the development of rockets that may boost the first humans to Mars and beyond. Such voyages by non-astronauts could also inspire others to think about going to the stars. And the more people who go, the better, says Alex MacDonald, a senior economic advisor at NASA. “The more people who are investing their own money in space exploration capabilities, the more people who are purchasing human spaceflight services, the more spaceflight activities we’re going to be able to engage in as a nation as a whole.”

Yusaku Maezawa wasn’t selected by any agencies for space travel. He made the choice to go himself.

“I choose to go to the moon,” the Japanese billionaire entrepreneur proclaimed from a stage at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., Monday night. If all goes well, Mr. Maezawa will be SpaceX’s first paying customer to travel into space on a trip around the moon, perhaps as soon as 2023, and he wants to bring half a dozen artists with him.

Space tourists like Maezawa may become a regular fixture in the skies in the near future, as companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic all have stated ambitions to bring paying customers into space for the view and experience. Russian company Orbital Technologies also has designs on building space hotels in low-Earth orbit. All have announced timelines that fall within the next decade.

Space travel has long been the domain of scientists, military personnel, and government officials, not well-heeled tourists. But an influx of these newcomers might launch human spaceflight to the next level and profoundly change space exploration.

“It could be a very critical component” in advancing technology and expanding space travel, says N. Wayne Hale, a former NASA engineer who served as the space shuttle program manager and flight director and currently consults with the Special Aerospace Services. “It’s time we open this up to everyone.”

Civilians have purchased tickets to space before, but they’ve always hitched a ride with traditional astronauts. In the 2000s, seven millionaires and billionaires took trips to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. But in the past decade, numerous private spaceflight companies have forged ahead in developing a space travel industry that would give space tourism a place of its own.

If a steady flow of space tourists develops, that could open up more opportunities for scientists, says Greg Autry, who researches commercial spaceflight at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He compares it to Earth-bound air travel: “If the National Science Foundation had to develop an aircraft every time they needed to send some researchers off to explore something, we couldn’t afford to do hardly any science.”

But first the rockets and spacecraft that can safely carry humans into various parts of space must be built and tested. And that’s an expensive endeavor.

Could wealthy tourists cover that cost? That might be SpaceX chief executive officer Elon Musk’s plan. At Monday’s announcement, Musk estimated that the rocket that will boost Maezawa’s trip around the moon will cost somewhere around $5 billion to build. Both men refused to say how much Maezawa is paying SpaceX for the flight, but Musk did say that the amount was “non-trivial” and will have a significant impact on the development of the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket). Dr. Autry guesses it could be around $1 billion.

Chris Carlson/AP
SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk, (l.), shakes hands with Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, (r.), after announcing him as the first private passenger on a trip around the moon, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018, in Hawthorne, Calif.

The trick to making this model work, Autry says, is to sell more tickets to wealthy prospective space tourists. “If all they have to do is refuel this thing, and inspect it, and send it up again, like they say, it could just be a few million dollars per flight, and they could be charging hundreds of millions of dollars per passenger.”

There is precedent for this idea. Virgin Galactic has already sold nearly 700 tickets at $200,000 or $250,000 apiece for a suborbital flight that would take passengers to space for just a few minutes.

SpaceX, NASA and others have all explicitly stated goals to not only return humans to the moon but also to put boots on Mars and beyond. And all that action could help speed up schedules and advance the necessary technology, says Alex MacDonald, a senior economic advisor at NASA.

“The more people who are investing their own money in space exploration capabilities, the more people who are purchasing human spaceflight services, the more spaceflight activities we’re going to be able to engage in as a nation as a whole.”

Lighting the fire for spaceflight?

But sending more people hurtling off into space, particularly where few people have gone before, does pose a risk. And if something goes wrong, “it could have a chilling effect on the whole spaceflight industry,” says Mr. Hale, who knows all too well what effect disaster can have, as he was a manager of NASA’s Space Shuttle program during the Columbia disaster.

Still, Hale says, “The development of spaceliners, and letting more people go, and understanding how to build habitats and make accommodations are things that we’re going to need to know about in the future. So it can only be good.”

All the conversation around space travel could prompt a shift in societal consciousness, too, says Valerie Neal, chair of the space history department at the National Air and Space Museum. And that, in turn, could drive an expansion of space travel more generally.

That’s what happened with airplanes, at least, Dr. Neal says. In the 1920s, although only a select few were actually taking flight, people flocked to air shows and devoured news articles about daring flights to marvel at this new curiosity. A sort of “air-mindedness” developed, she explains. There was a sense of possibility about air travel.

“Something like ‘space-tourism mindedness’ might develop,” speculates Neal, “and become that same kind of enthusiasm and force of appeal and inspiration that people will aspire to have the opportunity to go into space.”

The pure thrill of space, the entertainment value, could in turn lead to other more serious uses for space travel, too, Autry says. He draws an analogy to what drove the popularity of personal computers early on: video games. Before personal computers started to be used in offices for business, people bought them for what was seen as trivial entertainment. That, Autry says, set the groundwork for the ubiquity of computers.

A similar thing could happen with space travel, he says. Tourism could lead to business ventures, which together could make for a sustainable economy, which could be the backbone of a human future in space.

We’re still very far from that future, and the role that space tourism may play is still a largely hypothetical one.

But, says Dr. MacDonald, “The more people that have experiences going into space, the more accessible the experience will be to all of us. And the more the perspective of being a human species on the third rock from the Sun in a broader cosmos, the more that perspective has a chance to become part of our more regular daily experiences.”

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to include Alex MacDonald's current title. He is the senior economic advisor within the Office of the Administrator at NASA Headquarters. He was previously the founding program executive of NASA's Emerging Space Office.]

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