Why you should care
Because your childhood dream of becoming an astronaut might not be so far-fetched after all.
The prospect of space travel has sparked the imagination for generations, fueled by sci-fi dramas and futuristic movies like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But after NASA’s final shuttle flight in 2011, many thought the long-held dream of interstellar transportation was dead.
It’s not. Private companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR picked up the torch and announced they’ll start sending tourists on suborbital flights in the next two years from New Mexico and the Mojave Desert. Unfortunately, the steep ticket prices – $250,000 for Virgin, $100,000 for XCOR – put space travel beyond the reach of average mortals.
Space is something mystical in a sense. … We want to allow everyone to experience it.
But there’s hope: New companies have arrived on the commercial spaceflight scene and say that affordable spacial travel is possible within our lifetime.
With the motto “Space for all,” Swiss Space Systems (S3) hopes to democratize access to the final frontier by offering affordable suborbital manned trips to the border of space within the next 10 years.
“Space is something mystical in a sense. It has really resonated for a lot of people since their childhood,” says Gregoire Loretan, S3’s spokesperson. “We want to allow everyone to experience it.”
Space might be the stuff of dreams, but it’s also a rock-solid business opportunity. The research firm Utron puts the value of the “space tourism” market by 2021 at $700 million a year. With such profitable prospects, the low-cost space race is quickly gaining contenders, including the Danish Copenhagen Suborbital and the British Bristol Spaceplanes.
The newcomers may be a few steps behind Virgin and XCOR, but they seem more than ready to play the long game if it means giving customers an out-of-this-world experience at a manageable price.
“My best estimate is that, within 15 years, a week-long space holiday will be affordable … for about $30,000. And it will be so much fun,” says David Ashford, an aeronautical engineer and managing director of Bristol Spaceplanes.
Like the nonprofit Copenhagen Suborbital, Bristol has chosen to crowdfund. It’s looking to raise the $250,000 needed to build an “Ascender,” a small rocket-powered, two-passenger plane, and is offering free space trips in exchange for $30,000 donations.
The Swiss firm S3 is closest to reaching its goal but has employed a different strategy. Its first focus will be on launching private satellites for universities, startups and developing countries — another budding market worth an estimate $570 million.
People could be using suborbital flights by 2030 to travel from Paris to Sydney in just two hours.
Their system is one-fourth the current cost of launching satellites, which they manage by reducing the size of existing satellite technology and striving to make everything reusable. A shuttle will be carried on the back of a commercial Airbus aircraft A300 for the first six miles of the ascent, thereby limiting rocket fuel costs before firing up and bursting into space to deliver the satellite.
This plan allows the Swiss to cover the costs of technological development before moving into space tourism. Transitioning would just require modifying the shuttle’s interior — presently designed to carry satellites — to accommodate people.
“Virgin and similar companies are expensive because they have to cover all their development costs from scratch with the tickets. By offering satellites first, our passengers will only have to pay a portion of what it takes to adapt the interior of the vessel,” explains Loretan, who estimates the price of a seat could be as cheap as $2,700 by 2030.
These cosmic entrepreneurs believe that suborbital flights represent not only the next frontier for tourism but also a revolution in aerial transportation. If everything goes as planned, S3 predicts travelers could hop a suborbital flight by 2030 to go from Paris to Sydney in just two hours, feasting on stunning views of Earth along the way.
Skeptics say space enthusiasts shouldn’t pack their bags yet because there are numerous technical challenges to overcome. “It is possible, yes, but it is very complex,” says Dr. Anton Ivanov, from the Swiss Space Center, referring to S3’s plans. “A lot remains to be done to improve the engine technology, guarantee safe landing and perfect the deployment of payload. And these are just the top three of a long list of challenges.”
There might also be significant legal difficulties. S3 admits that getting the permits to fly people commercially will take a long time, especially over populated areas – Virgin and XROR can only take off from the desert — and then there’s the question of price. Will Whitehorn, former president of Virgin Galactic, doesn’t think space flights will be affordable anytime soon. “We believe after three to five years, we can get it down to $100,000 from $200,000. But we don’t think we’ll get it down to $10,000.”
So it might take a while before Kubrick’s vision becomes a reality, or at least one we can afford. But as these entrepreneurs continue developing solutions, we just might find ourselves on the brink of a new space age for the common man and woman.