Okay, so it’s a new era—but what does it mean? Do these forays represent a future in which even the average person might book a celestial flight and bask in the splendor of Earth from above? Or is this just another way for the ultrawealthy to flash their cash while simultaneously ignoring and exacerbating our existential problems down on the ground? Nearly all those 2021 escapades were the result of efforts by three billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson. Branson is a mere single-digit billionaire, whereas Bezos and Musk have wealth measured in the hundreds of billions.
“The greatly undue influence of wealth in this country—to me that’s at the heart of my issues with space tourism as it’s unfolding,” says Linda Billings, a communications researcher who consults for NASA and has written about the societal impacts of spaceflight for more than 30 years. “We are so far away from making this available to your so-called average person.”
Each spot on Virgin’s suborbital spaceplane, the cheapest way to space at the moment, will set somebody back $450,000. A single seat on Blue Origin’s initial suborbital launch sold at auction for $28 million, and the undisclosed price tag of SpaceX’s all-civilian Inspiration4 mission, which spent three days in orbit before splashing down off the coast of Florida, has been estimated at $50 million per passenger.
Not only are such flights ridiculously far out of financial reach for the average person, says Billings, but they aren’t achieving any real goals—far from ideal given our terrestrial problems of inequality, environmental collapse, and a global pandemic. “We’re not really learning anything,” she says. “There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of thought or conscience in the people engaging in these space tourism missions.”
Laura Forczyk, owner of the space consulting firm Astralytical, thinks it’s misguided to focus strictly on the money aspect. “The narrative [last year] was billionaires in space, but it’s so much more than that,” says Forczyk, who wrote the book Becoming Off-Worldly, published in January, in which she interviewed both government and private astronauts about why they go to space.
Forczyk sees the flights as great opportunities to conduct scientific experiments. All three of the commercial tourist companies have carried research projects in the past, studying things like fluid dynamics, plant genetics, and the human body’s reaction to microgravity. And yes, the rich are the target audience, but the passengers on SpaceX’s Inspiration4 included artist and scientist Sian Proctor and data engineer Chris Sembroski, who won their tickets through contests, as well as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital ambassador Hayley Arceneaux (the trip helped her raise $200 million in donations for the hospital). Blue Origin gave free trips to aviation pioneer Wally Funk, who as a woman had been barred from becoming an Apollo astronaut, and NASA astronaut Alan Shepard’s daughter Laura.
Forczyk also cites Iranian space tourist Anousheh Ansari, who flew to the ISS in 2006. “She talked about how she grew up in a war zone in Iran, and how [the flight] helped her see the world as interconnected,” Forczyk says.
Billings thinks the value of such testimonials is pretty low. “All these people are talking to the press about how wonderful the experience was,” she says. “But to listen to someone else tell you about how exciting it was to climb Mt. Everest doesn’t convey the actual experience.”
As with an Everest trek, there’s the risk of death to consider. Historically, spaceflight has had a fatality rate of just under 4%—roughly 266,000 times greater than for commercial airplanes. Virgin suffered two major disasters during testing, killing a total of four employees and injuring four more. “A high-profile accident will come; it’s inevitable,” says Forczyk. But even that, she predicts, won’t end space tourism. People continue to climb Everest, she notes, despite the danger.