Updated: Jul 21, 2021
Jeff Bezos successfully flew to space on his company Blue Origin’s suborbital rocket at 9 a.m. EDT (15:00 UTC +2) today, July 20, 2021. Last week, Richard Branson soared into space aboard Virgin Galactic rocket plane. What is next? The two billionaires spaceflights constitute a glimpse of what could be the future space age with mass tourism.
Here is the first live video of Jeff Bezos’ flight:
Space exploration used to be done exclusively at a state level mainly by the United States (with NASA) and Russia, followed later by China, European Union, and other countries. Lately, private companies have increasingly invested in this industry, wanting to develop spatial tourism. Jeff Bezos - founder and executive chairman of Amazon - created Blue Origin in 2000 with the future vision of millions of people living and working in space. Today, this company has launched its first human flight aboard New Shepard after 15 successful consecutive unmanned missions. The other passengers are Mark Bezos (Jeff Bezos' brother), Wally Funk (an 82 years old former pilot), and Oliver Daemen (who is 18 years old and the first paying customer on New Shepard). Both Daemen and Funk are respectively the youngest and oldest to fly to space.
(Source: Blue Origin - Jeff Bezos)
Blue Origin defines New Shepard as their reusable suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line - the internationally recognized boundary of space (hundreds of kilometres from Earth's surface). The 11 minutes flight on New Shepard is said to be an experience of a lifetime.
(Source: Blue Origin - New Shepard capsule seats)
Furthermore, Bezos is not the first billionaire to reach suborbital space. A week ago on July 11, Richard Branson - founder of Virgin Group - rose into space aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane, VSS Unity, for a 10 minutes flight.
As it is shown in the video above, the Virgin Galactic crew had the opportunity to experience zero gravity for approximately 5 minutes. Commercial planes usually remain at low atmosphere (10km of altitude), whereas the Virgin Galactic suborbital spatial trip was realised at 80km of altitude. According to an interesting article from the Verge, opening up the cosmos to the masses and normalizing space travel is a goal that companies and their billionaire backers have been targeting for years but haven’t achieved yet. VSS Unity could begin full commercial operations early next year if a few more test flights go well this fall.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also developing commercial flights for NASA and a plan to go to Mars, as well as another space tourism project named Inspiration4, designed to travel even higher than the International Space Station, to an altitude of up to 540km from earth. That would be a 3-day trip for space tourists, starting at a price of around 30 to 40 million dollars. The first flight is planned for September 2021.
Although Branson and Bezos’ flights to space establish key milestones for space tourism businesses, the space industry is far from being able to offer its services to the rest of the public. To achieve mass space tourism, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will need to overcome many challenges (mostly linked to the safety of the clients regularly flying in the space aboard rockets).
Nonetheless, mass spatial tourism will eventually face many environmental issues. Indeed, suborbital spaceflights are not sustainable yet and could be a disaster for the planet. Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) seems to pollute less by mixing hydrogen and oxygen. While Richard Branson's spaceship (Virgin Galactic) appears to emit more CO2, which does not cope with the Paris agreement's objective of remaining below + 2%.
Thus, pollution is a challenge that future spaceflights companies are currently facing. Furthermore, a wide range of people like Bernie Sanders (see the Tweet below) criticise the fact that a handful of billionaires prefer to spend their money in space projects rather than fighting against wealth inequities and poor access to healthcare. To which they respond that every technology breakthrough started for a few before improving and reaching a larger public.
Investments in spatial tourism increased tremendously in recent years for scientific and economic reasons. Virgin Galactic has already sold more than 600 tickets for a price between 200 000 and 250 000 dollars for future spatial trips, making it accessible to multi-millionaires, not only billionaires. It will also lead to tremendous progress in rapid transportation between continents. Moreover, Branson stated that investments in space have helped propel and improve other technologies, such as GPS capabilities, weather tracking services, or climate change research.
The competition is only starting. It’s also about accommodation in space. U.S company Axiom Space has plans to build a private space station and arrange private rides on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsules. The project involves Thalès and the world-famous designer Philippe Starck (see a recent Futuria article in French about the first space hotel project: https://www.futuria.io/post/le-premier-hôtel-de-l-espace. Another company, Orbital Assembly is positioning itself as a developer of buildings, constructions, and spacecrafts for research and tourism.
We are reaching a stage of the “new space” industry that shows a shift from states to private companies and from research to tourism for the wealthy. The current moment seems like an ego race between billionaires to be the first in space. Will this finally reach the larger public, beyond a handful of billionaires and multi-millionaires? It took about 60 years to go from the aviation pioneers (the Wright Brothers, Louis Blériot - who were not billionaires by the way, but adventurers) to reach the mass market after WW2. Yuri Gagarine and Niels Armstrong were the heroes of the space pioneer age in the 1960's. "New Space" is now taking off. How long before space tourism is available to the middle class?
Here is an interesting article from the Verge about the space tourism industry and its billionaire phase:
Futuria also has published an article (in French) about the first space hotel project: https://www.futuria.io/post/le-premier-hôtel-de-l-espace