Restrictions continue to put a chill on world travel, cutting off popular places on maps we’re all familiar with. But what about places and travel experiences of the third kind?
We’re talking about boldly going where no tourist has gone before. Space, the final frolicking frontier. Encouraged that not one but three spacecraft put aloft by as many nations are at this very moment casing the Red Planet for its future potential as an extra Earth (one never knows), it’s shining a laser light on off-world experiences being quickly commercialized.
We’re getting there, step by step. Headlines blared congrats on Feb. 18 as NASA’s Perseverance robotic rover landed safely on Mars — America’s sixth Mars landing — even as China’s Tianwen-1 probe and the United Arab Emirates spacecraft Hope took up orbit above.
In other words, Mars is getting crowded already, like The Hamptons. But at least when “Mars Hotel” finally opens (as foretold in 1974 by The Grateful Dead) there’s already a way to pay.
Marscoin is a new cryptocurrency fielded by The Mars Society to not only help fund missions, but also to act as the new world’s reserve currency. Sounds far out, but it’s just the payments business looking for new opportunities. And, as the Marscoin folks say, for “a new planetary settlement, a payment and value transfer/storage system such as bitcoin would be useful, first and foremost. It is very unlikely that the first Martian settlers will start printing paper.”
Don’t be so sure. Paper checks can survive in a vacuum.
Since there are no “Fifth Element”-style space pleasure cruises to Mars (yet), let’s look at some of the near-Earth activities that are now available (or soon will be) to zero-gravity thrill-seekers.
Near-Space Tourism Is Taking Off
Planetary forces like international commerce and the obsessive need to post the best vacation photos on Instagram are combining to break the surly bonds of earth.
In 2021, there are at least two companies testing high-altitude balloon rides to the edge of space. Based out of Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, Space Perspective just notched $7 million in seed financing to get its Spaceship Neptune project (ahem) off the ground.
Founder and Co-CEO Taber MacCallum said in a December statement that “our ability to make space accessible in unprecedented ways carries immense importance. We are grateful that this premier group of investors recognizes that space tourism has arrived and is a significant driver in the future growth of commercial spaceflight.”
And there it is: space tourism. Everybody wants a piece of the high-flying action.
In Spain, startup Zero 2 Infinity (Z2I) bills itself as a “zero-emissions space transportation company” with its Bloon space balloon gondola concept. Not only does Z2I want to take people to the edge of space, it also wants to take paid advertisements up there. Introducing what it calls HAPS for “High-Altitude Platform,s” Z2I intends to put advertising high in the sky, perhaps ushering in a new era in Superbowl ads (and neck strain from looking up).
What about Mr. Tesla himself, Elon Musk? On Feb. 1, the SpaceX founder announced that the first all-civilian crew will be lifted aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. And who’s leading that civilian crew? It’s Jared Isaacman, founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, a Pennsylvania-based payment processor. Talk about moving money around the planet — at 17,500 miles per hour.
Well played, sir.
Space Is Officially Open for Business
As for the further commercialization of near-Earth, it’ll be profits before fun. But still fun.
Last October, NASA announced that it will completely commercialize near-Earth communications for orbital and moon missions by 2030. NASA’s reasons for turning to the private sector sound an awful lot like the reasons that banks partner with FinTechs.
“By shifting to commercial communications services, NASA will free up personnel and resources to focus on technology development while bolstering the commercial space economy. This shift may also reduce the overall cost of communications services while enhancing network responsiveness and availability,” per the announcement. Might as well be talking about RTP.
“When NASA becomes just one of many customers in a commercial marketplace, missions can benefit from competitive pricing from an abundance of service providers,” it said.
No discussion about the commercialization of space would be complete without checking in on two other high-flying high-rollers: Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson and Amazon’s Mr. Jeff Bezos.
For his part, Branson’s Virgin Galactic is waitlisting private citizens for a future visit to the International Space Station. The company says that “under an agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Virgin Galactic is developing a new orbital astronaut readiness program for private individuals interested in purchasing missions to the International Space Station. This program builds on Virgin Galactic’s commercial spaceflight training experience and position as the world’s preeminent space experience brand. It will offer a unique turnkey approach to orbital flight, from the procurement of transportation to the provision of training, all delivered with an unparalleled and proven commitment to personalized customer experience.”
If you’re wondering what Bezos is going to do with his spare time as he’s no longer day-to-day at Amazon, we’re betting he’ll spend more time with Blue Origin, his own spaceflight venture.
People are waitlisting for rides in Blue Origin’s suborbital, reusable New Shepard rocket system, of which the website boasts “every seat’s a window seat.” A trip will include a stay at the secluded high-plains desert launch area in West Texas. It’s an 11-minute flight, or will be, but we’re guessing it would be the 11 most memorable minutes of one’s earthy life.
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