Like most of you, I am rejoicing that space tourism is back on track after some early snags (crashes). Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are planning more launches, and Jeff Bezos has just announced he will be heading skyward next month on his Blue Origin programme’s New Shepard rocket. The Amazon founder is due to go up on July 20 — or tomorrow if he subscribes to Prime. The heavens may soon be rich with plutocrats.
The opening of the space market could not be more timely because, frankly, it’s getting very hard to plan a holiday at the moment, and sub-orbital flight looks likely to be on the green list. Of course, it is expensive. A ride on Virgin Galactic is expected to cost about $200,000-$250,000 a flight. And that’s without the cost of the PCR tests you have to take after you land.
Two-hundred grand is very much at the Ryanair end of the market, although you may not have to pay extra to get an allocated seat. The top bid for a seat with Bezos on New Shepard is about $2.8m. Presumably, the in-flight food is a lot better and the airport lounge has complimentary peanuts. Last year, SpaceX teamed up with another company to offer a several‑day stay on a space station for the bargain price of $55m. Quite a lot considering it is only a three-star space station and doesn’t even have a pool.
On the Covid-19 point, space tourism also offers some protection against the kind of sudden travel restrictions that sent thousands of holidaymakers into a panic after Portugal’s unexpected switch from green to amber status. Given that most space jaunts won’t last more than a couple of hours, there is little chance of being reclassified while out of orbit, even if there are fears about a Neptune variant. In fact, the time you spend in zero gravity on one of these flights lasts a matter of minutes, which is surely not long enough even for Matt Hancock to ruin your holiday.
Perhaps this is the future of tourism. Yes, we’ve booked five hours in the Algarve this summer. How about you? Oh, a morning in Dubrovnik, how lovely.
Once we expected to be famous for 15 minutes. Now, we may dream of being somewhere else for half an hour. Apparently, the space trips throw in a couple of days’ “training”, which presumably involves swanking around an air base in a flying suit with the word “astronaut” sewn on to the pocket and feasting on freeze‑dried breakfasts.
The eagle-eyed will have spotted that space tourism may be some way from the mass market, though. There is also some argument as to whether suborbital flights really count as “space” trips. But don’t worry, at 90km up you can definitely see the curvature of your spine. Officially, it’s space if you cross the Kármán line and spend at least 10 minutes in the duty-free store at the end of the atmosphere. (At current prices, that’s likely to offer some quality merch: watches engraved with “Mum and Dad crossed the Kármán line, and all I got was this lousy Patek Philippe.”)
Personally, I’m quite happy for space tourism to remain a rich person’s sport. Brits in Magaluf are bad enough. Do we really want them in space, banging on the rocket door and singing “Two world wars and one World Cup” to all the passing meteors? Also, at that price, the last thing you want is to get into orbit and find other people have put their towels on all the loungers.
There are concerns about the environmental impact — although Branson insists the emissions are now no worse than a return flight from Singapore and, obviously, less frequent. Perhaps that’s a small price to pay to give wealthy celebs the chance to tell us about the deeper feeling they gained for the planet after the ride.
While space tourism may struggle to go mass market, it might be possible to secure a simulator ride complete with a selfie in front of a photo of Earth from space for your social media feeds, which is obviously the primary purpose of the trip anyway. Many say that you see the earth differently once you’ve posted it on Instagram.
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