The universal space race
The space tourism industry has been growing alongside the ambitions of private space companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, but its future relies on addressing a number of critical factors
In 2001, entrepreneur Dennis Tito became the world’s first space tourist; flying in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, he docked at the International Space Station (ISS) and spent seven days in orbit. Roll on 22 years, and Tito has been joined by a growing list of space tourists keen to cast off the shackles and delve beyond the boundaries of earth. In May, a group of four private, paying astronauts docked at the ISS on a mission with Axiom Space, while in August, Virgin Galactic finally sent its first paying customers to the edge of space on a 90-minute mission. SpaceX is setting its sights even further with its Starship rocket, due to fly around the moon with a handful of guests on board in the coming years.
Private sector boom
These recent endeavours mark the latest in a string of space-related activity – and it’s no longer limited to state programmes. “What we’re seeing right now is a kind of a boom in the market that we haven’t seen in the past 30 or 40 years,” Marco Caceres, Space Analyst at Teal Group, told World Finance. “You now have rockets launching three or four or five times a month, whereas in the past, it was more like five or six times a year,” he says.
“What’s different now is that commercial companies are starting to take the lead. NASA is still there as a dominant player in the market, but you’ve got thousands of new companies building small rockets and satellites.”
NASA is now contracting private firms for much of its work; SpaceX and Blue Origin are currently developing landing systems for its upcoming Artemis missions, for example, which – if all goes to plan – will see humans land on the moon for the first time in more than five decades next year.
NASA is now contracting private firms for much of its work
That’s bringing a slew of new business and investment opportunities, and not just in space tourism; satellite communications, spacecraft manufacturing, spacecraft-derived data and in-orbit management are among the key opportunities in a global space economy valued at $469bn in 2021, according to the Space Foundation.
Over $47bn of private capital has been invested in the space sector since 2015 – marking an average growth rate of 21 percent per year – and the industry is predicted to hit a value of $900bn by 2030, according to UBS.
In the UK, space services underpin 18 percent of GDP (or £370bn), according to the UK Space Agency; it’s clear the sector is ripe with opportunity.
It’s not just investment opportunities that the private takeover is creating though; it’s also speeding up advancements at an unprecedented rate, bringing us ever-closer to sci-fi dreams of space holidays and life on Mars. UBS has estimated the space tourism market alone will be worth $4bn by 2030 (see Fig 1). “While space tourism is still at a nascent phase, we think that as technology becomes proven, and the cost falls due to technology and competition, space tourism will become more mainstream,” analysts Jarrod Castle and Myles Walton wrote.
Suborbital flights – which fly up to a certain height but don’t reach orbit, then drop back to Earth – are the first step, and Virgin Galactic’s recent take-off looks set to be the start of many more. Virgin Galactic eventually plans to run more than 400 flights a year, and it’s not without demand, with 800 tickets already reportedly sold.
Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin has run 22 successful missions since its inaugural flight in 2021, sending a total of 31 customers into space so far. Other companies such as Space Perspective and World View are planning, if approved, to enter the sector by offering suborbital balloon flights.
Craig Curran, President of the US-based DePrez Group of Travel Companies, sells Virgin Galactic flights as a space travel agent and says demand is strong. “I think this is a very viable marketplace and there’s ample demand for the products that are out there, especially among open-minded, big-thinking clients,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of growth in the area as a lot more products have come online.”
But some are a little more sceptical as to how far the potential for suborbital can really go. “Companies like this are essentially selling a service that focuses on getting people into sub-orbit for a few minutes of microgravity time, so you can only create so much excitement within the public,” says Caceres. “Virgin Galactic has been trying to develop this market for the last decade, and they’ve had a few setbacks – it’s not moving particularly fast. I think if you’re just providing a few minutes of microgravity time, that’s going to get old.”
Virgin Galactic currently has around $980m in cash, according to its second quarter financial report, but that would run out within two years at the current burn rate, according to journalist Jonathan Miller. “Even if Virgin Galactic can maintain the tempo of flying into space every four to six weeks or so, it will lose a fortune,” he wrote in an article for The Spectator. “Since a chunk of the spacecraft’s engine must be replaced after every flight, these missions are operating at a loss.”
Each flight carries only three paying passengers, meaning there’s a limit to how much can be pocketed. How these companies fare will depend on whether costs can be brought down, and how safe they’re deemed to be; only time will tell how long their shelf life lasts.
Holidays on the space station
The bigger, longer-term opportunities might just be in orbital tourism – that is, crossing the Kármán line, or the edge of space, and going into orbit. This requires significantly faster speeds than orbital (17,400 mph, compared to around 3,700 mph for suborbital), bringing with it huge expenses and risks; but it’s already been done a handful of times.
Since Dennis Tito’s voyage in 2001, Space Adventures has sent seven clients on successful missions to the ISS. NASA opened up the space station to private missions in 2019, and SpaceX jumped at the chance. Last year, the company worked with Axiom Space to send three tourists to the station on its Crew Dragon capsule, marking the first time multiple tourists had gone together. Axiom sent a further four paying customers to the ISS earlier this year.
But it’s not just visits to the ISS opening up opportunities; NASA plans to decommission the existing station in 2030, replacing it with private, commercial space stations that could be used by both the government and paying customers. In 2021, the agency awarded a total of $415.6m in contracts with three private companies – Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation of Dulles – to develop these stations.
“With commercial companies now providing transportation to low-Earth orbit in place, we are partnering with US companies to develop the space destinations where people can visit, live, and work,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “This will enable NASA to continue forging a path in space for the benefit of humanity while fostering commercial activity in space.”
It’s not just space stations being developed; Above: Space Development Corporation (formerly Orbital Assembly) is going one step further with plans for two space hotels that would offer tourist activities including stargazing, ‘low-gravity trampolining’ and ‘low-gravity basketball’. Its first, Pioneer Station, is ambitiously scheduled for 2025; the second, Voyager Station, for 2027 (with capacity for 400 guests). Whether and when these concepts become reality is firmly up in the air.
A more realistic goal in the coming years is likely Axiom’s commercial space station, being developed for use by 2030 as an extension to the existing ISS under a NASA agreement signed in 2020. The module would offer research, manufacturing and tourism among its activities, and later be used as a core of its own, independent station.
Carceres believes this is where the real opportunities lie. “I think when you have private space stations that are run primarily for commercial purposes, that’s when you’re going to see that potential boom in space tourism,” he says. “I think the key is for these companies to not only get you into orbit, but to actually get you somewhere you can stay for a while.” How long these might take to be built remains to be seen; it took NASA and its partners more than 10 years to assemble the ISS, while China’s Tiangong station, completed in 2022, was developed in less than two years. Private backing might just accelerate the process.
Of course, not all of this is likely to be plain sailing (or soaring), with immense barriers to overcome before space tourism could even start to edge its way into the mainstream. Among the biggest by far is cost; SpaceX’s voyages to the ISS in partnership with Axiom come with an estimated price tag of $55m. Add in specialised training, health checks and other costs, and the total likely racks up to significantly more. Compared to that, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flights sound like something of a bargain at $450,000 per seat (Blue Origin’s remain a mystery, and vary depending on the customer). It’s still hardly affordable to the everyday consumer, though.
Developments in technology are crucial to lowering the costs, and efforts are underway. Researchers are looking into advanced propulsion systems to generate more power with less fuel, for example, while 3D printing can help lower manufacturing costs. California-based start-up Relativity Space launched the world’s first fully 3D printed rocket into orbit in March, marking a major milestone – it plans to use the rocket, Terran–1, to launch satellites into orbit for other private companies as well as NASA.
Reusable rockets are also key to bringing down the price point. SpaceX made history when it made its Falcon–9 partially reusable, with its most expensive parts able to be recovered. This October, Spanish start-up PLD Space launched its own recoverable Miura–1 rocket, marking Europe’s first fully private rocket launch. Blue Origin is also developing a reusable orbital rocket, New Glenn, while SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy – a partially reusable, heavy-lift launch vehicle – has reduced costs by 65 percent, according to a study by the University of California, Reusable Rockets and the Environment.
But so far, only a small handful of companies have succeeded in actually producing these. With minimal competition, the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin can set their prices without fear of being undercut. Luigi Scatteia, Global Space Practice Leader Partner at PwC, believes a higher volume of flights is needed to really bring the prices down.
“Costs can only go down with routine operations and high cadence,” he told World Finance. “For that, you need higher confidence in the systems and a stronger and clearer regulatory framework.”
That increased confidence relies on one of the other biggest barriers being addressed – safety. For many, the prospect of shooting off into space at speeds of over 17,000mph is likely to bring more risk than reward. Several accidents haven’t helped; in 1986, NASA Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off, killing all seven crew members, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe – the first in a string of civilians due to fly with NASA as part of a special programme. For years, it put an end to civilians flying to space with the agency.
In 2014, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (VSS Enterprise) suffered a catastrophic crash, resulting in the death of one of its pilots. SpaceX’s Falcon–9 meanwhile exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in 2016, destroying the satellite it was carrying. Artificial intelligence could help reduce the risk of human error – SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft uses an automated docking system that doesn’t require human intervention, for example. But radiation exposure and other health concerns also need to be addressed if space tourism is to move more firmly into the mainstream; how and at what cost remains to be seen.
“If you go months and months or years with dozens of people going into sub-orbit and eventually into orbit and there’s no major accidents, then the industry will slowly grow,” says Carceres. “But if you start to see a series of catastrophic accidents, I think that will of course slow things down.”
It’s not just safety concerns that need to be overcome, of course; the environmental challenges are significant, with rockets releasing carbon emissions alongside large quantities of soot and alumina particles. The effect of those emissions is also different when released in other parts of the atmosphere, according to Eloise Marais, Associate Professor in Physical Geography at University College London. “When we compare the amount emitted from rocket launches to aircraft, it doesn’t sound like a lot,” she said in a recent article. “But this comparison was always erroneous. When pollution is released into the upper layers, it lasts for a longer time than earthbound sources.”
Marais and a group of other researchers studied the impact of space tourism promoted by the likes of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic using a 3D model; they found black carbon emissions would more than double after three more years of space tourism launches. They also found that particles given off by rockets hold heat in the atmosphere 500 times more than soot from any other source – which could speed up climate warming and impact the recovery of the ozone layer.
Electric propulsion systems that use less fuel are under development to help address the issues, alongside research into various fuel alternatives (current fuel types RP–1 and UDMH – the latter dubbed ‘Devil’s venom’ – are notoriously pollutive). SpaceX’s Raptor rocket engine, the European Space Agency’s Prometheus engine and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket are all designed to use liquid methane, which performs better than other fuels and comes at a lower price point – but methane is known as being one of the worst gases for global warming. Other firms are researching different solutions; UK-based orbital launch company Orbex uses renewable biofuel bio-propane to fuel its rocket, for example, resulting in 96 percent fewer emissions than fossil fuelled alternatives, according to research by the University of Exeter. These are promising signs, but there’s still a way to go.
Debris in space
Alongside carbon emissions, there are other concerns. De-orbited satellites are already causing a mass of debris in space – and that will only grow when more are released (up to 100,000 new satellites could be operational by 2030, according to the UK Space Agency – compared to just 11,000 in the past 60 years).
“There’s a lot of trash just floating around in space, and the question is what the environmental impact of all these unused, discarded satellites will be,” says Carceres. “One of the concerns by astronomers is also that we’re not going to be able to have clear views of the stars because of all these satellites,” he adds. “In five or 10 years, you may have a hard time seeing the constellations out there because you see all of this hardware in orbit. I think we don’t fully understand the potential climate and environmental impacts of a robust space industry, but we’ll have to take that as it comes. Unfortunately, we don’t enter these new industries factoring in all the potential downsides,” Carceres continues.
Despite these concerns, governments look set to press ahead, capitalising on the vast, still largely untapped, economic opportunities the space industry is likely to bring. That brings with it a need for increased regulation – much of which is still nascent. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for approving commercial rocket launch operations and has basic regulations around training private astronauts. But it’s all relatively light – and there’s very little regulation around the environmental impact of rockets and debris.
A lack of global framework is also problematic. “While there are a few national regulations in place, there is no single global standard for the industry,” wrote Marcin Frackiewicz, Founder of satellite internet provider TS2 Space, in an article. “This makes it difficult to ensure that all space tourists are adequately protected, as different countries may have different safety requirements.”
Colonising the Moon and Mars
These issues might just become more prevalent if the biggest ambitions of SpaceX and NASA are realised: colonising other celestial bodies. When SpaceX first broached the concept of colonising Mars back in 2001, few took the idea seriously. 22 years and a whole fleet of seemingly impossible achievements later, and it’s no longer being quite so raucously laughed at. NASA is investing in lunar exploration with its upcoming Artemis programme, with the aim of exploring opportunities for potential colonisation. “America will lead the monumental shift that frees humanity from our innate bonds to Earth,” says the agency in its Artemis programme overview. “This is the decade in which the Artemis Generation will teach us how to live on other worlds.” Using its Orion spacecraft, NASA plans to shuttle astronauts to the Artemis Base Camp, where they’ll be able to live and work.
“We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the Moon,” reads NASA’s website. “Then, we will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”
NASA’s Perseverance rover has already been conducting experiments on Mars since February 2021, searching for signs of past life and preparing the planet for future exploration. China is also playing its part in the space race (see Fig 2), with plans to send astronauts to the Moon by 2030 and build an International Lunar Research Station. SpaceX is meanwhile planning a second test flight for its Starship spacecraft – the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, designed to carry humans to ‘the Moon, Mars and beyond’ – with several improvements made following its first (unsuccessful) test in April.
Many experts believe these ambitions are achievable, if the determination is there. “I believe that humans could colonise the moon and then Mars, if enough effort is put into such endeavours,” says PwC’s Scatteia. “Of course, the roadmap to that requires developments in space resources extraction and utilisation, and in-space manufacturing.”
But it’s unlikely to be an easy journey. Given the already significant challenges to overcome for even orbital flights to take off into the mainstream, it’s not hard to imagine the obstacles that would need to be addressed before humans could move to the moon. Politics is one; an international space race is likely to have countries clamouring to claim another celestial body as their own.
Developments in technology are crucial to lowering the costs
“You would hope that there would be some sort of international agreement that would say Mars is not going to be claimed by any one country,” says Carceres. “Because inevitably, politics does get in the way.” A bigger issue still is safety. “These rockets carrying colonists that Elon Musk first envisioned are going to carry hundreds of people, and inevitably some of them are going to explode – and then you’re going to have some major setbacks,” he says.
“But if the human will is there, eventually it will happen – I think it’s very likely that you could see the first human landing on Mars in a decade, especially with the vision of a private company like SpaceX.”
Only time will tell if we’ll make it. But with both private and public players now collaborating on a global scale and space developments advancing at a rapid rate, we’re inching closer than we ever have before. That brings with it a whole raft of philosophical questions that right now no-one can answer. And the first that needs to be addressed is this: how can we learn from our mistakes on Earth and ensure we don’t wreak havoc on the wider universe where the potential for damage is, quite literally, infinite?