July 11 will surely be remembered as Day 0, the beginning. With his flight to the highest strata of the atmosphere, Britain’s Richard Branson paved the way for hundreds, if not thousands, of others to become space tourists. This historic flight was confirmed nine days later by that of Jeff Bezos, one of his greatest competitors in the space race and tourist flights. Their two companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin respectively, are both in search of profitability, and space tourism seems to be the ideal solution to their financial woes.
But while the contours of what space tourism will be like are beginning to take shape, with 600 people having already booked a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight, several questions remain. One thing is certain, from next year, space tourism will be a reality.
Space tourism: as early as tomorrow?
Virgin Galactic is two test flights away from launching its commercial program, and Blue Origin, which has just made its first convincing manned demonstration, should follow suit. With them as figureheads, the whole of New Space is working hard to jump on the space tourism bandwagon, before it slips through their fingers.
For many companies, space tourism is the Holy Grail, the only viable solution to achieve financial balance. Today, New Space is a speculative bubble, investors are flocking to help young start-ups develop, and the latter are living on financial drip-feed, they keep growing, without worrying about the bill. The problem with all this is that investors will eventually demand a return on their investment. And today, the only way for New Space firms to pay back these billions is through space tourism.
Scientific space tourism
But space tourism is not just about sending highly wealthy people to the far reaches of the atmosphere, it is also possible for private companies offering these flights to conduct scientific experiments on board. As Olivier Sanguy, editor-in-chief of the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse, explains , “all the scientific experiments we have conducted here on Earth have been carried out with gravity, we have never worked without this force.” The fact that suborbital flights offer seconds, or even minutes, of weightlessness is a blessing for private laboratories and major universities.
This practice is not new – Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin already carried experiments on their respective test flights.
This is because these suborbital flights are a real opportunity for scientists, who find a perfect in-between between parabolic flights in ‘0G’ aircraft, which offer moments of gravity of about 30 m. Suborbital flights are a real opportunity for scientists, who find a perfect in-between between parabolic flights in ‘0G’ aircraft, which offer moments of gravity of about 30 seconds, and much longer and more complex missions, which require either having one’s own satellite in orbit or bringing the experiment to the ISS. Practices costing millions of dollars which are very rare today. Space tourism could thus change the way science is studied in space.
Olivier Sanguy is a great believer in this new use of space tourism. First of all, it could be a real marketing asset for companies like Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic. Having an impact on the evolution of tomorrow’s science would give another meaning to corporate flights, which are currently seen by many as mere “toys for billionaires”. But what could be very interesting about these flights is the huge window of experience they open. ” When you see what scientists can do in 30 seconds in a 0G plane, just imagine if we gave them 5 minutes,”
exclaims Olivier Sanguy. He also explains that a flight offering 5 minutes of weightlessness would be very good training for future astronauts, who could learn to live with the absence of gravity in order to prepare for a trip to the ISS.
What environmental impact?
If the scientific question could allow to restore the image of a tourism for ultra rich, the environmental question risks to unbalance the balance of power. Indeed, going into space pollutes. If Virgin Galactic’s flights are the most polluting today, since they are carried out using methane, Blue Origin’s flights, so far propelled by the BE-3, a hydrogen-oxygen engine, which is cleaner than Virgin Galactic’s prototype rocket plane (without being ecologically perfect for all that), the New Shepard rocket is also expected to switch to methane with its new generation BE-4 engine. This highly toxic gas for the planet is a quasi obligation in the world of aerospace, it offers much better results than hydrogen.
The conquest of space is thus confronted with a new dilemma in a mode that is increasingly ecological. How to leave our planet without destroying it? NASA’s SLS and SpaceX’s Starship projects are as much good aerospace news as they are ecological disasters in the making. While space could become “a trillion-dollar economy by 2040,” according to the young German start-up Isar Aerospace, it will have to deal with the ecological issue to survive. The solution may lie in nuclear reaction engines, which are being studied with a portion of NASA’s budget this year
. <iframe width=”272″ height=”153″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/HzoVwVagBZU” frameborder=”0″>