There is an emerging industry thought to be only science fiction not too long ago that’s close to becoming a reality: space tourism. And a handful of companies – including one publicly traded name – are competing neck and neck to be leaders in the emerging market.
But what space tourism entails, and how much it costs per person, varies greatly depending on a company’s technological capabilities. For example, both Virgin Galactic and SpaceX expect to fly private paying passengers to space next year.
But, while passengers flying with both companies would go to space by the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition, a Virgin Galactic passenger spends about 0.04% as much time in space as on a SpaceX trip, while a ride with Elon Musk’s company is expected to cost roughly 200 times as much.
Whether a passenger reaches suborbital and orbital space is the major difference in the destinations of the human spaceflight offerings in development. Because of that difference, there are notable distinctions in the cost, experience and even risk of what it means to be a space tourist.
UBS in a report last year estimated that space tourism, with both suborbital and orbital together, has a potential market value of $3 billion by 2030. More recently, space industry consultancy Northern Sky Research broke out its expectations for suborbital versus orbital tourism.
By 2028, NSR expects suborbital will be a $2.8 billion market, with $10.4 billion in total revenue over the next decade, while orbital will be a $610 million market, with $3.6 billion in total revenue over the next decade.
There are two companies competing in the realm of suborbital tourism: Virgin Galactic, which debuted on the public market last year and trades under the ticker “SPCE,” and Blue Origin, the private space company funded almost entirely by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Both of the companies’ systems are rocket-powered and capable of carrying up to six passengers on a flight, but that is where the similarities end. Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft SpaceShipTwo, which has two pilots in addition to the passengers, is docked underneath a jet-powered carrier aircraft known as WhiteKnightTwo.
With the spacecraft attached, the carrier aircraft takes off from a runway and climbs to an altitude of more than 40,000 feet. Then the spacecraft is dropped, free-falling briefly before firing its rocket motor and ascending to an altitude of about 295,000 feet, or roughly 90 kilometers.
The spacecraft essentially does a slow back flip at the edge of space, with passengers spending a few minutes floating in microgravity, before it re-enters and then glides back to land on its runway in New Mexico. The company reuses the spacecraft, replacing the hybrid rocket engine and reconnecting it to the carrier aircraft.