Can Space Tourism Ever Truly Take Off?

02.16.17 4 months ago

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Who doesn’t want to visit space? Humanity dreams of going into orbit and finding what’s truly out there, or at least hanging around in zero gravity and seeing the Earth below. And, as of right now, a lucky handful of people have managed to get above our little blue marble. But will space tourism ever truly take off for the rest of us?

Currently, space tourism is for the rich. Even a new Russian attempt to undercut Elon Musk and Richard Branson in the consumer space race, KosmoKurs, will cost $250,000, or roughly five years of saving every penny of the average American’s income. And even that only gets you about fifteen minutes in space. Currently, the price tag for spending a little time in the great beyond will cost you about $20 million as a minimum and there hasn’t been a tourist in space since 2009.

Part of this is that going into space is, inherently, expensive. Space tourists right now don’t book their own flights, but hitchhike on a scheduled flight with an open seat, helping defray the cost of a launch that costs, generally, nearly half a billion dollars. That’s part of the reason Elon Musk is trying to invent a reusable rocket; his cost target is to ultimately get a trip into space to only cost as “low six figures.” But Musk, it should be noted, is looking for people willing to head for Mars, not people looking to tell their friends they went orbital.

Another factor is the medical problems inherent in going into space as well as the limitations placed on those people . If you’ve got a chronic condition, or some sort of medical abnormality, you can’t even get licensed to join a flight crew in some parts of the world, forget space. And the medical risks of even short-duration space travel are terrifying: Who wants a dose of ionizing radiation?

There is a market for industrial space travel. While it’s not clear just how much demand your average tourist has to go where no man has gone before, scientists are eager to get into space to run experiments. One of the first civilians in space, and the first Japanese national, Toyohiro Akiyama, ran several experiments when he went to space in 1991 in a broadcasting stunt. Scientists are eager to get up there and take gravity out of the equation in their experiments, and that in of itself might be an industry. Medical studies and other research might lend themselves to working vacations in space.

But thanks to the supply being so low, and the cost being so high, we’ve yet to get a real sense of the demand for just going up for a while. The idea is intriguing, but the cost, and the medical necessities, might make tourism a science fiction dream for a while yet.

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