The past few decades of space exploration have been deeply frustrating. From shuttle disasters to an inability to get out of low-Earth orbit, the dream of a life in space seemed to be in danger of disappearing forever.
But seemingly overnight, the dream of accessible space flight appears within reach. With billionaire and celebrity joyrides for Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and William Shatner and the two-day orbital adventure led by Jared Isaacman on a SpaceX vehicle, space flight finally is becoming reality for more than just government-selected astronauts and cosmonauts.
Critics claim that the “Bezos-Branson-Musk space race” is a huge waste of money, warn about environmental damage and assert this new space race reflects the worst of capitalism. They allege space adventures come at the expense of oppressed, low-paid workers and the planet’s climate, usurping “noble” research and exploration governmental activity.
But the public sector will never deliver the full potential benefits and excitement of humans venturing forth from Earth. Instead, ongoing government-driven space efforts will be expensive and limited to a few, select individuals.
For 50 years, government-run space exploration has been subject to ever-shifting budget and political priorities. The space shuttle and the space station sucked up the lion’s share of resources, limiting exploration of alternative launch approaches or objectives beyond low-Earth orbit.
In addition, given the high cost, only the most “deserving,” appropriately vetted candidates are chosen. Ordinary people will have almost no opportunity to ever venture into space, except in long-shot publicity stunts intended to gin up support for additional spending.
Finally, in the absence of competitive pressures, government efforts face little incentive to explore long-shot options for dramatically lowering costs. With little potential upside from risk-taking, program managers instinctively stick to defensible, consensus-driven (and typically higher-cost) solutions.
But today’s surge in space tourism is driven by market forces and has the potential to deliver outsized benefits more affordably. These private-sector space efforts are market driven, sustainable, broad-based and increasingly cost-effective.
While Branson and Bezos almost certainly enjoyed their trips to space, neither of them got wealthy by squandering their limited resources on products and services that had no hope of generating profits.
Enduring prosperity has created a vast reserve of space and technology enthusiasts who also control enormous financial resources. The combination of dreams and resources provides the opportunity to build profitable space businesses.
Developing this market is exorbitantly expensive. Space entrepreneurs will continually seek out opportunities to expand the market in order to spread costs over the largest possible pool of potential consumers.
Finally, private-sector competition is primarily a race to find ever-better ways to deliver higher-value services at ever-lower costs. As initial entrants demonstrate, there is a market for space tourism and competitors will work relentlessly to deliver more affordable space services.
While today’s space joyrides may be limited to billionaires and movie stars, this is only the start of an ever-expanding and increasingly cost-effective market for space tourism.
Critics of today’s entrepreneurial space joyrides are simply missing the big picture. No one should be surprised or angered that billionaire and celebrity space tourists are the first to go up — early adopters always pay much higher prices in new markets to enjoy the benefits of being first.
But they are launching a process that will lead to much greater opportunity for many more people to enjoy the excitement, adventure and, ultimately, everyday ordinariness of space.