Democratizing Space, One Billionaire at a Time: The Return of Space Tourism

They’re baaack! Tourists will return to space this year after a 12-year hiatus. Above, the first space tourist, billionaut Dennis Tito (left), poses with Soyuz TM-32 crew mates Talgat Musabayev, and Yuri Baturin in 2001. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Democratization has a set of fundamental elements to it. It involves giving the people the power to choose their leaders. It means making a political system accountable to those people. It’s creating a government and culture that respect the freedoms laid out in the First Amendment: speech, assembly, religion, press and the right to peacefully petition the government for change. It’s not just changing how the government operates, but how the society functions.

The last thing I ever expected democratization to include are joy rides into space by millionaires and billionaires. But, that’s what NewSpace spinmeisters would have us believe as space tourism returns this year after a 12-year hiatus. They really should stop.

Their argument is that access to space will no longer be limited to highly qualified, competitively selected astronauts pushing back the frontiers of space on behalf of the people, but anyone who can get there.

A majority of Virgin Galactic’s future “astronauts” gather with Sir Richard Branson (center) for a group photo at Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013. They were told commercial flights were only months away. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Well, not exactly anyone. You have to be at least a millionaire to afford even a several minutes in space. Virgin Galactic is charging its 600 or so customers $200,000 or $250,000 for tickets on its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle. The company raised seat prices by $50,000 in 2013 as founder Richard Branson was predicting commercial flights by the end of that year. Eight years later, they still haven’t begun.

Virgin Galactic is raising ticket prices for the next group of customers to put down reservations. Branson had previously mentioned $300,000, but there has been no official announcement. Virgin Galactic also plans to introduce even more expensive premium prices for extra special flights.

Chief Astronaut Trainer Beth Moses floats in the cabin as David Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci pilot VSS. Unity. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

You can’t really blame the company for raising prices. Virgin Galactic’s original plan in 2004 was to spend $108 million to build five SpaceShipTwo vehicles and two WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. Commercial flights were to begin in 2007. Today, space tourism flights are scheduled for early 2022, and the company’s expenses are well north of $1 billion.

Virgin Galactic says that once they finally start flying tourists, the company will be able to lower ticket prices to a mere $50,000. That would allow the company to tap into a much larger market for its brief trips to the edge of space.

Virgin Galactic says a lot of things. The company has blown through every schedule and budget it ever had. There’s no operating experience with SpaceShipTwo. How often can it fly? How reliable will it be? Nobody knows. Any significant reduction in ticket prices could be years away.

Meanwhile, the competition is preparing to invalidate Virgin Galactic’s claim to be the world’s first “spaceline.”

Blue Origin Makes its Move

Earlier this week, rival Blue Origin announced it will auction off a seat on its first crewed flight of its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft scheduled for July 20. The bidding amounts promise to reach, forgive the pun, astronomical levels. Unless something changes, billionaire Jeff Bezos’ company will inaugurate commercial service before Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

New Shepard (NS-14) lifts off from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas. (Credits: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin plans to conduct additional launches after the July flight that could carry 6 paying passengers each. The company hasn’t announced when seats will go on sale, or how much they will cost. Company officials have previously said that tickets will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Suborbital flights will open up space to a larger part of the population, but at the prices Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are charging, they will fall far short of democratizing access to it. The access is also rather fleeting, measured in minutes only, giving the participant time to float around or conduct an experiment in microgravity. And then it’s back to gravity.

A suborbital flight is the cosmic equivalent of taking a tourist boat around San Francisco Bay. It’s fun, you get to see the city, the Golden Gate, sail around Alcatraz while the boat’s loud speaker attributes a quote to Mark Twain that he never uttered. (“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”) But, two hours later you end up right back in the same place you started. You haven’t really gone anywhere. It’s not like you’ve taken a cruise up to Alaska or hopped on a flight to New York.

That’s not meant to be a harsh assessment of suborbital tourism. If you can do it safely and actually make money at it, neither of which are easy, then all power to you. Suborbital flights can also advance science and mature technologies in ways that you can’t on sounding rockets.

It’s simply that the economics of transportation — whether you are traveling to space, crossing the Atlantic or sending a Mother’s Day gift across the country — are driven by point-to-point service. The really valuable markets are in getting people and goods from one place to another. The massive container ships and oil tankers that sail through the Golden Gate are much more valuable than the small tourist boats they pass in the bay. So are the jetliners that soar overhead flying people and cargo to destinations all over the globe.

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Orbit We Go

Space tourist Dennis Tito (Credit: NASA)

Suborbital flights take about 3 percent of the energy needed to get to Earth orbit. It’s why these suborbital flights are affordable for people who are only millionaires. Orbital tourism, on the other hand, is a whole other tier of the 1 percent.

The first space tourist, billionaire Dennis Tito, spent $12 million for a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a Russian Soyuz transport back in April 2001. (I know the trip was advertised as costing $20 million, but it was actually $12 million.)

Six more tourists followed him on seven flights over the next eight years. (Charles Simonyi flew twice.) By the time Canadian Guy Laliberte ended the first era of space tourism in October 2009, the price had increased to $41,816,954 CAD ($33.1 million USD). That’s the equivalent of $40.85 USD today.

We know the exact cost of Laliberte’s trip because he tried to write it off on his taxes as a business trip. Canadian tax ruled that only 10 percent of the trip was for business purposes; Laliberte paid taxes on the remaining 90 percent.

After the end of America’s space shuttle program in 2011, Soyuz seats that would have been sold to tourists were taken by American astronauts. Russia used its monopoly power for nine years to get as much money as it could out of NASA.

Credit: NASA OIG

In 2011, NASA purchased six Soyuz seats for $224.4 million, which averaged out to $37.7 million per seat. By 2018, the price had risen to $81 million per seat; two years later it soared to $90 million.

SpaceX, which began flying astronauts to the station last year, is charging $55 million per seat for Crew Dragon flights. That represents a significant per seat cost reduction for NASA. But, you still have to be a billionaire — or a very wealthy millionaire — to afford a ticket to space at that price. Or have a billionaire select you to fly with him to space. (We’ll get to that in a moment.)

Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission is a non-governmental flight to ISS scheduled for early next year. Led by former NASA astronaut turned Axiom executive Michael Lopez-Alegria, the mission includes three wealthy men from the United States, Canada and Israel who will fly aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The Axiom Space Ax-1 crew: former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, Canadian businessman Mark Pathy, American investor Larry Connor, and Israeli businessman Eytan Stibbe. (Credit: Axiom Space)

The flight won’t be just the ultimate joy ride. NASA has insisted that visitors to the station not just be there on holiday. The agency wants them to do something useful. Israeli businessman Eytan Stibbe, for example, is going on behalf of the Ilan Ramon Foundation, an educational organization which was establish to honor the Israeli astronaut who perished in the loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

Stibbe will be doing various experiments and STEM education activities, inspiring Israeli youth and making his country proud. It’s all good. But, it’s likely not the main reason he wants to go to ISS. He and other two paying passengers will be able to cross off Go to Space from their bucket lists. If they can do some useful things up there, all the better. They might be able to write part or all of the trip off their taxes.

In addition to the $55 million cost of a seat on Crew Dragon, there are expenses to pay on the station as well. NASA recently published an updated pricing policy to cover the costs the space agency will incur when commercial astronauts visit the space station. The policy is show in the table below.

Integration and basic services for a visiting vehicle will cost $4.8 million. Add in $5.2 million for the crew time and you end up with a cool $10 million.

It will cost a station visitor $2,000 per day just to eat. (It’s not clear whether visiting crews can avoid the feel by bringing their own food.) There’s a charge of up to $1,500 for basic provisions. ISS might be a technological wonder, but it’s an astronomically expensive hotel and restaurant.

If you bring up an experiment for return to Earth after you have left, it will cost $40,000 per kg (2.2 lbs) for room aboard a SpaceX Dragon vehicle or Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser shuttle.

The new pricing list covers many more items than one NASA published in June 2019.

ISS Resources Available for Private Astronaut Missions
(June 2019 — No Longer in Effect)

ResourcesReimbursable ValueAnnual ISS ResourcesMaximum Allowed per Company per Year
Regenerative Life Support and Toilet$11,250 per crew per dayAvailable as needed
Crew Supplies (food, air, crew provisions, supplies, medical kit, exercise equipment, etc.)$22,500 per crew per dayAvailable as needed
Stowage$105 per CTBE* per dayAvailable as needed
Power$42 per kWhAvailable as needed
Data Downlink$50 per GBAvailable as needed
* In the form factor of single Cargo Transfer Bag Experiment (CTBE). Unit for size of bag used to transport cargo from visiting vehicles, such as SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, or H-II Transport Vehicle (HTV), to the International Space Station. Dimensions are 19 in x 16.25 in x 9 in (48.3 cm x 41.3 cm x 22.9 cm). Weight limit is 60 lbs (27.2 kg).

It’s not clear how many of the ISS services the Ax-1 crew will use during its visit. NASA and Axiom are conducting a media briefing on Monday to lay out the specifics of the upcoming flight.

UPDATE: The Ax-1 contract was signed before the new fees went into effect, so there is no impact on the mission.

Free Flying: The Inspiration4 Mission

Because it will not visit ISS, the Earth-orbiting Inspiration4 mission will avoid all those expensive fees. The modified Crew Dragon spacecraft will have one billionaire, Jared Isaacman, and three spaceflight participants aboard when it lifts off in September.

Because the Inspiration4 flight will not dock with the International Space Station, the top of the spacecraft will have a transparent top that will allow occupants to gave out into space. (Credit: SpaceX)

Isaacman, who is an experienced pilot rated to fly commercial and military jets, will serve as the flight’s commander. He is using the trip to promote his payment company, Shift4, and to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which treats cancer patients.

The rest of the crew will include: Hayley Arceneaux, a survivor of childhood cancer who works at St. Jude; Sian Proctor, an educator, entrepreneur and Shift4 customer who won a Shark Tank-style competition sponsored by Isaacman’s company; and Chris Sembroski, who entered a raffle by donating to St. Jude. (A friend of Sembroski actually won the raffle, but didn’t want to go on the trip.)

Inspiration4 crew members Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux , Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski stand atop Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: SpaceX)

It’s a multi-racial crew with two men and two women that is representative of an increasingly diverse country. It also and mirrors NASA’s astronaut corps, which has come a long way since the early days when spaceflight was the exclusive realm of white male test pilots.

The mission opens space up to averagenauts, as The Simpsons famously dubbed them, who couldn’t afford to go to space on their own. As nice as all that is, it’s hard to see how a mission that depends upon a billionaire to fund it is really democratizing space. Such a flight remains out of reach for 99.99 percent of the citizenry (the “demo” in democracy).

The Airplane Analogy Augers In

Crashed Boeing Model 299 at Wright Field, Ohio in 1934.

One of the arguments made is that while space travel is hideously expensive today, it’s not unlike airline travel way back in the day. At first, airplanes were only for the rich dressed up in fancy clothes paying very high prices. As technology improved, air travel opened up to any slob in shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops. Space travel will follow the same path.

There is some truth in that. However, the analogy involves a fundamental misunderstanding of aviation history, and the history of transportation in general. When the first airplanes were built early in the 20th century, they weren’t really useful for much of anything. You couldn’t hop on the Wright Flyer in New York for a trip to see your retired parents in Savannah.

You could take a train or ship there, however. There were enormous existing markets for point-to-point transportation that were already served in a variety of ways. Steamships regularly crossed the Atlantic Ocean during the early decades of the 20th century, carrying wealthy aristocrats and poor immigrants alike. Cargo ships plied the seas, and railroads crisscrossed the land carrying people and freight to places near and far. Automobiles became increasingly common as the decades passed.

Bremen ocean liner. (Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-11081 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Early airplane passenger travel was an expensive novelty that very few people used. For one, aircraft were not very safe and had limited range. Nor were there any federal safety regulations in the U.S. for commercial aviation. People had other travel options that were more mature and less costly.

As a result, aviation grew slowly during its first few decades, buoyed by the government-funded U.S. Air Mail Service and World War I. The legendary era of barn storming resulted from the U.S. government selling off surplus planes after the war for pennies on the dollar. Planes that had cost $5,000 were sold as little as $200. There was also a corps of military-trained pilots to fly them.

The federal government decided to privatize the U.S. Air Mail Service in 1925, leading to safety regulations for passenger service. With an assist from Charles Lindbergh two years later, the industry came into its own by the end of the decade. Pan Am’s flying boats crosses the Pacific in the 1930’s; the company began trans-Atlantic service in March 1939.

Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat

World War II was a major catalyst for aviation. There’s nothing like trying to obliterate each other to advance technology. After the war ended, there came the jet age, the Boeing 707, deregulation and Freddie Laker’s People Express, which opened travel to the t-shirt, shorts and flip flops crowd. By that point, we’re in the 1980’s, eight decades removed from the Wright brother first flight at Kitty Hawk. And thanks to strong regulations, air travel is the safest form of transportation today.

As aviation technology advanced through the 20th century, airplanes opened up new routes and supplanted steamships and trains on existing ones. Those older forms of transportation adapted to a changing market. Ocean liners gave way to cruise ships. Freighters were containerized. Passenger trains became faster. The only forms of transportation that disappeared from the Wright brothers’ time are horse-drawn wagons and Zeppelins.

The International Space Station, photographed by ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli following the undocking of his Soyuz-TMA on 23 May 2011. (Credit: ESA/NASA)

Space, as they say, is harder. It’s a much harsher environment. Transportation is expensive. There are few places to go, and not many markets to serve. Destinations that do exist are severely limited in capacity. ISS has a full-time complement of seven astronauts and costs billions of dollars annually to maintain. The Chinese space station launched last month will have an initial complement of three astronauts, with later expansion to six.

Axiom modules attached to the International Space Station. (Credit: Axiom Space)

Axiom Space plans to expand the space station by adding modules to ISS. As ISS is decommissioned later in the decade, Axiom will detach those modules to form the basis of a commercial facility. Whether the company’s private station will produce much of a net gain in the number of people in orbit on a full-time basis after the ISS’s demise remains to be seen.

NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program is aimed at helping to fund private commercial space stations in Earth orbit like the one planned by Axiom Space. Even as NASA decommissions ISS and sends astronauts to the moon, the space agency wants to continue to maintain a permanent presence of two crew members in Earth orbit to conduct scientific experiments and test new technologies. NASA wants to be one of many customers of private LEO stations.

Credit: NASA

It’s unclear how much of a demand there will be for human transportation to the moon. The orbiting lunar Gateway that NASA and its international partners are developing will be human-tended, which means it won’t be permanently occupied. A crewed base on the lunar surface will have limited occupancy, largely due to the cost of getting there and keeping the base supplied.

However, there is a wild card in the deck. And, as usual, it involves SpaceX.

Starship to the Rescue?

The only way to really open up space is to radically reduce the cost of getting there. We’re talking many orders of magnitude below what SpaceX has achieved with partially reusable Falcon 9 boosters. The market will stay constrained if tickets just to get to Earth orbit continue to cost in the $50 million range.

Starship SN15 takes off on May 5, 2021. (Credit: SpaceX website)

Elon Musk is determined to bring prices way down with the Super Heavy/Starship system. He has got a shot at it if the reusable rockets and spaceship can do everything he promises. Starship would carry 100 people or more into space, the cost of space access would fall significantly, large space stations would be orbited and supplied cheaply and routinely, and the way to the moon and Mars would be open at last. In other words, everything everyone has dreamed about regarding space exploration.

SN15 after landing. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

The landing of the Starship SN15 prototype on Wednesday was an encouraging sign. As was NASA’s $2.9 billion contract for SpaceX to adapt Starship to land astronauts on the moon as part of the Artemis program.

There is, however, still a long way to go to prove the technology can work as advertised. SpaceX is trying to hit some very challenging reusability and reliability metrics. Time will tell whether the company succeeds. But, if it works, it will be a game changer.

De-democratizing Access to Space

International Space Station solar array panels, Earth’s horizon and the blackness of space provide the backdrop for the Feb. 11 deployment of the first of 33 small satellites using the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer. (Credit: NASA)

Companies that are sending CubeSats into space and experiments to the the space station love to talk about how they are opening up space. Read what Nanoracks executive Veronica La Regina told Filling Space (whose motto is “Democratizing Engagement with Space”) in a post titled, How does Nanoracks go about democratizing access to space?

The current time is the best one I could imagine living in! The democratization of access to space is quickly becoming a reality. Traditionally, if you wanted to send something to space, you would need to talk to a government space agency. After a long while, if lucky, you got a ride. If not, your payload would remain on Earth. This must change. The freedom to access space should be a right for everyone. New business models and governance schemes should decrease the barriers to entering and operating in the space sector. Space agencies should take inspiration from agencies in other sectors (e.g. transport and communication) where free market competition is complemented by public investment in the huge costs associated with infrastructure development.

La Regina was right about democratization, but probably not in the way she intended. The reality is the American people heavily subsidized access to the station for commercial companies for years. NASA’s policy was more socialism than free market.

The space agency put an end to the subsidies two months ago. On Feb. 25, NASA quietly published a revised rate schedule that covered a portion of ISS resources that have been set aside for commercial applications. The table below show the rates originally set in June 2019 and those that went into effect in February 2021.

Pricing Policy for Commercial Activity Associated with NRA NNJ13ZBQ001N Focus Area 3

ResourcesReimbursable Value (6/2019)Reimbursable Value (2/2021)Annual ISS Resources (6/2019)Annual ISS Resources (2/2021)Maximum Allowed per Company per Year (No Change)
Upmass (passive)$3,000/kg$20,000/kg175 kg175 kg50 kg/single CTBE
Trash disposal (passive)$3,000/kg$20,000/kg175 kg175 kg50 kg
Downmass (passive)$6,000/kg$40,000/kg125 kg125 kg35 kg
Conditional cargo (roundtrip)13,500/kg$90,000/kgNot available at this tmeBased on NASA availability
Powered cargo (roundtrip)$18,000/kg$120,000/kgNot available at this timeBased on NASA availability
Crew member time$17,500/hr$130,000/hr90 hrs90 hrs25 hrs
* In the form factor of single Cargo Transfer Bag Experiment (CTBE). Unit for size of bag used to transport cargo from visiting vehicles, such as SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, or H-II Transport Vehicle (HTV), to the International Space Station. Dimensions are 19 in x 16.25 in x 9 in (48.3 cm x 41.3 cm x 22.9 cm). Weight limit is 60 lbs (27.2 kg).

Once subsidies were removed, the prices shot up massively. Sending 1 kg of cargo up to the station rose from $3,000 to $20,000, an increase of more than 600 percent. Powered cargo soared from $18,000 to $120,000 per kg. And crew time increased from $17,500 to $130,000 per hour.

One might call the price hikes de-democratization, in that the American people are no longer paying enormous subsidies that benefited private companies.

Whether the new policy is a sound one or not is an interesting question. There is an argument to be made that the subsidies are a relatively small price to pay to stimulate commercial activities on a station the U.S. government has spent about $100 billion on.

At some point, however, companies have to be able to do commercial activities in space on their own dime. The high prices at ISS could spur the development of private stations with much lower operating costs.

And in the End….

It is accurate to say that space travel is being commercialized. NASA has privatized the transport of crews and supplies to the space station by turning the job over to SpaceX, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada Corp. Although NASA provided the majority of the funding to develop these vehicles, the space agency is allowing the companies to maintain ownership of them so they can be used to support private missions.

It’s all good. But, democratization isn’t an accurate term to describe the era that we have entered. Space tourism is certainly opening up, but it remains the province of the very wealthy. It will stay that way until there are radical reductions in the cost of access to space and far more destinations to visit.

The closest thing there is to democratized transportation is a humble city bus. Anyone can ride one, fares are set low enough to make the service affordable to the vast majority of the population — the mass in mass transit. Most services have discounts for senior citizens, youth, low-income residents, and other groups so they can afford to ride.

Space travel is a very long way from that reality. It might never reach that point. The industry might get to airline levels of reliability and pricing at some time in the future. But, many obstacles remain. As they say, space is harder.