The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Xerus illustration
The Xerus, by XCOR Aerospace, is a proposed suborbital RLV that could serve the space tourism market in the next several years. (credit: XCOR/Space Adventures)

Space tourism: managing expectations in uncertain times

For the last several years, space tourism has made significant progress as a viable industry that may be critical to the continued commercialization of space. As recently as five years ago space tourism suffered from a “giggle factor” as both mainstream society and even some within the aerospace industry and commercial space community dismissed tourism as unrealistic. Events since then, most notably the flights of Dennis Tito in April 2001 and Mark Shuttleworth one year later, have altered those perceptions. Almost no one is laughing at space tourism now; indeed, with the decline of other commercial space markets, such as the launch of telecommunications satellites, space tourism is now seen as perhaps the most viable emerging commercial market for the foreseeable future.

Recent events, though, threaten space tourism’s continued progress in the near term. The loss of the space shuttle Columbia on February 1 have forced Russia to suspend its space tourism operations so its Soyuz taxi missions—currently the only way for tourists to fly into space—can be used to exchange space station crews. This will continue at least until the shuttle returns to flight, a period of perhaps two years. There is no guarantee that Russia will ever resume tourist flights, although the perpetually cash-strapped nature of Russian space endeavors suggests they will certainly consider it. The loss of the Columbia also underscores the dangers of spaceflight in general, and the vulnerabilities of the shuttle in particular. In the wake of the Columbia accident, it’s unclear if NASA will ever act on a recommendation in the final report of the Commission on the Future of the US Aerospace Industry last year, which called on NASA to help support space tourism by flying private citizens on the shuttle.

In this environment, it’s easy to become pessimistic about the immediate future of space tourism, and even discount its long-term prospects. At the same time, the proponents of space tourism are still hard at work extolling the bright future ahead, with people able to embark on vacations to orbiting hotels in the not-too-distant future. The reality is that the outlook for space tourism lies somewhere between the two extremes, but that message of moderation is rarely communicated by both the skeptics and the supporters.

The voice of moderation is lost in space tourism debates that veer between unwarranted pessimism and unrealistic optimism.

These widely varying opinions are illustrated in a pair of “Counterpoint” essays (unfortunately not available online) published in the January/February 2003 issue of Space Times, the magazine of the American Astronautical Society (AAS). Jim Vedda, a senior policy analyst at ANSER and an AAS vice president, argues that space tourism will eventually happen, just “not in this decade or the next.” Eric Anderson, president and CEO of space tourism firm Space Adventures, believes that space tourism will become a “multi-billion-dollar industry” in five to ten years. Examining these two essays offers an opportunity to understand the unwarranted pessimism and unrealistic optimism that dominates space tourism debates and look for more realistic viewpoints about the future of public space travel.

Space tourism strawman

A common debating tactic is to create a “strawman”: an opposing viewpoint that is easy for the debater to refute, yet may bear only superficial similarity to reality. In the essay “Space Tourism Will Become a Reality—But Not Anytime Soon”, Jim Vedda, deliberately or not, engages in this tactic by creating a definition for space tourism that bares little resemblance to current efforts to develop a space tourism industry.

The problems start with Vedda’s definition of space tourism as “the commercial marketing and sale of journeys to Earth orbit and beyond.” With this simple definition, Vedda excludes suborbital space tourism, which has a potentially far more promising near-term future than orbital space tourism, depending on the ability of several companies to develop suborbital RLVs in the next few years. If we are restricted to considering only orbital trips, the near-term prospects are far more limited outside of any future tourists flying Soyuz taxi flights to ISS.

Vedda also outlines a set of five criteria that a “successful space tourism industry likely would have”:

  1. Commercial spaceflight providers would not be completely dependent on vehicles and facilities owned and operated by a national government;
  2. Trips to orbit would occur on a more-or-less routine schedule;
  3. Pre-flight preparation for passengers would require little training (e.g., not more than a day or two);
  4. Age, health, and weight restrictions on passengers would not be so strict as to deny eligibility to a significant percentage of the potential market;
  5. A variety of “tour packages” would be offered.

At first glance these criteria seem reasonable, but upon closer examination don’t hold up. The third requirement, for example, would not only disqualify most space tourism operations (which plan on anywhere from a week to six months of training), but also many other forms of “adventure” tourism, such as mountain climbing, where participants are expected to have trained often for months in advance. Likewise, the fourth requirement would also disqualify some terrestrial tourism ventures that require participants to be in good physical condition.

In essence, Vedda is trying to define “successful” space tourism to be something as commonplace and as mature as forms of terrestrial tourism like commercial aviation and cruise lines. That is an honorable goal, and Vedda is quite correct to conclude it may take decades for space travel to achieve it. However, it is incorrect to assume that space tourism cannot be successful prior to reaching that level of service. (One can argue that some aspects of mature terrestrial tourism today don’t meet Vedda’s first criterion, given the existence of nationally-owned airlines as well as airports and seaports owned by government agencies.)

Vedda tries to define “successful” space tourism to be something as commonplace and as mature as forms of terrestrial tourism like commercial aviation and cruise lines.

A simpler definition of space tourism could be as simple as “a commercial venture that carries passengers into space safely and profitably.” (It’s possible that “safely” is redundant here, since a venture that is unsafe is unlikely to be profitable in the long run.) This permits the existence of suborbital and orbital space tourism, and puts space tourism on the level of adventure tourism, which is not as mature as cruise lines and aviation but is certainly successful in its own right.

Vedda’s essay also shows some ignorance about the current state of space tourism. He noted that “polls measuring the general public’s enthusiasm for space travel certainly would show poorer results if people were fully aware of the less glamorous aspects of being an astro-tourist.” Yet, some polls, like the Futron-Zogby survey last year, did paint a realistic picture of the potential downsides of orbital and suborbital space tourism and still got a strong response. (Moreover, what the general public thinks is largely irrelevant, since only a small fraction of people will be able to afford space tourism of any kind for years to come; that’s why the Futron-Zogby poll focused on wealthy individuals.) Vedda also claims that the certification process for a manned commercial spacecraft will be long and drawn out, but doesn’t note that some companies are already working with the FAA on this issue and feel confident that licensing will not be an insurmountable obstacle.

Vedda’s essay is not without some good points. He rightly points out that a serious problem with orbital space tourism is the lack of destinations tourists can go to: currently, only the ISS. Unfortunately, those points are lost in the strawman argument that requires space tourism to be as mature as the cruise industry to be considered successful.

Irrational exuberance?

The other essay published in Space Times, “Space Tourism Poised to Develop Rapidly”, is from one of the biggest proponents of space tourism, Eric Anderson. Anderson and his company, Space Adventures, have done a lot in support the industry, including helping broker the flights of Tito and Shuttleworth. It’s understandable, then, that someone so deeply involved in the space tourism industry would accentuate the near-term outlook for space tourism; however, by doing so he may be offering too rosy an outlook.

The heart of Anderson’s argument is that suborbital space tourism, using newly-developed RLVs, will be available in the next few years; once that happens, the industry will grow rapidly and reinvest its profits into a new generation of orbital vehicles. Specifically, Anderson believes that suborbital RLVs will enter commercial service in 2005 or 2006, offering flights for $100,000 per person. Once that happens, the pent-up demand for space tourism will generate massive revenue streams for the companies involved, creating a “multi-billion-dollar industry” in five to ten years; in turn, “not too far in the future”, orbital RLVs will take passengers to orbiting hotels.

Once suborbital RLVs enter service, Anderson believes, the pent-up demand for space tourism will create a “multi-billion-dollar industry” in five to ten years.

It is not too much of a stretch to believe that at least one company will have a suborbital RLV available for commercial service in the next three years, provided financial, technical, and regulatory obstacles can be overcome. Several projects are underway with the hopes of capturing the $10 million X Prize by the end of next year. However, overcoming those obstacles can be daunting, based on recent experience. In the late 1990s several entrepreneurial ventures sought to develop orbital or suborbital RLVs, some of which could have serviced the space tourism market. None of those vehicles have been developed, and many of those companies are no longer in business, unable to raise the capital needed to finance vehicle development. Recall that in 1997 a Space Adventures press release noted that experts predicted commercial suborbital spaceflights were just “three to five years away.”

The other concern is overstating the size of the market. Anderson believes that the space tourism industry will quickly grow to over one billion dollars a year in revenue. However, a market study published last year by Futron, based in part on the Futron-Zogby poll results, showed that the space tourism industry would reach about $1 billion a year by 2021 through steady but gradual growth. That’s still nothing to sneeze at, but it suggests the growth of public space travel will not be quite as rapid as its proponents claim. The danger is that if the space tourism industry fails to meet the lofty predictions set by its proponents, it could be judged as a failure, or at least something less than a resounding success.

A middle ground

The two Space Times essays suggest that space tourism will either grow dramatically into a large industry within a few years’ time, or will take decades to develop. Neither outcome seems very likely, although the former, at least, is more desirable than the latter. When evaluating the prospects of space tourism, particularly in uncertain times like these, it is important not to be swayed by extreme scenarios. Studies have demonstrated that there is significant interest in space tourism, particularly in suborbital flights, and that demand is unlikely to change significantly if vehicles enter commercial service in 2005, 2007, or 2010. Barring unforeseen problems of one nature or another, that demand will likely be satisfied by one or more vehicles sooner rather than later. However, a lot of work still lies ahead to make widespread space tourism a reality.