The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

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Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos, Wally Funk, and Mark Bezos (left to right) pose in front of the booster that launched them on their suborbital spaceflight July 20. (credit: J. Foust)

The case for suborbital scholarships

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With the successful suborbital flights this month by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, space is now wide open to not just professional astronauts but just about anyone. Or, rather, anyone wealthy enough to afford a ticket. And that’s a problem.

It was impossible during the hoopla surrounding the two flights this month to avoid the backlash, especially when Jeff Bezos flew last week. Growing distrust of billionaires in general crystallized around New Shepard. Why are billionaires spending money on space, rather than climate change? Or providing living wages to their employees? Or paying taxes? And why are there even billionaires in the first place?

Commercial space advocates like to talk about how space tourism enables the “democratization” of space, but limiting that to only the wealthiest people seems to miss the mark.

Blue Origin tried to head off that criticism by announcing that one of the people on the flight would be Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” who passed astronaut medical exams 60 years ago but never got a chance to fly. By righting a historical wrong, Blue Origin won itself a lot of positive press. But two weeks later, it wiped it all out when it announced the fourth person on the flight would be an 18-year-old Dutch teen, Oliver Daemen, who got the seat because his father, a private equity executive, bought him a ticket. (Daemen took the place of the mysterious person who placed a $28 million bid for the seat then backed out because of a “scheduling conflict.” It must have been one heck of a conflict.)

Daeman may be a nice young man with his whole future ahead of him, but the optics of including a rich kid currently enjoying a “gap year” before college on the flight only fed the public perception that suborbital tourism—and by extension, perhaps, spaceflight more generally—is only for the elite. It’s extraordinarily difficult to become a NASA astronaut, but at least in that case there is a perception of a meritocracy: if you have the Right Stuff, you can be selected regardless of your background or your wealth. Here, he (and it seems usually to be a “he”) with the most money wins the seat.

That’s not a great look for the companies or the space industry. Hours after the New Shepard capsule landed, one congressman announced he planned to introduce a bill that would tax suborbital or orbital space tourist flights, although by exactly how much wasn’t revealed. That proposal may not go anywhere, but it may signal tougher times for the industry if it goes to Capitol Hill in the future looking for incentives, regulatory relief, or funding. Why help the billionaires?

Suborbital space tourism needs an image makeover to show that it is not only for the extremely wealthy and well-connected. Commercial space advocates like to talk about how space tourism enables the “democratization” of space, but limiting that to only the wealthiest people seems to miss the mark (or is perhaps a little too on point.)

Hence, a modest proposal for Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. When each company begins regular commercial flights with six passengers on board, they should set aside one seat on each flight. Instead of selling it to millionaire space tourists, they should offer it to others who would otherwise not be able to afford a flight. Call it a “scholarship” like those that colleges offer to worthy students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford tuition.

And who would those people be? Almost anyone, really, with a passion for space but no means to pay for a flight. Imagine flying an artist, poet, or writer who could describe the experience of weightlessness or seeing the Earth from space in new ways. A teacher who can use the flight to inspire students. Even a social media influencer who can reach the millions on Instagram and TikTok who ignored the old-school TV coverage that dominated the recent suborbital flights.

Democratization of space won’t really start to happen until those who fly start to reflect society more truly, rather than its wealthiest people.

There have some efforts to make seats available on these flights. Right after SpaceShipTwo’s flight earlier this month, Virgin Galactic announced it would raffle off two seats on one of the first commercial flights of the vehicle next year. Proceeds from the raffle would go to Space for Humanity, an organization that says it wants to buy seats on commercial vehicles. That organization also got a $1 million donation from Blue Origin earlier this month, part of the proceeds of the seat auction. (Presumably Blue Origin will be able to recoup some of that donation if the organization uses it to buy New Shepard seats.)

These proposals, though, seem scattered and disorganized, and more like one-time projects than something that can be sustained. There’s the temptation to bundle everyone onto a single “diversity flight” and be done with it. What’s needed instead is a regular series of opportunities to fly deserving people alongside the wealthy. The companies could easily work with Space for Humanity or a similar organization to handle the selection process.

To be sure, this will cost the companies money. But Virgin Galactic describes in its financial filings how it will realize impressive profit margins on later flights, so it can probably find a way to make a near-term investment to ensure there’s public support for those flights. Jeff Bezos said last week his company has sold seats worth nearly $100 million, presumably at a significant premium, so there should be plenty of money available. And if not, both he and Branson can probably cover it with the loose change scattered about their various homes, planes, and yachts.

Maybe space tourism won’t need an image makeover like this: the outrage machine will shift its focus to the next controversy, forgetting about billionaires and their suborbital flying machines. Even if the criticism doesn’t linger, though, the need to open up space to others remains. Democratization of space won’t really start to happen until those who fly start to reflect society more truly, rather than its wealthiest people.

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