Others question the purpose of space tourism too. “These are technological achievements, there’s no doubt about that,” says Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist and space ethics researcher at York University in Toronto. But, she suggests, “their most significant achievement is the domination of the airwaves and television coverage.”
So far, tickets to the edge of space go for six figures—$200,000 or more—while booking an orbital expedition costs up to eight figures. A $200,000 price tag for a brief spaceflight tops the annual income of about 90 percent of Americans. It’s hard not to take note of that, especially at a time of climate crisis, a pandemic, and growing awareness of inequality. Each seat aboard a suborbital flight is like launching a home while there are more than half a million unhoused Americans, or like launching a family’s lifetime health care costs while tens of millions lack health care, or like launching college tuition when a majority of Americans don’t have access to higher education.
“Every time somebody flies for $250,000, while in that same country children aren’t eating and people are lined up along the borders, I have a hard time getting my head around it, to be honest,” Denning says.
But if the 20th-century aviation industry is any guide, while these flights will begin as luxuries, prices will drop, and access to space will broaden beyond ultra-rich people as the market opens up and technologies and infrastructure improve. “If you rewind to 100 years ago, it wasn’t your everyday person taking advantage of airlines that were just beginning to figure out how to fly routes around the world. But nowadays, for a very reasonable sum, anybody can hop on a plane, and they don’t think twice about it. It’s very safe. That’s probably the vision for space,” Bernstein says.
This also isn’t the first time that a handful of wealthy individuals have played an outsize role in US space activities. “It was actually billionaires like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller who funded the largest astronomical telescopes in the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the Guggenheim family that was the primary source of funding for Robert Goddard, who was the first rocketry pioneer in the US,” says Alex MacDonald, chief economist at NASA.
And on the other hand, MacDonald points out, NASA has supported and invested in the burgeoning private space industry for decades, signing a variety of contracts for equipment and services, including with the once-fledgling SpaceX, which turns 20 next spring. NASA’s currently investing in Blue Origin and two other companies to develop designs for a commercial space station to follow the ISS. It’s part of a long-term plan to support the private sector in low Earth orbit, while reducing costs and freeing up more of the agency’s budget for long-distance exploration.
While the first six decades of spaceflight belonged to highly trained astronauts, now passengers can fly just for the spectacular view, or for fun, or for the challenge. And while the cost of a ticket is high, these early private flights did make room for a handful of people who would have never had the opportunity before. The commander of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 was Jared Isaacman, the billionaire CEO of the payment processing company Shift4Payments, and he funded the tickets that went to the three other travelers. Artist and scientist Sian Proctor won hers in a contest, Chris Sembroski got his ticket from a friend who won a lottery-like competition, and Hayley Arceneaux was offered her spot as an ambassador for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, an organization for which the mission raised $200 million—a charitable purpose that could become a model for some other private flights. Virgin Galactic announced on November 24 that Keisha Schahaff, a health and energy coach in Antigua, won two seats in a sweepstakes that raised $1.7 million for Space for Humanity, a Denver-based nonprofit that works to expand access to space with its Citizen Astronaut Program.