Billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are getting ready to start selling trips to the farthest reaches of the universe. However, only other billionaires — or possibly millionaires — are eligible to apply.
You’ll have to wait if you’re a space enthusiast without six figures to spend on a trip to a place where few tourists have gone before. Space flights in the four-figure range, or even the low five-figure range, will not be available any time soon.
Experts agree that giving an exact target date for when affordable space flights will be available to the general public is impossible at this time, but most agree that they are decades away at best.
One of the most difficult challenges is getting enough would-be amateur astronauts into space at the same time to spread out the costs of space travel and make it affordable.
“Early planes carried very few people,” said Laura Forczyk, owner of space consulting firm Astralytical. “Imagine what air fares would be like if they still only carried a few.”
In addition to the two pilots, Virgin Galactic’s well-publicized test flight with Branson carried only four passengers. Next week, Bezos, his brother, and two other passengers will board the first Blue Origin rocket to carry tourists.
“If you want to get to get the price from $250,000 down to four digits, like an airline, you have to spread it over far more bodies,” said Ron Epstein, an aerospace analyst with Bank of America. However, transporting that many people into space on a single flight is extremely challenging. Every pound must be lifted, which necessitates a tremendous amount of fuel and energy. Today, the technology simply does not exist.
To fill those seats, there must also be a significant demand for space travel, regardless of price.
“The only way to get that volume is to have it be part of a transportation network,” Epstein said.
“Do you want to spend all the time to just have a joy ride? No. You want to go from New York to Tokyo in an hour or two.”
That’s why Virgin (SPCE) is looking into possible point-to-point space flights across the globe, reducing travel time from New York to Tokyo or London to Hong Kong to a few hours by traveling at hypersonic speeds through space.
It’s a market that UBS estimated to be worth $20 billion per year in 2019. The bank based its estimate on the more than 150 million passengers who flew commercially for 10 hours or more in 2018. Even if only 5% of those fliers paid $2,500 to travel by space, the $20 billion in annual revenue would be generated.
“Although some might view the potential to use space to service the long-haul travel market as science fiction,” UBS said in a note, “we think … point-to-point flights that take more than 10 hours … is a large market to be cannibalized.”
UBS’ estimate of $2,500 for a space fare is far too low, according to Epstein. A long-distance, round-trip business or first-class ticket can now cost more than $20,000 for business travelers. Many of them, he believes, would be willing to pay a premium to reduce a 20-hour trip to a few hours.
But making that a reality will take time and a variety of technological advancements that are currently unavailable.
“The speed you have to go to get that many people into outer space is defined by the physics,” Epstein said. “It’s not something that will be easy to do. I think it’s going to happen in the lifetime of my kids, if not in my lifetime. But it’s not five years from now.”
Dennis Tito, a US millionaire, was the first space tourist, paying Russia $20 million in 2001 to fly him to and from the International Space Station. He is the first of seven people who have paid millions of dollars to fly into space.
Tito stayed in orbit for eight days despite the price tag being far higher than the $250,000 tickets Branson is now selling. Because Virgin Galactic passengers will only be weightless in space for three to five minutes, it was much cheaper per minute.