Photo: center observatory

Space Tourism Isn’t Just a Thrill Ride for the Rich

Rockets could smash the commercial air speed barrier, but the industry needs time to evolve — and willing investors to back it

The millionauts are lined up hundreds deep for their chance to see the black sky of space and experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR have been selling tickets years before they even make their first test flights beyond the atmosphere. But no matter, the possibility of rocketing into space for a few minutes is more than enough for those who can afford to buy a private ride on a spaceship, and they are single-handedly funding a new form of luxury tourism.

The sub-orbital tourism industry may seem extravagant, but it’s following a similar path the airline industry started on more than 100 years ago. In 1913, flying in a plane — any plane — was more of an unsafe thrill ride available only to the few adventurers willing to risk life and limb. They were flying for the excitement of being at the leading edge of a dangerous new form of travel. By the 1920s and 1930s flying was safer, but it was mostly a luxury reserved only for the wealthy. Fifty years later it had become a boring commodity sold at rock bottom prices to the masses. Space tourism will likely follow the same trajectory, only at a much steeper flight path.

We may be too cheap to fly faster, but we’re not too cheap to fly a lot higher. And in the end the desire of a few to fly higher, may help those wanting to fly faster.

Nearly 600 people have booked tickets at $200,000 each for a relatively short, sub-orbital ride to experience the black sky with Virgin Galactic. Not too far down the airport road in Mojave, California, XCOR is offering a slightly different sub-orbital experience for $95,000 in its two-seat Lynx.

Expensive? Of course, but the early adopters are always paying a high price. A round trip ticket on the Graf Zeppelin airship in 1929, the first and most successful non-stop Atlantic commercial air passenger service of the time, sold for around $3,000. That’s more than $40,000 in today’s dollars for what would have been a four-day trip, each way, in an unheated cabin.

Those flying with Virgin will take off in their spacecraft while still attached to a mothership which will climb to around 50,000 feet. The spacecraft will then drop, fire its rockets and climb quickly before the engines burn out and everybody will coast upward to more than 100 kilometers above the earth. This is roughly 328,000 feet and marks the Kármán Line, a widely accepted marker for space, though there is no definitive line where the atmosphere ends and space begins. During this over-the-top arc portion of the flight, passengers will enjoy a few minutes to float around the cabin and snap some pictures of the earth below.

XCOR’s Lynx will take off from an airport under its own rocket power before pitching up and climbing for space. With just a pilot and passenger on board, it will be a more personal experience for those riding along. There will be a chance to see the blackness of space from the cockpit, though you’ll have to stay strapped in and just watch things float around the cabin as you ride over the top of your parabolic flight path.

Both Virgin and XCOR plan on taking off and landing from the same airport…errr…spaceport. Space tourism may be the start but it is not the finish. The real story here begins when sub-orbital rides soar into long range passenger service — taking off from one airport, but landing at another, on the other side of the planet. It might be a far fetched concept, but it might be the salvation for those who want to fly faster, and are willing to pay for it.

Previous attempts to harness supersonic flight, notably the Concorde, failed because people just weren’t prepared to pay the higher costs involved in wresting more speed from jets designed to fly in the atmosphere. The relatively thick mixture of nitrogen, oxygen and other elements allows for the lift that makes flight possible; but at high speeds the air becomes the enemy, generating enormous drag forces requiring powerful, inefficient engines to overcome. Not so in space. With the drag of the atmosphere and its messy physics beneath you, it’s possible to simply point yourself in the direction you want to go, and fire your rockets.

There are still a few homework problems to solve before such travel is actually “simple.” But assuming space tourism follows the same flight path as the early aircraft, we can be thankful there are a few who are not too cheap to fly higher. If the early adopters will help the industry develop rockets capable of reaching near space economically — which is a good bet — we may finally crack the code for faster air travel.

So don’t brush off the millionaut tourists as nouveau riche with their toys; they’re financing the future for the rest of us.