Hiltzik: In billionaires’ space race, tourism is a sideshow
The space race among billionaires Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk reached a milestone of sorts on July 11 when Branson rode a Virgin Galactic craft some 50 miles high into the wild blue yonder, launching what he called a world of “equal access to space” for people of any age, gender or ethnicity.
Don’t be fooled. The real target of these entrepreneurs’ efforts isn’t the small customer base of individuals rich enough to afford five- or six-figure thrill-ride tickets. It’s the billions of dollars to be spent by the U.S. and other governments on satellite and crewed exploration missions.
For the moment, popular attention appears to be focused on the billionaires’ launches; Bezos is scheduled to take a suborbital flight via the New Shepard launch vehicle of his Blue Origin space flight company on Tuesday. (The craft is named for Alan Shepard, the first U.S. astronaut in space.)
The holy grail of these endeavors is NASA’s plan to return crewed spacecraft to the moon, on which no human has set foot for 49 years, or since the last Apollo mission.
Dubbed Artemis after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, the program is aimed at reaching the moon before this decade is out and keeping a team on the surface for a sustained period.
For the private companies tapped to participate, the harvest could be impressive: In April, NASA’s inspector general estimated that the space agency could spend as much as $86 billion on Artemis by the end of fiscal 2025, assuming that Congress appropriates the money. Tens of billions of dollars more would flow as the program moves toward its goal in subsequent years.
By contrast, experts believe that the market for individual space tourism is limited. “I’m skeptical that this is a big business opportunity,” John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University and founder and long-term director of its Space Policy Institute, told me. “It’s pretty much a niche market for wealthy individuals and adventure-seekers.”
It’s also relatively undemanding in technical terms. Branson’s suborbital flight, which lasted about 15 minutes and afforded its four-person crew and two pilots about three minutes of weightlessness, required the craft to reach a speed of about Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound; an orbital flight would have required a speed of about Mach 17, Logsdon says.
And for all that Branson marked his flight’s apogee with an exhortation to “the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do,” the first American suborbital flight, lasting about as long as Branson’s, was achieved by the baby boom generation. That flight, carrying Shepard, took place in 1961, or 60 years ago.
Virgin Galactic is competing with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX for a foothold in the space tourism market, for whatever that’s worth. Blue Origin and SpaceX are also in an intense battle with each other and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, for government space flight contracts. (Blue Origin is also producing rocket engines for ULA.)
Artemis isn’t the only government program issuing contracts to private space flight companies; there’s also competition for satellite launches and for carrying crew and payloads to the International Space Station. But the moon program is NASA’s most ambitious and the one most likely to attract public attention to the contractors.
As a result, Artemis is also the program most racked by intercorporate hostility and intrigue.
Most of the conflict has involved SpaceX and Blue Origin. Virgin Galactic hasn’t been a bidder on the moon project, though it was awarded part of a $45 million NASA contract to carry test payloads on its commercial flights.
A sister company in Branson’s corporate empire, Virgin Orbit, completed its first commercial mission June 30. In that flight a Virgin Orbit craft placed seven satellites in low Earth orbit for three customers, including the U.S. Defense Department, which awarded the company a $35 million contract in 2017.
The rivalry for government contracts among the other companies isn’t hard to fathom. “The contracts are absolutely crucial because developing space flight isn’t cheap,” says Michael Listner of the consulting firm Space Law & Policy Solutions. “Otherwise they’d have to raise that money on their own, and that’s probably not going to happen. So they need these government contracts to actually survive.”
One problem all the moonshot rivals face is that Artemis is, at this moment, rather half-baked. Originally conceived in 2017 with the goal of placing a crew on the moon by 2028, its deadline was moved up to 2024 by the Trump White House only two years after the program was established. That’s a timeline that most experts say is unattainable.