These billionaire space missions are vanity, but they’re not just vanity.
Yes, it’s annoying that Richard Branson, the super-rich founder of the Virgin companies—including space firm Virgin Galactic—booked himself on a planned July 11 test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, apparently in a bid to beat another rich guy into near-orbit.
That other rich guy, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, aims to ride into the upper atmosphere in a New Shepard capsule belonging to his rocket company, Blue Origin… on July 20.
The billionaires’ dueling missions to the Karman Line—the hazy border between Earth’s atmosphere and space, around 62 miles above the surface—obviously reflects the massive egos of two of the world’s richest men.
But they’re also important proofs of concept for a struggling new industry, one that’s trying to secure a foothold along the Karman Line. If companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin can make trips along the orbital frontier safe, frequent, and affordable, there’s a whole lot we can do from that lofty position.
Haul people and cargo between continents in just an hour or two. Explore the poorly understood weather of the upper atmosphere. And yeah, go on pricey joyrides.
“A few public critics have written off suborbital reusable launch vehicles’ operations... as just providing adventure rides for millionaires,” Eric Stallmer, then-president of the Washington, D.C., Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told lawmakers a couple years ago. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
“Soon the number of people that want to fly themselves, an experiment or a business idea into space will significantly increase,” Karina Drees, Stallmer’s successor at the federation, told The Daily Beast.
Well, hopefully. Truth is, the space industry has been trying, for years, to make suborbital tourism a thing—all in order to start opening up the Karman Line economy. It’s taking longer, and costing more, than boosters such as Branson promised.
Way back in October 2004, SpaceShipOne—a smaller precursor of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo—blasted off from its carrier plane, fired its rubber-fueled rocket motor and zoomed to 62 miles before spiraling down to a safe landing.
At the time, Branson predicted Virgin Galactic might start hauling tourists to the edge of the atmosphere for a brief, breathtaking view of Earth for the low, low price of just $200,000 per seat.
But the following years came and went without a single tourist taking flight. Virgin Galactic scaled up the three-seat SpaceShipOne to produce the eight-seat SpaceShipTwo. On Oct. 31, 2014, one of the two SpaceShipTwos crashed, killing copilot Michael Alsbury.
Virgin Galactic stopped flying for a few years while it sifted through the wreckage of that tragic accident. Now, the plan is to start flying paying customers next year. Meanwhile, other companies have jumped into the Karman Line marketplace, most of them hoping to first offer sightseeing flights on space-planes or rocket capsules.
Blue Origin is a rocket company. It mostly builds boosters and capsules for NASA. But in May, Bezos announced a side hustle. Blue Origin would also start offering rides to the Karman Line. Blue Origin didn’t initially set a price, but it’s a safe bet it’s around what Virgin Galactic is now charging for reservations—$250,000.
Where Virgin Galactic skirts the upper atmosphere in an air-launched, winged space-plane, Blue Origin boosts to 62 miles high using a tried-and-true method. Stack a crew capsule on top of a rocket. At the apogee, the capsule pops a parachute and floats back down to Earth.
Blue Origin’s trial-run will take place on July 20, Bezos said. Last month, the billionaire announced he would be one of the three passengers, alongside his brother Mark and the unnamed winner of an online auction—the top bid was $28 million. Blue Origin’s automated New Shepard capsule has flown to the Karman Line 15 times in tests but hasn’t yet carried people.
In booking himself on the firm’s first manned high-altitude jaunt, Bezos shocked exactly no one. But James Oberg, a space expert and former NASA mission controller, just shrugged. “Haven’t rich people pioneered common sports activities—from skydiving, scuba diving and other activities—that were very expensive from the very beginning?” he told The Daily Beast.
Billionaires riding to the Karman Line and (hopefully) returning safely could convince other rich people to buy tickets. “I think it is all good marketing,” John Logsdon, a former NASA adviser and ex-director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told The Daily Beast. “The publicity fallout from their being on these flights will be almost priceless advertising.”
The more people who blow their fortunes on brief forays to the edge of space, the more the industry grows to accommodate suborbital missions—and the cheaper the individual trips become. “The path to making these flights routine is to fly and learn and evolve,” Dale Thomas, a space expert at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, told The Daily Beast.
As prices drop, the industry could expand into other segments. Not just flying tourists straight up and back down, but transporting people from one spaceport to another across oceans and hemispheres. Suborbital craft are so fast they could, in theory, haul passengers from America’s West Coast to Europe in an hour, or from Europe to Australia in 90 minutes.
Imagine two-hour air travel from anywhere to anywhere. Or replace the passengers with high-value cargo and get it just a few hours after ordering it.
If science is your jam, suborbital flights are pretty promising. Since the upper atmosphere is too high for conventional airplanes and balloons and too low for spacecraft, we don’t actually know a lot about the weather just under the Karman Line.
Once suborbital commerce is routine, suborbital science should be routine, too. Drees cited the “significant benefits for the U.S. economy, our scientific, civil space and environmental enterprises and national security.”
Just don’t expect this Karman Line economy to appear overnight. Virgin Galactic has been teasing suborbital tourism for 17 years. Even if Branson and Bezos’s dueling flights go off without a hitch and their safe landings juice suborbital enterprise, it’s going to take time—decades, perhaps—to get from occasional and expensive manned flights to routine and affordable ones.
“Companies will need to operate for years and get a lot of missions under their belts to get close to something you would recognize as normal operations,” Thomas said. “Each company will have to earn that for themselves. We’re a generation off from having segmented space-services markets that will allow for normal operations across vendors, such as we enjoy today with air travel and shipping packages.”
So it might be 25 years before you—or, more likely, your richer neighbor—can afford to follow Branson and Bezos to the Karman Line. If and when it happens, we’ll have two billionaire egotists to thank for jump-starting the industry.