William Shatner and three other passengers were beamed into space with tourists on Wednesday morning as part of Blue Origin’s second launch.
Shatner, who returned with the crew after an 11-minute flight on the New Shepard, was the oldest person to fly into space at 90.
The widely acclaimed event marks an aggressive push by some companies to enter the commercial space market. Blue Origin auctioned off a seat on its first space flight, which took place in July and was attended by billionaire founder Jeff Bezos, for $ 28 million.
Bezos said the company has sold $ 100 million worth of tickets for future flights. In 2018, Reuters said Bezos had planned to charge between $ 200,000 and $ 300,000 per ticket for a space flight.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic announced that it had reopened ticket sales for flights for $ 450,000 per person. The space company, whose billionaire founder Richard Branson also ventured into space in July, has ambitions to open commercial flights next year.
“As we strive to bring the wonder of outer space to a broader population, we are excited to open the door to a whole new industrial and consumer experience,” said Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, in a statement.
The company previously sold tickets for $ 250,000 each in anticipation of future flights, but ceased sales in 2014 after a test flight crash.
Axiom Space, a privately held aerospace company aiming to build the first commercial space station, plans to send private individuals aboard billionaire Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon to the International Space Station in 2022. Tickets sold for a whopping $ 55 million. In 2019, NASA opened the ISS for private flights.
The space tourism market
The focus on space travel reflects a broader change in the target group of the tourism market.
As the number of the very wealthy has grown, the middle class has been pushed out of the market, which is now more focused on “exotic luxuries,” said Howard McCurdy, professor of public affairs at American University.
For example, he said the experience now could be taking a trip through the Drake Passage to Antarctica, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“That’s pretty expensive,” said McCurdy. “It’s not for everyone, but it is for a significant number of people who did not exist in this income bracket 40 to 50 years ago.”
Mark Sundahl, a professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law with experience in space law, said he sees space tourism as a viable industry.
“There has been a lot of interest and a large number of deposits from potential aerospace participants as known in the industry and it will be very popular,” said Sundahl.
But while the rich can afford these tickets, some don’t believe space tourism will ever become a mass market opportunity.
“Prices and room access have always been very optimistic. And it’s still very expensive, ”said Henry R. Hertzfeld, professor of space and international affairs at George Washington University. “Space is risky – it’s not as easy as it looks when everything goes right.”
The economy of private space companies
McCurdy said he doesn’t think companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic can just make money from passengers. To be successful, they need to find other sources of income.
He referred to the Air Mail Act of 1925, or the Kelly Act, which allowed private companies to apply for contracts to deliver mail, which helped fund their operations.
To fund his Blue Origin operation, Bezos said in 2017 that he is selling $ 1 billion worth of Amazon shares a year. The company has also partnered with NASA to launch research and technology payloads into space.
In 2020, NASA began accepting proposals from scientists who wanted to go into space with their experiments with commercial rockets from companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. It offered between $ 450.00 and $ 650,000 for their proposals, The Verge reported.
And just last month, NASA awarded $ 146 million contracts to five companies, including Blue Origin and SpaceX, to develop lander design concepts for their Artemis program (which aims to bring astronauts back to the moon) and perform unit tests.
“You get the mail, you get a couple of packages, you get a couple of people, and suddenly it makes good business sense,” McCurdy said. “And then of course you charge people very different prices. To be the first to be with Shatner. ”