Space Tourism May Never Go Mainstream—and That’s a Good Thing

Do you really want to go to space with the kind of person who can afford it?

Key Takeaways

  • Space Tourism might get cheaper, but never cheap enough for mass tourism.
  • A space rocket is just about the most polluting form of transport around. 
  • There are lots of other ways for white male billionaires to waste their cash.
Virgin Galactic's Carrier Aircraft VMS Eve

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic will sell you a ticket to the edge of space for just $450,000, but almost none of us will ever go. 

You can't turn on the TV or browse the internet without seeing an aging white male billionaire climbing from a spaceship just back from orbit, a huge smile on their face. And now, billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is selling tickets to 90 minutes of g-force, weightlessness, and incredible views, for half a million bucks a pop. They've sold plenty, but will you or I ever end up in orbit? And should we even consider it, even if it gets cheaper?

"The cost of space travel is dropping quickly for hardware, and it will for tourism as well. Once we have orbital facilities, it will drop even further. This is the nature of things," Joe Latrell, CEO of satellite company Mini-Cubes, told Lifewire via email. "At the beginning of the jet age, only the rich could afford the ride. The computer revolution was limited to those with money or those willing to hack a computer together."

Expensive in Every Way

There are two big barriers to space tourism. One is cost, which will drop over time, but is unlikely to ever be cheap enough for mass space tourism—short of a huge leap in technology. 

The second, way more important problem, is environmental. It takes a massive burn of fuel to get a rocket into space, and it burns rocket fuel, not electricity from renewable wind farms. Virgin Galactic plans, eventually, to run around 400 flights per year for wealthy space tourists. 

Some numbers. Carbon emissions per passenger on a space launch are up to around 100 times bigger than if they'd taken a long-haul airline flight. The same source says that during launch, a rocket can create up to 10x the nitrogen oxide emitted by Drax, "the UK's largest thermal power plant."

"The environmental impact of these first tourist flights will be higher than normal. All new things take longer and have more of an impact than expected," says Latrell. "Then we get smarter. We streamline processes, develop new ways of doing things, and slowly reduce costs and environmental impact."

The thing is, even when "streamlined," a spaceflight will be more polluting than an airplane flight. And here, trips are pure tourism. At least some of the passengers on long-haul flights have less frivolous reasons for traveling. 

Whichever way you slice it, a single rocket trip is way, way worse than even a jet airline, which is already one of the worst polluters we have. Do we really want to allow this at a time when we're already struggling to keep the planet from environmental catastrophe? Especially as it will only ever be available to zillionaires.

Alternative Ways to Waste Money

What other ways might billionaires, or mere space-loving millionaires, choose to waste their fortunes? Let's assume they won't drop any extra money on taxes or otherwise help narrow the wealth gap. 

"You could buy two Ferraris, an Aston Martin, and have a three-week, all-inclusive vacation at the premiere Walt Disney World resort, the Grand Floridian (and throw in a couple of nights at the soon-to-be-opened Galactic Cruiser) for a family of four for the same price," 'lifelong NASA fanatic' and food educator Christina Russo told Lifewire via email. 

Virgin Galactic Unity 22 cabin

Virgin Galactic

"Or maybe an extravagant trip for two to a remote island," says Latrell. "I hear some places can charge $10k a night for a room." Bonus points if you choose Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson's Necker Island as your destination.

Between billionaire tourism and space junk fouling Earth's orbit and even turning the Moon into a landfill, space already mirrors the worst aspects of Earth. Let's hope space tourism doesn't take off as a growing concern.

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