Space tourism spinoffs

The entry of the private sector into the space race brings new dimensions to the monetisation of space technology. Three high-profile billionaires — Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin, and Elon Musk of SpaceX — are all invested in space. On Sunday, the first crewed flight of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity carried Mr Branson as a passenger. Mr Bezos intends to hitch a ride on Blue Origin’s New Shepherd on July 20. Mr Musk is even more ambitious — he wants to go to Mars. SpaceX rockets already supply the International Space Station (ISS) and carry crew to and fro from that facility. Space tourism could soon be an option for the well-heeled adventure tourist. Virgin has received over 500 advance bookings at $250,000 per seat on the Unity. Blue Origin is said to be preparing to offer similar plans. Each ride would include 15 minutes of weightlessness, sandwiched within a three-hour flight soaring 80-100 km above the Earth. For comparison, people pay $50,000 to climb Everest in package tours, alongside trainers, and dedicated teams of Sherpa.

Some of the technology may find applications in more mundane settings, quite apart from offering options of hypersonic travel. The spacecraft Unity, for example, rides to around 15,000 metres in the belly of a plane. When released it uses its own rockets to climb to 80 km. Passengers must be cushioned and protected from high acceleration during this period, and during the landing. The cabin must be pressurised, and all furniture secured to handle weightlessness. Moreover, insulation is required to protect the craft from heat generated by friction. The materials used, and the design elements, could be incorporated in safety equipment in cars and bullet trains. Another set of positive consequences may be the clean-up of space debris. Space is littered with dead satellites and bits and pieces of defunct equipment. Over 30,000 such pieces are tracked by space agencies, all travelling at speeds in excess of 8,000 km per hour. The ISS itself, and every working satellite, are compelled to make multiple course corrections to avoid being hit by these.

While the Space Registration Convention of 1976 and the recent Artemis Accords suggest the clearing up of these objects in principle, the presence of high net-worth tourists will add a sense of urgency. This would, in the long run, be highly beneficial and the technologies, which would have to be refined and deployed for such a clean-up, would also help to protect the Earth from meteor strikes in future. There could be other areas where space tourism leads to ancillary benefits. But it is unlikely that the entry of private operators will result in a huge surge of “blue-sky” research. Private entities tend to be focused on very specific technologies, which have visible payoffs within a foreseeable future.

The exploration of space and associated research have led to many revolutionary advances in the grasp of basic science and technology. Many areas ranging from modern communications, and geo-location systems, to renewable energy usage, weather prediction, waste water recycling, medicine, robotics, artificial intelligence, etc., owe their existence to space research. But all those spinoffs came from big blue-sky programmes mounted by publicly-funded national space agencies with no immediate payoffs apparent when the research was initiated. It is likely that this situation will continue but the presence of interested private parties may ensure that such research is monetised quicker.


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