Friday, July 23, 2021

My thoughts on suborbital tourism


In 2004 when SpaceShipOne flew into space, I was excited.  It felt like the dawn of a new era of spaceflight.  Soon thousands of people would have visited space.  In July 2008 I even wrote a story – One Can Hope – where writers were given seats on the twenty-fifth flight of Virgin Galactic (in March of 2011) in appreciation of their work in spreading the idea of commercial space.  It was an extremely long shot to get some notice and maybe win a ride someday, since somehow getting a free trip is the only way I’ll make it into space.  I was so interested in suborbital flight, that in 2010 I even donated $50 to Copenhagen Suborbitals. 

And then years passed.  I don’t know if I’ve grown wiser, or just more jaded, but I no longer see the grand future of suborbital tourism I once saw.  Before I figured thousands of people would take such hops into space.  Now I think only a couple hundred will, at most.

Back when I was about ten, there was an air show of some sort at the local airport.  For $50 or something, my parents and I even got to go up in a little Cessna.  I sat in the front and my parents sat in the back, and at one point the pilot offered to let me fly, but I was too scared to try.  My thinking of a decade ago, was that suborbital trips – while not like flying around in a Cessna for fifteen minutes – would become something well off families could do on a vacation.  Not anymore.

I don’t have the exact figures, but to me it feels like the price of a ticket for Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin to stay profitable limits them to only a few hundred passengers.  I used to have visions of weekly flights, but now if either of them gets to once a month, I’ll be surprised.  And I think part of why I’m no longer excited is because it seems like you could spend $X and float in space for a few minutes, or in a few years you could spend $100X for a week in an orbital hotel.  I thought suborbital trips would give these companies the experience to make orbital trips.  But SpaceX just skipped the suborbital stuff. 

My predictions for the future of suborbital trips is … bleak.  I expect Copenhagen Suborbitals to fly a few times.  And then their rocket and capsule will go into a museum.  I expect Virgin Galactic to make twenty to thirty flights over the next few years, and then quietly fade away.  I expect Blue Origin to “win” in that they will fly more often and for a longer time.  But the main reason I think that is because – I feel – they are set up better for microgravity experiments.  Companies and universities will want to test run their equipment to make sure it works before launching it to a commercial space station.  And I expect these experiment flights will keep Blue Origin going for another year or so before they shut down.  If anyone is still flying suborbitally in 2026, I’ll be surprised.  And anything beyond that will be in the Copenhagen Suborbitals style. 

I think the “failure” of suborbital tourism is because it took so long.  If Virgin Galactic had started flying ten years ago, it would have been a different story.  I remember years ago hearing that Virgin Galactic was working on an orbital version, but I guess that’s no longer the case.  I know rocket science isn’t easy, but if they had started flying ten years ago, maybe they could have developed an orbital version by now, really starting a new era in spaceflight.  But instead we have an interesting, but ultimately pointless side story of spaceflight.

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