Why space is no longer the final frontier

| January 21, 2013

As recreational space travel becomes a reality and quickly infiltrates the commodity market, Dr Jason Held talks space tourism and its implications for planet Earth.

Space provides the infrastructure for the 21st century. Space helps us navigate, to communicate, and to protect our borders. Imagery from space is used as widely from planning our agriculture, to mining, to predicting the weather. It is a booming industry, worth over $169 billion for satellites alone. Other niche markets, ranging from education to human travel, are also in a growth stage and indeed show early signs of a disruption. The nature of this disruption can have broad implications for travel and form the entry point for massive new markets.
I’m talking about space tourism. That’s right, tourism. As in, vacation. Reading Angus Robinson’s recent blog reminds us why people travel – “…to increase knowledge, to satisfy curiosity, to have a memorable experience, to obtain intellectual stimulation, and to visit unique destinations.” This pull is forming a new era in human spaceflight.
As the expression goes, “no bucks, no Buck Rodgers.” It all started in 2001 when a company called Space Adventures sent their first customer Dennis Tito on a seven-day passenger trip to the International Space Station. Despite the $20 million price tag, several trips were filled, which the Russian Space Agency used to bolster their (at the time) cash-strapped program.
New companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR have designed spaceplanes that can send tourists on shorter stints. Today the ride is only five minutes in space (a.k.a. “suborbital”) and the $100k-200k price tag means that only the wealthy will fly. But tickets are selling out. Hundreds of people have purchased, with at least 12 from Australia. Flights are fully booked and trips will begin in nearly two years. There will be more people flying in space over the next few years than in the entire history of human spaceflight.
This will give XCOR and Virgin enough capital and experience to build larger spacecraft, which can go fully orbital, and at far more competitive prices. Space hotels, once science fiction, are in advanced development – Bigelow Aerospace has two prototypes in orbit right now (look up!), so expect this to become a reality within the next 10 years. The “hotel” has other uses including advanced materials and pharmaceutical research as well.
Again, the people flying are not professional astronauts, but tourists. The driver for space programs is quickly moving from government needs to commercial, and here is where the disruption begins. Well-known consumable brands, such as Stoli Vodka, the Red Bull energy drink, and Lynx deodorant (called “Axe” here in Aus) have entered the fray, spending millions on spaceflight, and reaping massive benefits in return. 
The implications are vast, and this is just the beginning. The more people fly, the more funds are spent on new spacecraft and new methods. With volume come even lower prices, and a resulting increase in demand. This can be a bridge for conventional industries, as more people fly they will expect the same luxuries in space as we all have here on Earth.
For Australia, naturally, this means beer (Vostok “4-Pines” Stout). Vostok, the first brew to undergo certification for drinking on a commercial 0-gravity flight, has shown us that even small companies can enter the fray. But that is a whole other story.

Prior to founding Saber Astronautics, Dr. Jason Held was a US Army Major and Space Support Team leader for USSTRATCOM (formerly Space Command) and deployed globally in support of military space missions. He conducted flight software engineering for the Wide Field Camera 3 of the Hubble Space Telescope and testing for the International Space Station. Dr. Held was twice a guest instructor for the University of Stuttgart’s IRS Space Station Design Workshop and led a research expedition in the high Canadian Arctic. At the University of Sydney, he founded the space engineering laboratory, providing leadership for the university small satellite project and Australia’s first premix rocket engine.