“This is an important step towards access to space for all,” Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, told reporters on Monday. “It is only through missions like this that we are able to reduce costs over time and make space accessible to everyone.”
Inspiration4 marks SpaceX’s fourth planned private mission in the next few years. The other three include a collaboration with Axiom Space use Crew Dragon to take four people for an eight-day stay aboard the International Space Station (now scheduled for January 2022 at the earliest); another Crew Dragon mission to orbit later in the year for four private citizens through tourism company Space Adventures; and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s #dearMoon mission around the moon in 2023 for himself plus seven to ten others aboard the Starship spacecraft.
SpaceX has never really branded itself as a space tourism company as aggressively as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. As Crew Dragon goes all the way into low Earth orbit, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicles just go into suborbital space, offering a taste of microgravity and a view of Earth from within. high for a few minutes, but for a lot less money. And yet, in building a company that goes even further, with higher launch costs and the need for more powerful rockets, SpaceX already has four more private missions than any other company.
When Crew Dragon first took NASA astronauts to space last year, one of the biggest questions to ask was whether customers outside of NASA would be genuinely interested in going.
“A lot of people think there is a market for space tourism,” says Howard McCurdy, space policy expert at the American University in Washington, DC. “But for the moment, it’s very high-end. As transportation capacities improve, it is hoped that costs will decrease. This raises the question of whether or not you can support a new space business solely on space tourism. I think it is debatable.
So why has SpaceX’s expansion into the private mission scene gone so well so far? Part of that has to be that it’s such an attractive brand to partner with right now. But even if a market isn’t materializing anytime soon to make private missions a profitable venture, SpaceX doesn’t need to worry. There are many other ways to make money.
“I’m not sure Elon Musk really cares if he makes any money from this business,” McCurdy says. “But he’s very good at leveraging and funding his operations.” SpaceX Launches Satellites For Governments And Commercial Customers Around The World; it has contracts with NASA to transport cargo and astronauts to the space station; it is accelerating progress in building the Starlink constellation and is expected to begin offering Internet services to customers this year.
“It really lowers your risk when you can have multiple sources of income and business for a company based on the unique leap of rockets and space technologies,” says McCurdy. “The space tourism market is not big enough to support a commercial space business. When combined with government contracts, private investment, and overseas sales, it begins to become sustainable. “
Space tourism, especially to low earth orbit, will always remain incredibly expensive for the foreseeable future. And that highlights the question of fairness. “If we go into space, who is ‘us’?” McCurdy asks. “Is that just the highest 1% of the highest 1%?”
The lottery concept solves this to a certain extent and provides opportunities for ordinary people, but that alone will not be enough. Space tourism and the rest of the space industry still need a sustainable model that can invite more people to participate.
For now, SpaceX appears to be the leader in popularizing space tourism. And competitors don’t necessarily need to emulate SpaceX’s business model precisely to catch up. Robert Goehlich, a German-based space policy professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, notes that space tourism itself is already multifaceted, encompassing suborbital flights, orbital flights, space station flights, flight from space hotels and lunar flights. The market for one, like cheaper suborbital flights, does not necessarily face the same constraints as the others.
Still, there is no doubt that this could be the year when private missions come true. “We’ve waited a long time for space tourism,” McCurdy says. “We’re going to have a chance this year to see if it works as planned.”