Is space tourism close to taking off?

Bob Moon Dec 7, 2009

Is space tourism close to taking off?

Bob Moon Dec 7, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Should you happen to have a spare $200,000 on you, Richard Branson’s got just the thing for you. The British billionaire unveiled the centerpiece of his latest venture at an airfield in the Mojave desert up north of Los Angeles today.

SpaceShipTwo will rocket wealthy tourists into space, thousands of them, Branson says, within the next couple of years. Branson claims that so far Virgin Galactic has already booked around 700 passengers at the aforementioned $200,000 a pop. We asked our senior business correspondent Bob Moon how close the space tourism business really is to taking off?

BOB MOON: Almost half a century ago, an airline that’s long since gone out of business started taking reservations for trips to the moon.

PAN AM SPOT: On Pan Am, the sky is no longer the limit!

Wanna-be astronauts never gave up hope and some, who grew up and made lots of money, have paid a total of $42 million just to book a mere five minutes in weightless bliss on the fringe of space.

John Logsdon is a space-policy expert at George Washington University.

JOHN LOGSDON: It’s a far way away from generating enough revenue to pay the cost of Mr. Branson’s enterprise. And so my question is, how many more beyond the 700 are willing to pay six-figure amounts for this experience?

The promotional videos on Virgin Galactic’s Web site make it sound exciting.

VIDEO CLIP: The captain has now turned off the “fasten seat belt” sign. You are now free to float around the cabin as you wish.

But how much would you be willing — or able — to pay for not even a full orbit, just a quick view of the curvature of the Earth?

LOGSDON: I think prices will have to come down. The current price figure, I think, will quickly exhaust the available market of people with that kind of discretionary money.

Professor Logsdon says economies of scale could eventually bring prices down a little.

But aerospace analyst John Pike is skeptical, given the odds of trouble flying the number of people necessary to make a profit. And he points out this fast up-and-down barely qualifies as space travel.

JOHN PIKE: The next step, actually going orbital? Well, the ticket for that is going to be about 100 times more expensive, because it’s at least 100 times more difficult, and probably significantly more dangerous.

So for most of us, the sky will still be the limit.

I’m Bob Moon for Marketplace.

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