Can space tourism be useful?

The first argument is that these private flights can carry scientific experiments, in addition to their customers.

space tourists “buy a flight that might not have taken off otherwise”notes Ariel Ekblaw, founder of the Space Exploration Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

However, being able to send an experiment into space has remained extremely difficult until now, with only two possibilities: the International Space Station (ISS), with limited capacity, or parabolic flights carried out by planes, but providing only a few dozen seconds of microgravity.

“It used to take a very long time to work with government agencies, get permission, get funding, be chosen from the very select group of those who can leave.” for the ISS, explains Ariel Ekblaw to AFP.

In contrast, only six months passed between signing a contract and sending his own project to the station, aboard the private Ax-1 mission which took off on Friday thanks to three businessmen who paid for the trip.

His experiment, which focuses on self-assembling structures in space, had previously flown aboard a Blue Origin ship, which gives him a few minutes of weightlessness.

These shorter flights allow the concept to be tested, before spending more money to send them higher, underlines the researcher. “The proliferation of these providers allows us to test more risky and innovative projects”she adds.

Some companies, such as Virgin Galactic, have for their part announced that they want to make scientists fly directly with their experiments.

Funding for innovation

Space tourism also represents a source of funding for developing new flight technologies — in a drastically different way from government agencies.

The latter operate with taxpayers’ money, and therefore move extremely cautiously, while companies like SpaceX are not afraid to blow up prototypes, according to a faster development process.

Any government would be “embarrassed to publicly describe the failures that SpaceX happily talks about,” said Mason Peck, professor of aeronautics at Cornell University.

And when NASA focuses on cutting-edge scientific innovations, companies seek to improve the rate and profitability of launches, thanks to reusable vessels.

For now, spaceflight remains very expensive and risky. Making them more frequent should both reduce costs and improve safety, according to experts. “The more we practice, the more we succeed”Mr. Peck, also a former head of NASA’s technology strategy, told AFP.

A parallel can be drawn with aviation, initially also reserved for a handful of privileged people: “It started with a lot of crashes, different companies with various ideas on how to build planes”recalls George Nield, former chief of the office in charge of commercial space for the American aviation authority (FAA). Today it is the safest means of transport.

But what use can these more accessible spaceflights be?

According to experts, it is difficult to imagine today the future impact of space transport.

“In the next 10 years, I’m pretty sure we’ll see companies transporting people from one point to another on Earth in an hour”argues Mr. Nield. “It could happen without space tourism, but it would take longer.”

Environmental awareness?

The last argument put forward paradoxically has to do with the climate. Anyone who observes the planet from space realizes its fragility and the thinness of its atmosphere. The hope is therefore that on returning, space tourists will become more committed to protecting the environment.

“It gives you a sense of urgency to be part of the solution”says Jane Poynter, co-founder of the company Space Perspective, which plans to take tourists from 2024 to observe the Earth in a capsule pulled up to an altitude of 30 km by a huge balloon.

This vessel was precisely developed for its minimal environmental impact. Unlike some very polluting rockets, whose contribution to climate change is currently marginal but could become problematic if the number of launches increases.

Despite everything, according to Mason Peck, space research contributes in particular to protecting the Earth. “Thanks to advances in space technologies, terrestrial solar panels have become better”he says for example.

Leave a Comment