If you follow the tourism industry, here's a new frontier to consider: space. Projects are already in the works to provide rides in the sub-orbital realm, and, eventually, to sell stays in orbiting space stations. We're talking about an entirely new industry here, at least eventually, and not a mere piggyback on the existing space action.
Today's space race is, indeed, largely a commercial one. Your grandparents owned stock in railroads. Your kids are going to own stock in space companies.
One of the pioneering companies, Space Exploration Technologies, also known as SpaceX, hit a milestone last month when it launched a payload of cargo that docked with the international space station. That mission was a real nail-biter, since the first launch attempt on May 19 was aborted less than a second before lift-off because of a mechanical issue. But on the second time around, May 22, things worked as hoped and history was made. It's being billed as the first private launch of cargo to the space station, which is true enough, though NASA funding (such as advance fees for launches with NASA as the customer) and assistance has played a big role in SpaceX's development.
SpaceX is a name you'll probably be hearing a lot, so some basic facts run like so: The founder, Elon Musk, was the guy behind PayPal. SpaceX, founded in 2002, is headquartered in Hawthorne, Calif., which is in the shadow of Los Angeles, a region with a lot of aerospace expertise. And talk about a fast-mover, Musk is only 40 years old now, so he was a true youngster when he founded SpaceX, not to mention PayPal before that.
I've heard that one SpaceX vision is to eventually put humans on Mars, and in order to get to that point they're first building a solid foundation of commercially-viable space services closer to Earth.
And in that regard, they seem to be on the right track. Via the SpaceX website I count several dozen scheduled missions for a global array of clients, including some in Taiwan, Israel, Argentina, and Thailand.
They've also done some launches from Kwajalein Atoll, which puts Micronesia on the space map. Well, sort of. Hey, we'll take what we can get.
The company was in the news again yesterday, announcing plans to build and launch what is billed as the world's most powerful rocket, and, among other uses, it will haul big satellites into orbit.
SpaceX is just one of several firms interested in the space transportation game. Another one, Sierra Nevada Corp., is readying a craft that looks like a miniature space shuttle, and it is designed to haul seven people and cargo to the international space station. Industry heavy-hitter Boeing also has something in the works. Virgin Galactic and other players are also in the mix. Maybe we'll look at them some other time.
As for the orbiting stations, a Nevada company, Bigelow Aerospace, already has at least two such “habitats” in orbit. Logically enough, the company's founder, Robert Bigelow, is a hotel magnate, so he's taking his hospitality expertise to new heights.
Bigelow Aerospace recently announced a joint effort with (guess who?) SpaceX (right!) to market travel in which SpaceX provides the transportation to Bigelow's stations. I surmise that this early in the game, when costs are still high and the industry is still young, this action will be for scientific crews and such, perhaps for nations that can't afford their own dedicated space assets.
Still, if it all works out, it's easy to imagine things scaling broad enough and cheap enough to make tourism a genuine play eventually. The Russians have hauled a few super-duper rich guys up for multi-million dollar fees, but that was apparently more an adjunct to existing operations than the formation of a market where supply grows enough to drive prices down and volumes up.
I know that Americans are enthralled with space travel. But I have no idea how the concept crosses cultural lines. Most of my tourism experience is in Asia, not the U.S. Surely, somebody is already doing studies to asses the demand in various markets for, say, a weekend in orbit. How many people like the idea? How many don't? Of those who like it, how much would they be willing to pay? And of those who can afford it, how many of them are young, old, single, married, rich, middle-income, adventurous, risk-averse, and so on? Who in their household would make the buying decision for this? What newspapers do they read, what TV shows do they watch, what radio stations do they listen to? These are pretty much the same questions you'd ask if you were selling cars or toothpaste or, well, anything else.
Hey, I've got a head start on this, since I already know what newspaper you read. So tell me what you think: If you could book a weekend in space, would you do it?
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at [URL=”http://tropicaled.com”]TropicalEd.com. Ed is a pilot, economist, and writer. He holds a degree in economics from UCLA and is a former U.S. naval officer. His column runs every Friday.