- The space flight Inspiration 4 launched in 2021.
And it was a landmark all civilian tourist flight with no official government astronauts.
The passengers definitely took time to just appreciate being in space, but the four person crew also performed scientific research to understand more about the effects of space travel on the human body.
A year later, Axiom Mission 1 was so packed with experiments that passengers barely had time to look out the window.
But the reality is that most space tourism hasn't been science focused.
Recent flights by companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have shown us that it's people with high personal wealth who get to make the trip.
This brings up some important questions.
Will space tourism always be just for the extremely wealthy?
What about the environmental consequences?
And can space tourism actually advance our scientific understanding of space?
I'm Swapna Krishna, let's go on a ride to space.
[upbeat music and vocalizing] The current status quo of space tourism is just rich people going to space.
Most times people just stare out the window.
Understandable, given the price of the ticket, which right now is about $450,000 for a 90 minute flight to the edge of space, just over 55 miles up on Virgin Galactic.
But it's not exactly furthering our understanding of space or humanity.
- I think of it much more as this is a billionaire playground and that they are preying on the public's love for the cosmos and the public's interest in the cosmos to make people think that this is somehow democratization of space when it's really, in my view, the opposite.
- But it turns out that even on the brief tourist flights happening now there is space for science, even if that's not the primary purpose of the mission.
- For example, last year on Virgin Galactic, we had the very first human conducted suborbital science research done.
It was a plant biology experiment that was conducted by a Virgin Galactic employee, but the idea is that in the future, paying customers will be able to go up.
- And that's gonna continue on these flights.
One way to look at it is that in essence, every single one is in the pursuit of science.
Because we have so little data on how humans adapt to space.
- Humans were not meant to be in a microgravity situation.
We were evolved to be in 1G environment and so all of us have this opportunity to contribute, especially women because so few women have been up there.
Also, people with disabilities or other health conditions.
So few opportunities to study what happens in states.
And so we are all part of the collective body of figuring out how do human beings live and work in space?
- Okay, so there are two things to keep in mind here.
First, not everyone wants to be a science experiment and that's okay.
- It actually does a lot of things to your body and someone might say to themselves, "Well, I'm willing "to sacrifice that in exchange for having "this experience in space," but I have to say as a disabled person that my guess is that the people who think that that sacrifice will be an easy one are people who have not yet experienced disability in their lives.
As somebody who's lived with chronic pain, I'm like a lot less excited about potentially more of it.
- Space travel is hard on the human body.
Extended space flights can cause a whole host of issues from deterioration of muscle mass to vision problems to bone loss.
Second, if you look at the makeup of any regular space tourist flight it's overwhelmingly male because these are the people who hold the wealth in our world.
So then if we want to ensure space tourism highlights science and exploration is the key to make access to space more equitable?
That would mean reducing the cost of tickets to space, which is on the horizon.
Part of how it will happen is reduce tech and engineering costs, but the real key is competition between the major players.
- It's gonna be much more accessible in the future which then opens up the opportunities for lots of different types of applications.
So whether that's pure pleasure, or the breaking edge science or, you know, manufacturing, or whatever it is that we choose to do in space.
- It might surprise people to learn that many government astronauts are not trained scientists yet, they perform countless science experiments on flights and aboard the International Space Station.
Learning how to be a scientist is an integral part of astronaut training.
Space tourists also have the potential to and often do undergo some sort of basic training.
- But there are projects up there that require very little training.
For example, virtual reality was one that was most recently tested by a private astronaut on space station trying to figure out how you can do augmented reality.
Another one would be like biology experiments that you can do one yourself so that's attaching devices and reading your vitals, or doing some kind of exercise and seeing what happens afterwards.
- But there's more than just science to keep in mind.
Space tourists can provide a unique view of space and the necessity of protecting it.
Antarctica is a really good analogy for this.
The National Science Foundation normally runs an artist and writers program to send people with different skills to the white continent.
The entire point is for these participants to communicate the wonder and awe of Antarctica to the general public and inspire them to protect it, and a result our own planet.
Michael Lopez-Alegria is a former NASA astronaut and he notes that on a space shuttle mission he flew with space tourist Anousheh Ansari.
He was initially skeptical, but was quickly impressed by the new audience she brought to space flight.
- Well, she was reaching through something back then, brand new called blogging.
Millions of people were paying attention to what was going on in lower [indistinct] who otherwise would not have.
- It's hard to quantify the contribution of someone who brings an entirely new perspective and is able to reach a nontraditional audience and inspire them to protect our planet as a result of a space tourism flight.
What can this kind of work inspire?
- The parts of the overview effect are sort of a concern for the planet, kind of a feeling of brotherhood that we're all on this spaceship together, the spaceship Earth, and that is a very positive thing.
And the more people that can experience it, I don't think that all of them have to necessarily fly in space but, certainly, that helps.
- Okay so, even though space tourism will likely always be steeped in privilege there is potential here for it to be more than just a pleasure cruise for billionaires.
But we have to talk about one of the major pitfalls.
Regular flights to space aren't great for the environment.
Rocket launches require propellant to escape the Earth's gravity, which leach chemicals into the Earth's atmosphere.
SpaceX uses rocket grade kerosene for the Merlin engines that power its Falcon 9 rocket.
That's the main rocket it uses right now.
It has advantages, they're efficient.
But the company is looking to move away from kerosene for its Raptor engines for its Mars missions on its next rocket.
Instead, they'll be methane and liquid oxygen based.
For clean engines the byproducts can be as innocuous as water, but that still can contribute to climate change when it's injected into the upper atmosphere because it takes years to dissipate.
Right now, it doesn't seem like that big of a deal because rocket launches are still a rarity.
But they're increasing in frequency.
And the goal seems to be bringing that number up.
If the goal we're trying to achieve is a rocket launch, or more per day what will the environmental cost be back here on Earth?
- When I hear a a launch a day, I'm not even thinking about the pollution that is gonna go into the atmosphere, right?
But I'm thinking about the immediate impact on the land and the people of the land in those communities.
- It's not just climate, entire populations have been displaced and environments disrupted to build launchpads.
- I'm thinking about, for example, the Quilombo in Brazil who are fighting dispossession, who have been displaced already once for a launchpad and are now facing more displacement for a launchpad.
I'm thinking about the people in Michigan who are fighting the building of a launchpad in a natural environment.
I'm thinking about the extensive environmental damage that SpaceX has done in its launch area in Texas.
There's a bird whose breeding environment has been significantly impacted, and I'm also thinking about there is an Indigenous community in Southeast Asia that's also fighting the building of a rocket launchpad in their community.
I know that this is also a concern for Indigenous people, for the Sami people in Northern Europe.
- Space tourism brings enormous possibilities.
But those are tempered by the huge negative impacts it could have and is having right now.
- Coming back to that question of what should we be using space for?
I think the question that we should be asking ourselves is what should our relationship as a species and as a part of Earth's ecosystems, what should our relationship to space be?
What should our relationship to the universe beyond Earth's atmosphere be?
- It all comes down to the question of who is space tourism for now and who should it be for?
Me, it should be for me, just put me on top of rocket and shoot me up there.
Thanks for watching, we'd love to hear your thoughts on space tourism in the comments.
Would you go to space if offered the chance?
Clearly, I would.
What do you wanna see space tourist flights become?