Home >Science >News >Why space tourism? Because it operates outside of NASA

These have been heady days for would-be space tourists, a self-funding cargo that spacecraft designer Burt Rutan once joked can be reproduced with unskilled labor around the house.

Self-funding is the key term, a synonym for “not dependent on NASA."

Mr. Rutan was the brains behind Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson’s space plane, a first in two ways. Mr. Rutan’s original model in 2004 received the Federal Aviation Administration’s first commercial human spaceflight license. And Mr. Branson used a later model this month to beat Jeff Bezos to an imaginary line marking the beginnings of outer space.

Mr. Branson might be said to proceed in the freebooting tradition of the East India Company. The private sector pursues its own aims and government follows. Mr. Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, without the least disrespect, are government contractors in waiting. The things many of us dream of—Mars colonization, exploring the oceans of Europa, sending robot probes to nearby star systems—are public-sector work even if big pieces can be split off for private competition.

All hail Mr. Musk for forcing NASA and its pork-barreling congressional masters to recognize the cost-cutting benefits of private, reusable rocketry. He did so with his own money, impelling NASA for now to alter its business model in a way that may or may not stick.

All three billionaires—call them Messrs. B, B & M—deserve credit for reawakening public interest in space. The downside of the Musk-Bezos approach is also apparent. The two are locked in a dispute, currently before the Government Accountability Office, over a contract for NASA’s new lunar lander.

My tiny asterisk in this history was a 2004 column entitled “The ‘Final Frontier’ May Be a Senate Waste Basket," helping to resurrect a bill requiring the FAA to facilitate private space ventures. A few years later, President Obama arrived as an enthusiast for NASA becoming a consumer of private services rather than doing everything in-house on a cost-plus basis. Then he met Bill Nelson, a Senate overseer from Florida, who forced down his throat a NASA heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, which a decade later still hasn’t flown and is laughably over budget.

When Mr. Nelson became the Biden administration’s NASA chief in May, the Twitter response from former space officials and space policy experts might have stripped the atmosphere off a small planet. Mr. Nelson’s other claim to fame, many recalled, was mandating himself a useless passenger on a 1986 shuttle flight. In his new job, he’s already started trumpeting a Cold War space race with China, which some see as a prelude to redirecting as much of NASA’s future budget back to its public-sector workforce as he can get away with.

Mr. Bezos said after his flight that suborbital tourism is a sideshow. His “New Shepard" rocket is overbuilt for the purpose and really directed toward lifting heavier payloads into orbit.

Ditto Mr. Musk. His Starship spacecraft and its associated Super Heavy Rocket, the current apples of his eye, have the U.S. government as their prime target customer.

Mr. Branson’s aim is altogether different. His spaceship is essentially a two-stage winged aircraft. He looks beyond space tourism for the wealthy to suborbital transportation between cities. He would take passengers to the edge of space not for the purpose of setting them down where they started but halfway around the world.

Call this a longer bet, with routine supersonic travel preceding the space developments that many of us pine for. Mr. Musk is talking about Mars colonization within his lifetime (he wants to live to see it, after all) but Mr. Branson’s implicit timeline is probably more realistic if less pleasing to those of us watching our biological clocks run down. For one thing, nowhere in sight is NASA’s space-ready nuclear reactor, a likely requirement for the next big advance in space exploration.

In one respect, the future is already here. The punditry has converted itself into an algorithm, reflexively lamenting billionaire space jaunts in a way it never laments expenditures on beer nuts or electric-vehicle subsidies, though these monies could also be used to relieve human want.

A biblical figure once joked to one of his disciples: Stop worrying, you’ll always have poor people to parade your compassion over. But life has other purposes too. A mammalian species lasts only about two million years in the fossil record. One thing we know is that a species tied to one planet is guaranteed to fail eventually.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text)

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