Movers

The Big Three Space Tourism Companies, Compared

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
IMAGE BLUE ORIGIN
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Space tourism is the future. There’s no doubt about that. In 50 years, space tourism could very well become a trillion-dollar industry. But at the moment, space tourism companies are far from making any profit. The goal of the game right now is to see which one will have the resources and innovation to endure the next few decades until space tourism finally makes a profit. The few companies brave enough to take on the space tourism challenge are the ones with money to burn for this long-term investment, so it’s no surprise that the Big Three space tourism companies are backed by Earth’s richest men.

The primary players in the commercial space race are: Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, Elon Musk with SpaceX, and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic.

Only the latter has completed its first official commercial spaceflight, but Blue Origin isn’t far behind. SpaceX is also expected to launch its first commercial flight with paying customers later this year, and perhaps even Musk will be aboard the rocket.

The competition between these three companies is fierce, and each one offers a different “tourism package” for eager space explorers. Here’s how they measure up against each other:

1| Virgin Galactic

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Virgin Galactic is currently the first company to test its space tourism flights, with Richard Branson himself being the company’s first official commercial passenger.

Like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic offers only a suborbital spaceflight, meaning that its vehicle will only reach the edge of space and will not complete a full orbit around the Earth. Virgin Galactic is unique compared to its competitors in that its spaceplane is shaped like, well, a plane. This could be seen as an advantage for nervous tourists who aren’t too eager to shoot into space in a rocket. Instead, Virgin Galactic offers a spaceflight that will essentially feel like a very fast airplane.

Once the spaceplane reaches the edge of space, passengers will experience zero gravity for a while before descending back to Earth and landing at the runway, similar to an airplane landing. It’s important to note though that Virgin Galactic will not fly beyond the Karman Line, which is the internationally recognized boundary of space. It will skirt just beneath that, but it’s still close enough to call this a “space flight.”

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The entire experience will last only 90 minutes, but Virgin Galactic sells these tickets at $250,000 each (P12.5 million). This is inclusive of the flight and one to three days training for the trip. It may seem like a steep price, but this is naught but spare change for Virgin Galactic’s ultra-wealthy market. Roughly 600 tickets have already bee reserved, with customers including everyone from Leonardo diCaprio to Justin Bieber. Another 1,000 have also made deposits after Richard Branson’s highly publicized and successful first flight.

So, how does this measure up to Blue Origin and SpaceX? Consider Virgin Galactic’s space package a “Space Lite” version of off-planet tourism. It's a "budget" ticket if $250,000 can ever be considered "cheap." It will feel more like a very unique airplane experience, but this is perhaps it’s biggest draw to the more nervous space tourism crowd. And at only $250,000 to reach the edge of space, it’s the most affordable option out there.

2| Blue Origin

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In June, Jeff Bezos announced his plans to join the world’s first ever crewed commercial flight to space funded entirely by private money. And that promise would have been fulfilled until Richard Branson sneakily beat him by a few weeks. There’s no bad blood, of course (that’s reserved for Bezos and Musk), and Bezos will carry on to join Blue Origin’s first crewed flight on June 7.

Bezos will be accompanied by his brother Mark Bezos, aviation icon Wally Funk, and Dutch high school graduate Oliver Daemon. Funk will be the oldest person to ever go to space at the age of 82 years old, while Daemon will be the youngest at only 18. While Funk was gifted with the spot aboard the New Shepard spaceship, Daemon is actually the company’s first ever paying customer. The son of a Dutch private equity CEO, Oliver participated in the auction for Blue Origin’s golden ticket. He didn’t win the auction, which closed at a whopping $28 million, but the anonymous buyer is unable to attend the launch due to “scheduling conflicts,” so Daemon, who no doubt paid millions (the exact amount is undisclosed) took his spot.

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Now, unlike Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin’s New Shepard will be lifting off in an actual vertical-takeoff rocket. It will fly far beyond the altitude of Virgin Galactic’s package, but it will still be a suborbital flight, meaning it won’t complete an orbit around Earth, but it will give you a nice, long look at Earth while floating in zero gravity.

New Shepard has also created a soft landing system, so no, the astronauts aboard New Shepard will not drop into the ocean in a small capsule. Instead, they will land softly on a concrete landing pad somewhere in Texas.

Because of the costs that go into building a rocket and creating the technology for a soft landing, Blue Origin tickets are probably much more expensive than Virgin Galactic’s $250,000. The company hasn’t disclosed ticket prices yet (which are inclusive of training), but since auction bids started at around $1 million, it’s likely around that price range. So if Virgin Galactic is target ultra-high net worth individuals, then Blue Origin is aiming for those who are even wealthier.

The other perks of the New Shepard over Virgin Galactic’s Unity is that it’s equipped with an escape system, it has much larger windows to view space from, and its ozone layer impact is minimal.

3| SpaceX

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In the billionaire space race, Elon Musk is the big shark. The competition between Musk and Bezos on the business front and on a personal level is fierce, made worse by the fact that SpaceX is no doubt more favored by NASA as a partner. Earlier this year, SpaceX beat out Blue Origin for NASA’s $2.9 billion contract to build a lunar lander for its Moon mission (Artemis program). There’s no love lost between the two companies.

However, Blue Origin is slightly ahead of SpaceX in the space tourism department, but that may only be because Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin only offer suborbital spaceflights. SpaceX is aiming for something bigger: orbital spaceflights.

Orbital spaceflights, in layman’s terms, are flights that can make a full orbit around Earth, and are essentially at a higher altitude than suborbital spaceflights. In short, SpaceX’s trips will not be one-day events, but entire stays at the International Space Station or aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. These trips will be longer, more complicated, and much riskier, which explains why the price tag for one SpaceX tourism ticket is a whopping $55 million (P2.76 billion).

Despite the steep price tag, SpaceX already has customers. SpaceX currently has two space tourism missions in 2022 planned with two separate companies: Axiom Space and Space Adventures. The Space Adventures Crew Dragon mission is scheduled for early 2022 and will last three to four days aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon. The four lucky tourists will not visit the International Space Station. Instead, they’ll go beyond that, orbiting the Earth at the highest altitude for private astronauts.

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The second SpaceX tourism mission is with Axiom and will launch in January, 2022, with one professional astronaut and three private astronauts on board. The space tourists include three businessmen from the U.S., Canada, and Israel, all of which are presumed to have each paid for a $55 million ticket. Unlike the Space Adventures trip, the Axiom will visit the International Space Station. The team will spend two days traveling to the station, where they will then spend eight days aboard the ISS. They will then undock from the ISS and return to Earth via splashdown somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Since this is an orbital mission, there won’t be a soft landing for these tourists.

Considering just how much more complicated this trip will be, SpaceX’s tourists will need to spend at least a few months going through intense, rigorous training.

SpaceX's "tourism package" is the most exciting, most comprehensive, and also the most dangerous. Only a handful will ever have the means, and the balls, to add this ticket to cart. 

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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