Is Space For Billionaires Only?
This month, after two decades of development and testing, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin launched their first manned crew into sub-orbital space and back. Both companies are focused on making space tourism available to everyone starting with the two founders. Richard Branson flew with three Virgin Galactic employees, and Jeff Bezos traveled with his brother, the 82-year-old pilot and "Mercury 13" woman Wally Funk, and auction runner-up 18-year-old Oliver Daemen.
The public response to Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight yesterday was mixed, to say it mildly. From loud congratulations from those of us who are ingrained in the commercial space industry to ill wishes, billionaire bashing, and climate destruction accusations.
Tulsi Gabbard, a 2020 presidential candidate, tweeted “The only problem I have with Bezos’ Blue Origin space rocket ship into outer space is that it’s going to come back.” She followed it up with a critique of the economic inequality between the elite and regular Americans who are struggling to pay rent. Bezos spent $5.5 billion of his own money over 20 years to build his space company. And right now, a flight with Virgin Galactic costs $200,000 to $250,000. The company has already sold 600 tickets. These prices are, of course, completely ludicrous to the general population and rightfully seem frivolous.
Yet we can care about multiple things at once. We can support space innovation that has the potential to lead humanity to better technology, resources, and knowledge of our universe. We can also criticize wealth inequality exacerbated by an outdated banking system that continues to de-value our money and stagnant wages. Lastly, we can advocate for better preservation of Nature, farming practices, and waste management on Earth.
Historically, it is often the richest of the rich who take the financial risk of experimenting and developing new technologies, and the rest of the population doesn’t see the benefit of those technologies until they become more available and affordable. Cars, computers, even books used to be something only the wealthy could afford, but eventually their business competition lowered prices for everyone’s benefit. Both of the space billionaires have also calculated the safety risk, an inherent part of space travel, and decided that being the first onboard their respective ships was worth it.
Virgin Galactic began testing the VSS Unity in 2016 and it reached space for the first time in December 2018. This is after many other attempts and a few tragedies along the way. The company also had to complete a 29 element verification and validation program for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), clearing the final two regulatory milestones in May. Their commercial license has been in place since 2016, but only cleared to allow carrying commercial passengers at the end of June. Blue Origin’s FAA license cleared on July 12, just days before the flight.
One of the ways to lower costs is to streamline the licensing process which requires a lot of documentation and coordination between regulatory agencies. Lunargistics is working on digitizing license applications, safety forms, and payload reviews so space companies can focus on getting people and goods to space safely. Another opportunity to make space more accessible is through crowdfunding. People can come together to send their friends, family, or neighbors who had the same childhood dream as Branson and Bezos: to see our planet from outer space.