C Gopinath

The space ride fantasy

C Gopinath | Updated on July 27, 2021

At the price of a cinema ticket in future?

On July 20, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon Inc., along with three others took a 10-minute flight into outer space that allowed them to experience a few minutes of zero gravity. About nine days earlier, Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group in the UK, along with five others, took his ride into outer space.

Branson’s trip was executed by his company, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. Bezos’ company, Blue Origin LLC, did his trip. Very soon, Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX has already proven its space technology credentials by ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), will also be taking a trip in his rocket. This is ‘space tourism.’

One of the passengers in Bezos’ trip was an 18-year-old Dutch student whose father thought he deserved it. He took the place of an anonymous winner, who had paid $30 million in an auction for a seat but couldn’t go.

It is useful to reflect how far we have come to accept capitalism in our daily lives! Conspicuous consumption was generally shunned. It was bad taste for the wealthy to flaunt their millions. We slowly began to accept it when business, sports and entertainment celebrities purchased their multi-million dollar islands and drove their Lamborghini cars off the road.

When they now spend millions for a 10-minute ride into outer space, we have learned to say, ‘It’s their money! They can do what they want with it.’ Branson said that even as a child, he always dreamed of flying into space, and now he has the money to do it.

Bezos, Musk and Branson started private companies to indulge their space travel interests. Their outer space flying gimmicks are a sideshow in businesses where they are hoping to get very large government contracts for space exploration. Taking the flights themselves is the best way to demonstrate the safety of their technology.

US funding

It is also useful to reflect on how far the technology has moved in the field of space research. The excitement of watching astronauts travel to the moon and to the ISS came following government funded programmes for space research. The annual budget appropriations were frequently challenged by some as a waste of money and justified by others on grounds of furthering science and technology with collateral benefits. The US government must take some credit for the current private sector investments.

The government decided to retire the Space Shuttle programme to fly to the ISS and divert its attention to deep space and allow the private sector to fund near orbits. SpaceX received NASA funding and now charges them to carry the astronauts.

Bezos noted in a press statement after the flight that he saw this trip as the early efforts that would lead to more common space travel. Blue Origin has already started ticket sales and is reported to have sold tickets for about $100 million. The price per seat has not been revealed. Virgin has said that 600 people have already reserved seats at $200,000-250,000 each. This was at sight unseen, as they say in the commercial world, without inspection or appraisal. Now that the concept has been proven, you can expect ticket prices to go up.

We may be able to fly to outer space for the price of a cinema ticket but there is no need to queue-up, yet.

The writer is an associate professor emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on July 27, 2021

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