Some people believe that before too long, flying passengers might choose space instead of flying by air to get to faraway destinations on Earth. SpaceX founder Elon Musk and investment banking company UBS have made enthusiastic predictions about this, including a recent report from UBS saying that the space tourism market will triple to $805 billion by 2030.
While UBS does not provide an exact date for point-to-point travel in spaceflight, a chart in the report shows potential “long-haul travel” starting anywhere between the late 2020s and the late 2030s. The company assumes the annual revenue opportunity would be more than $20 billion, based on calculations from current long-haul flights.
Despite the enthusiasm, it will likely take more than 10 years to become a reality, and here’s why. While spaceflight for long-distance flights could happen in the future, IEEE senior member Ella Atkins argues that more infrastructure is needed — and the attitudes toward safety need to be critically examined — before the market can really take off.
“In 2030 we would have had to effectively gone through the same kind of safety certification for rockets that is all in the news today, for the 737 Max,” Atkins said, referring to a branch of the famed 737 airplane type that was recently pulled from use after a crash in Ethiopia, pending more investigation.
“What we’re talking about right now is having a rocket that passengers would still assume is very safe, potentially up to the level that they expect commercial travel to be safe,” added Atkins, who is an aerospace engineer at the University of Michigan..
Aviation is considered the safest form of travel, because after every crash there is an extensive investigation of the particular airplane type that went down. Just like what happened with the Boeing 737, airplanes are pulled from service and investigators examine everything from the pilot’s work to the hardware and software on the aircraft, spending months or sometimes years in searching for causes before finally issuing a report that air authorities around the world implement.
Airplanes are frequent modes of travel, while space remains more exotic, Atkins pointed out. The space shuttle, for example, had two catastrophic failures in 135 flights, an approximately 1.5% failure rate. This would not be an acceptable rate for commercial travelers on airplanes, so Atkins said either the safety needs to increase in spaceflight, or travelers have to accept more risk.
“The reality is, when we fly into space, the astronauts accept the risk. They are space explorers and they are willing to do it anyway. If you look at the record of the space shuttle, they expected — to my understanding — a 2% to 3% failure rate of the shuttle over all its missions, and they were pretty close.”
The other major issue for point-to-point rocket travel is there would need to be completely new facilities in cities optimized for dealing with fueling spacecraft, which tend to have more exotic fuels that produce more exhaust products.
“There is a possibility they will explode, so they will need to be more isolated,” Atkins said, but noted there are many cities with a coastal presence that may have suitable land for such facilities.
A third question is volume — whether enough passengers would willingly sign up to pay for a view from space, when airplanes are a more proven form of travel. Atkins said it is possible that cargo could take up much of the market, but there are issues with using cargo in space, too. One is cost, since airplanes would probably be cheaper than a space plane. Another is worries about the environment, since rockets tend to produce exhaust products that contribute to global warming.
Space tourism may happen very shortly, with Virgin Galactic already running two flights up beyond the boundary of what the U.S. military considers space. The only question is, how much volume will there be, and how quickly.
Why Point-To-Point Rocket Travel Will Take Longer Than You Think – Forbes