Will space tourism become affordable?

SpaceShipTwo makes another powered test flight.  But will normal people ever be able to afford to get onboard? (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

SpaceShipTwo makes another powered test flight.  But will normal people ever be able to afford to get onboard? (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

With yet another successful test launch on Friday, Virgin Galactic seems to be on track to begin commercial operation later this year.  Billionaire owner Richard Branson and his family plan to be the first passengers, but the company has already lined up more than six hundred passengers for the inaugural flights.  Want to join them?  You can - for the cool price of $250,000!  What does this costly ticket net you?

  • A two or three day training experience
  • Two and a half hours of flight
  • Five(ish) minutes of weightlessness

Of course, the details are likely to change in the coming months or years, but the real question is, will the price change?

Predicting the course of a technology before it even launches (no pun intended!) is very tricky business.  Some might call it foolhardy, but I'm going to take a crack at it anyway.  The closest cousin to spaceflight is probably the airline industry.  Both methods of transport were conceived of long before their invention.  Like rocketry, the development of early planes was dominated by their military applications.  After World War II, however, the commercial airline industry took on a life of its own and today represents the fastest and safest way to travel.  It's also gotten a lot cheaper.

While it may seem like the prices we pay to fly are ever-increasing, the inflation-adjusted ones are not.  There are basically two eras of air travel: before 1978, federal regulations governed competition in the airline market.  Since deregulation, we've seen an explosion of smaller discount carriers (think Southwest or Jet Blue in the US).  Its' actually strangely difficult to find information online about ticket prices before 1978, so we're going to use a bit of a roundabout approach.  Back in October of last year, Matt Novak over at Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog posted a scan of an airline ad from 1955.  A one-way flight from New York to Paris back then cost $310.  Seems like a bargain, but, adjusted for inflation, that's nearly $2,696 today.  A quick search on Kayak reveals I can get a direct flight these days for about $800.  Thus, flying today looks to be about three times cheaper than it was sixty years ago.

By this metric, by the time I turn 65, five minutes of weightlessness should cost me only about eighty grand (in 2013 dollars).  Still doesn't seem like a very good deal...

Perhaps a better comparison to space tourism is a cruise.  After all, people boarding Virgin Galactic's spaceplanes aren't actually going to end up somewhere different, and the multi-day training experience is more vacation-like than travel-like.  Cruises today start at about a thousand dollars a week - a far cry from the sum Branson and company are asking.  Historical cruise pricing is even more difficult to find online, and probably less meaningful.  Cruises today are much more about relaxation and luxury than the transatlantic voyages that brought immigrants to the New World in the last century.

Of course, we're looking at an industry at the dawn of its creation.  If spaceflight more closely mirrors the technology industry than the airline industry, perhaps tenfold decreases in ticket price are a possibility.  But there are a lot of fixed costs in rocketry and Virgin Galactic will never benefit from the sort of mass production that Apple or even Boeing has.

So, all told, I wouldn't start pinching my pennies in anticipation.  But, if you happen to have 25 million pennies to spare, you can click here to buy your ticket.

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