Two up, one pending. Of the three billionaires who had announced their plans for private Space forays, Richard Branson was first off the block. Jeff Bezos followed nine days later, while Elon Musk is yet to announce his launch schedule. Bookings are open for the wealthy of the world to splurge on a few minutes of Space adventure, with tickets priced at $200,000 to $250,000. It’s the thrill, the “I have been there” moment for selfies that probably excites those who can afford it. “It’s my money and I decide how to spend it,” they seem to suggest.
Space exploration has come a long way since the Sputnik was launched over six decades ago. Man first set foot on the moon in 1969, and has been vigorously exploring the solar system and beyond. There are ambitious plans for sourcing minerals, as also colonization of other planets, with Mars being a favourite. From the cut-throat Space race of the Cold War era, nations have now resorted to collaboration in Space with the avowed mission of benefiting humankind. The over two decade old International Space Station project is an example of this cooperation. Not many nations can, however, afford the luxury of Space exploration, with only 10 having an annual Space spend in excess of a billion dollars. NASA has by far the largest budget of $25 billion, which is close to the expenditure of all other nations put together.
Though a multi-billion dollar business, expenditure on Space exploration is only a small fraction of the national budgets. This expenditure is more than justified by the numerous downstream cutting-edge technologies which have mushroomed because of the Space missions and the associated R&D. Miniaturization of sensors, use of solar power and several other advancements have benefited mankind in many ways. Satellite-based GPS has revolutionized the way the world manoeuvres its way around on land, sea and air. These technologies have further helped in weather forecasting, communications, healthcare and more.
Both Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Bezos’s New Shephard have been sub-orbital short duration flights, with Branson not even crossing the Karman Line, which marks the beginning of Space. In future, it is planned to graduate to orbital flights. Musk’s plans are more ambitious. SpaceX will launch orbital flights of four to five days and even take passengers to the International Space Station. More than just a jaunt, passengers will get a greater exposure of Space travel and microgravity. In addition, SpaceX is also planning on converting long-distance routine air travel to flights that journey through Space, which offers less friction, thus cutting down the travel time from as much as 15 hours to 40 minutes.
Space tourism begs the question: is it worth it? The adverse environmental impact is by far the most important consideration. Global warming is the biggest challenge facing humanity, and it is already endangering our planet’s sustainability. United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, recently declared that the latest Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group Report is a Code Red for humanity. While the billionaires’ club has been claiming that their Space forays are carbon neutral with minimal impact, one wonders how that would be possible, once the Space jaunts open up with more operators and travellers. Upscaling will result in commercial Space trips becoming more affordable. Cheaper tickets would open the flood gates of Space tourism, with consequential increase in damage to the environment. This would irrevocably and substantially nullify our efforts to limit the impact of climate change. It is their money and sure they can choose how to spend it, but not by endangering the rest of us.
Another ethical issue is that the majority of the world’s population continues to live in hunger and poverty. Disease is rampant in large geographies with poor healthcare facilities. Add to that the fact that currently, the world is reeling under the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made the situation even worse. Elevating this populace from their misery requires astronomical sums of money, both from government and private entities. This is certainly not to say that these billionaires, and two are centibillionaires, do not contribute to philanthropy, but more is never enough. Every dollar being spent on Space tourism could be gainfully spent on more humanitarian causes, and not on wasteful and patently vulgar joyrides of the wealthy.