Foust Forward | Getting comfortable with orbital space tourism
Last May, the Discovery network announced plans for a new reality TV series: “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” Contestants would be put through a “variety of extreme challenges,” the network said, with a winner selected by a panel of expert judges to go to space. And not just a quick suborbital hop, either: Discovery said the winner would go on Axiom Space’s Ax-2 mission to the International Space Station.
The announcement got widespread publicity, but the network has since gone quiet. Some who signed up in the initial call for contestants say they have not heard anything from the show’s producers since then. Discovery has taken down a website for the show and removed from YouTube a promotional video it released last May.
That might be just fine with Axiom Space as it gears up for its Ax-1 mission to the station launching March 30. At a briefing a month before the launch, the company took great pains to emphasize that the three customers accompanying mission commander Michael López-Alegría on the flight will be doing research for organizations such as the Cleveland Clinic Canadian universities and Israel’s Ramon Foundation.
“They’re not up there to place their noses on the window. They’re going up there to do meaningful research and make a difference, each in their own way,” said Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom.
“This mission is very different from what you may have heard of from some of the recent, especially suborbital missions. We are not space tourists,” said López-Alegría. “I think there is an important role for space tourism, but it is not what Axiom is about.”
“My crewmates have worked very hard. I’ve been super impressed with their diligence and their commitment,” he added. “It’s definitely not a vacation for them.”
This emphasis on research by private astronauts who are, in their day jobs, businesspeople and not scientists, is understandable. The suborbital flights last year by Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson generated a backlash from some audiences, who criticized them for spending money on joyrides rather than on more constructive terrestrial pursuits.
“There’s one thing that always disappoints me about what’s going in commercial space today, and it’s the apparent disdain for people like Jeff and Elon [Musk] and Sir Richard,” said Charles Bolden, the former NASA administrator, during a March 3 webinar by the Aspen Institute. “They’re despised because they’re billionaires, and we’ve failed to look at what they’re doing.”
What they’re doing, he said, is enabling a much wider range of people to go to space, and not just the wealthy. He pointed to the Inspiration4 orbital mission flown by SpaceX last September and paid for by a billionaire, Jared Isaacman. “His crewmembers would have never gone to space had it not been for Jared’s philanthropy and his desire to fly people with whom normal people could identify.”
In that environment, it’s not surprising that private astronauts spending tens of millions of dollars for a trip to orbit, and the companies providing those trips, will emphasize research and outreach to defuse any criticism. However, if the industry is to grow and be sustainable, companies, their customers, and the public will have to get used to people who want to fly to space for fun.
This is especially true as Axiom and others work on commercial space stations to succeed the ISS. While NASA may be an anchor customer, it alone is unlikely to be enough to sustain a single commercial station, let alone the several under development. With uncertain demand for private researchers or astronauts from other national space agencies, companies will need to be open to every market, including tourists, to close their business cases.
As for the Discovery network’s reality TV show, a company spokesperson says it is still in its pre-production phase but didn’t offer a schedule for developing it or flying the winner. It’s possible getting the show produced will be a more extreme challenge than anything its contestants might face.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the March 2022 issue.