An Interview with the First Space Tourist
Does it seem like 10 years since your flight?
It seems like a short time, because so much has happened that in my view is extremely positive in the commercial human spaceflight domain.
Could you give some examples?
Shortly after I flew, Mark Shuttleworth flew. Then Greg Olsen and Anousheh Ansari — a total of seven people and eight flights [Charles Simonyi flew twice]. The fact that we’ve now done this eight times with seven people is one important accomplishment, because it’s demonstrated that it isn’t just one crazy guy that decided he wanted to fly in space. There are people that are willing to make big sacrifices — financially, putting their lives on the line and taking the time to train in Russia.
I think the success of the [Ansari] X Prize, and Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne successfully flying suborbitally [in 2004], was a major accomplishment for a private company. And then the follow-on, with Virgin Galactic signing them up and funding the development of SpaceShipTwo. We will have suborbital commercial spaceflight, I think, within the next couple-three years at a price that people can afford. So that’s the second major accomplishment.
The third major accomplishment goes beyond anything I’ve seen done by one person since [Soviet aerospace engineer Sergei] Korolev or maybe Wernher von Braun — what Elon Musk has done with[Space Exploration Technologies Corp.]. It’s just absolutely incredible what he has accomplished so far. I think this is one man that we’ll look back upon as being one of the greatest space entrepreneurs of all time.
Flying the Falcon 9 with the Dragon space capsule and successfully re-entering it — he’s well on the way to not only developing a cargo ship, which is almost there, but a manned craft, and that will be really our next method, other than calling upon the Russians, to transport people to space.
And the fourth [accomplishment] is politically what has been done at NASA and the administration in terms of changing the whole nature of procurement, and the way they’re supporting commercial human spaceflight. I think this is probably the biggest fundamental change in NASA philosophy and government policy with regard to space in many, many decades, if not from inception. It’s just mind-boggling.
I look back at those accomplishments more than I even look at my own flight as an accomplishment, because it just happened to coincide with this 10-year period.
Do you see orbital spaceflight opening up to a lot more people in the next few decades?
I definitely do. And I think it’s going to be much bigger than most people predict.
I think that we’re going to see the costs, in today’s dollars, of sending an individual to space for a week or whatever reduced by a major, major amount. Right now, I think it’s about $50 million. It could be a million or two if we get some reusability in orbital spacecraft.
You’ve had close to 10 people pay large amounts of money. There aren’t that many people who are worth $50 million. Now, if you lower this down to a million or two — there are actually millions of people in the United States who are worth a million dollars.
Do you think it’s feasible to see the price come down that much in 10 years or so?
Yes. But I may be off in time a little. I think it’ll eventually get down to that price in today’s dollars. It could happen within 10 years. But I think it will happen within 10 to 20 years. And if I’m wrong, it’ll be $5 million — we won’t quite be there yet. But I think you’re going to see a lot of people flying in 2021.
It is exciting. Because as human beings, we need new challenges. And the history of our species is that, for millions of years, we’ve been migrating. We started in Africa, and we’ve been migrating in waves around the world. That’s a natural part of survival.
And we’re going to migrate to Mars and maybe other habitats. We’re going to set up colonies. It’s so ingrained in our behavior as humans to explore, and to expand and to migrate. We’re wired that way, and that’s why it’s so satisfying.