Letter: Falling Short on Facts, Vision
Fredrick Engstrom and Heinz Pfeffer have some real problems with the facts in their “Space Tourism is a Hoax” commentary in the Nov. 16 issue [page 15], and a bigger problem with vision.
First, they claim vendors are selling $20,000 to $200,000 tickets for orbital flight. I follow the field fairly closely and haven’t seen that. You can buy tickets for suborbital flight for $120,000 to $200,000 or so, which the writers admit later. Then they go on to say NASA is supporting a hoax when the administrator says he hopes space tourism takes off. There is no basis for this at all.
Next there is a long explanation of rocketry basics followed by an analysis suggesting that orbital flight will cost $200 million per passenger, when it is well known that the Russians are flying people to the international space station for $30 million and have even offered to take people around the Moon for $100 million a seat.
The writers claim there is no business case for suborbital flight when there are at least two companies deep into development and selling tickets. Virgin Galactic, at least, seems quite well funded.
They end with an admonition that space tourism won’t be here even by the day after tomorrow. Fair enough. It’s Wednesday, and I don’t expect to buy a cheap orbital ticket on Friday. Give it a few years, though, and maybe, just maybe, getting into space will be an expensive, but possible, vacation for the upper middle class.
Launch isn’t expensive just because it’s hard (and it is hard). It’s expensive because of low volume. A really busy launcher might take 10 payloads a year into space; most loft only one or two. This is pathetic. According to “An Evaluation of the Potential Demand for Space Tourism Within the United Kingdom,” a March 1999 report by researchers at Bournemouth University, if we can get the price of a trip to space down to about $100,000, there is a market of 400,000 people per year. Even if that’s an order of magnitude too optimistic, it’s a game-changer. That’s worth a bit of risk — and takes a bit of vision.