Article / 04 November 2014 at 9:28 GMT

Will space travel prove a dream deferred?

Head of Editorial Content / Saxo Bank
Denmark
  • Virgin Galactic crash could lead to increased regulation
  • FAA safety exemptions expire in late 2015
  • Space tourism sector vulnerable to rising costs, complexity

By Michael McKenna

In spite of the literally astronomical risk and expenditure involved, the idea of space tourism has always maintained a certain sense of inevitability. 

It was this sense that allowed companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk’s Space X, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Robert Bigelow's Bigelow Aerospace, and Jeff Greason’s XCOR to attract both investors and interest over long incubation periods. 

There was the perception that well-heeled travelers would be keen to slip the surly bonds of a Seychelles sojourn in favour of low orbit as soon as they had the chance (with the rest of us, presumably, waiting for Ryanair to build a rocket…).

This assumption, along with the investments it supported, is now in danger as US authorities investigate last Friday’s fatal crash of a Virgin Galactic test flight in the Mojave Desert. The incident followed another commercial space travel disaster last Tuesday, when Orbital Sciences lost an unmanned rocket shortly after launch. The fallout from the past week’s events could prove disastrous for the commercial space travel sector.

The joyride is over

Speaking to National Geographic, space law attorney Michael Listner said that “for the industry, the joyride is over […] there is even the question of whether [it] will survive.” For the would-be giants of the space tourism sphere, viability is less a question of continued demand than it is one of regulation.

At the moment, commercial space-travel companies like Virgin Galactic enjoy safety exemptions that the US Congress has extended (following much intense lobbying) until late 2015. As such, the design of the Virgin spacecraft that crashed on Friday was not, for example, reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration, neither was its launch conducted under FAA supervision.

SpaceShipTwo

Virgin's SpaceShipTwo, pictured here, crashed during a test flight 
on October 31, killing its pilot. Photo: David McNew \ Getty

Speaking to ABC News on Sunday, National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart said that the investigation of Friday’s crash could take up to 12 months to complete. The timeline, then, presents an open question as to what sort of regulations commercial space travel companies may face by the time the next manned launch takes place.

At the moment, only one major commercial space travel concern – Orbital Sciences – is publicly traded. On Tuesday, upon news of its lost rocket, Orbital shares dropped by nearly 20%.

Though Virgin Galactic, Space X and the rest are privately held, the capital demands inherent to the industry mean that they are not immune to a sudden outbreak of caution among investors. The cutting-edge business model is already reliant on stratospheric pricing in order to function, with one trip to low orbit aboard a Virgin craft currently valued at $200,000.

Requiem for a dream

Though Virgin, SpaceX, Blue Orbital, and Bigelow Aerospace are majority-funded by their founders’ personal fortunes, it is not inconceivable that increased regulation and red tape could raise the cost of sending civilians to space dramatically. Though these companies may, in part, be the products of personal visions or commitments, they are also businesses, and are not likely to survive if the figures involved become untenable.

It is worth noting that the progress of commercially available technologies is not always strictly linear. It has been more than a decade since the last supersonic commercial flight, and the once-futuristic Concorde can now be spotted outside desultory little sheds at Heathrow, the relic of a jet-age dream.

Concorde

In 1960, we thought all planes would look like this by now. Photo: Douglas McFadd \ Getty

Even space travel, with its enormous risks and potentially species-saving rewards (if we are to believe Elon Musk), could be in danger of becoming another 20th century flight of fancy if it does not receive governmental and institutional support. 

This is an anxiety that has escaped the nightmares of space entrepreneurs and leached into the ambient culture; in US novelist Dave Egger’s latest book, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, for example, a crazed man kidnaps an astronaut and demands to know why NASA’s ambitions have contracted so severely.

“The International Space Station, “ he intones bitterly, “sucks and you know it.”

Ground control to Major Tom...

In an op-ed piece published Sunday, the Guardian’s Zoe Williams complained that “Richard Branson’s space tourism shows what today’s obscene inequality looks like.” Such an angle is, of course, near-flamboyantly Guardian-esque, but Williams does have a point concerning the fledgling sector’s economy.

Each year, a new flock of entrepreneurs compete for their slice of the ultra high-end market, offering things like “luxury ice cubes” and $2 million cognac in an effort to seize some high-margin, low-volume dollars. The difference between these items and low-orbit commercial space craft, however, is that artisanal ice cubes require no great institutional support.

The same cannot be said for commercial space tourism, whose proponents maintain that orbital craft will one day launch and land with regularity, carrying ordinary citizens into the great wide shimmering void.

Crab nebula

"And then in November we're back to Mustique..." Photo: StockTrek Images

If this goal comes to be seen as dangerous or frivolous, a bucket-list bauble for the wealthy and the bored, then government bodies like the FAA are unlikely to assist in its flourishing. Without such oversight, commercial space travel will likely become another dream deferred.

In this sense, the current investigation into Virgin Galactic’s crashed spaceplane could be the event upon which the future of this industry depends.

Michael McKenna is a consulting editor at TradingFloor.com. Follow Michael or comment below to get the most out of TradingFloor.com's social trading platform.

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