Space Tourism Leads to Space Settlement

by Al Globus

Space tourism is a reality. Four tourists have traveled to the International Space Station (ISS) at their own expense and at least four companies are developing sub-orbital tourist vehicles (Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures, Rocketplane Kistler, and Blue Origin). Not only does space tourism extend the freedom to travel into space for those with the means, it promises a profitable market to develop the launch vehicles necessary to expand life throughout the solar system. Space tourism may solve the single most difficult problem holding up space settlement: safe and inexpensive transportation from the surface of the Earth to Low Earth Orbit.

Present launch capabilities, while sufficient for communications, remote sensing, some space science and limited manned operations, are grossly inadequate for large scale space settlement. By space settlement we mean very large numbers of people living in giant orbital spacecraft, on the Moon, on Mars and/or within large asteroids. Space settlement could provides humanity with hundreds of times more living area, thousands of time more physical resources, and millions of times more energy [1, 2] than is presently at our disposal. Such a vast expansion of the resources available to human civilization would eliminate the need, although perhaps not the practice, of resource-driven war. Such warfare kills and maims large numbers of people and destroys their work. Substantially better launch capacity is a necessary precursor to space settlement, but progress over the last 50 years has been disappointing. Space tourism may change that.

Over the last 50 years a wide variety of launchers have been developed, up to and including the U.S. Space Shuttle, the most capable space vehicle to date. However, in spite of decades of development, Earth-to-Orbit transportation costs thousands of dollars per kilogram and suffers a catastrophic failure rate of a one or two percent. Worse, these figures have not improved with time. For example, the Saturn V was developed in the 1960’s to put men on the Moon. This vehicle cost less, measured in man-hours per ton to LEO (Low Earth Orbit), than today’s major launch vehicles [3]. Furthermore, the Saturn never suffered a catastrophic failure, although there were many close calls. By contrast, current shuttle costs run between $500-1,000 million per flight to deliver, at most, a few tens of tons of payload to the International Space Station, and the shuttle has suffered two catastrophic failures in just over a hundred flights.

Aircraft developed much more rapidly in their first 50 years. This may be because hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of flights occurred in that period, but we have only launched a few thousand payloads into space. Substantial launch vehicle improvement may require tens of thousands of launches per year, not the current 50-70 [4]. Unfortunately, current markets for space launch: communications, Earth-observing, science, national prestige, etc. cannot support hundreds of launches per year, let alone tens of thousands. However, a new space market has recently been created: Space Adventures, Ltd. and the Russian space program have flown four tourists to the ISS, reputedly for about $20 million apiece. Although the ISS was originally intended to serve a host of space applications, it has not yet done so for a variety of reasons. Space tourism may be the legacy of the ISS, and it could be a very good one indeed.

The only market for humans-in-space potentially capable of sustaining thousands of flights per year is tourism, if the cost is in the $100,000 range or less. If the price is in the $10,000 range, millions of flights can be supported. Published market research suggests that the space tourism market may become very large if the price is right. In 1994, Patrick Colins, et al. [5] found that the Japanese market could provide about one million customers per year for space flight at about $10,000 per passenger. In 1996, Sven Abitzsch [6] found that approximately 20% of the U.S., Canadian and German populations and nearly 40% of the Japanese population would be will to pay over $10,000 (actually, six months salary) for a trip into space. This represents nearly a hundred million people. In 1999, Oily Barrett [7] found that 12% of United Kingdom residents, representing 3.5 million people, said they were willing to pay over $10,000 for a trip to space. In 2001, Crouch [8] surveyed the literature and found that the global space tourism market is a strong function of price, with an annual demand of five million per year at $10,000 per flight and 170 at $500,00 per flight, representing annual markets of $5 billion and $85 million respectively. Table 1 shows Crouch’s demand vs. price per ticket. If these projections are optimistic by no more than a factor of ten, and the price per ticket can be brought down sufficiently, there is good reason to believe space tourism can support tens of thousands of launches per year or more, a rate comparable to the early decades of aviation.

price/ticket (1994 $) passengers/year
$1,000 20 million
$10,000 5 million
$100,000 400 thousand
$250,000 1,000
$500,000 170

Table 1. Projected demand for orbital tourism as a function of price [8].

All human-capable orbital vehicles to date have been developed as national projects by the U.S., Russia/USSR, and China. For sub-orbital vehicles the picture is quite different. Spurred by the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, a change in the way launch development was rewarded, Scaled Composites, LLC built and flew SpaceShipOne into space twice in as many weeks in 2004. Interestingly, these were the only U.S. manned space flights that year as the Shuttle was grounded after a fatal accident in 2003. While Scaled Composites reportedly spent considerably more than the purse to win, other commercial deals involving advertising and technology sales netted a small profit [9]. As a direct result, Scaled is now developing SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic. Virgin Galactic is building a space port in New Mexico and intends to fly tourists into space for two hundred thousand dollars per trip within a few years. Furthermore, Virgin has serious competitors.

Space tourism may lead to large numbers of people traveling to space in the next few decades. Burt Rutan, the technical genius behind SpaceShipOne, made a prediction in a 2004 talk in San Jose, CA:

  • Within 5 years 3,000 tourists will have been to space.
  • Within 15 years sub-orbital tourism will be affordable, and 50,000 people will have flown.
  • Within 15 years the first, expensive orbital tourist flights will have happened.
  • Within 25 years orbital tourism will be affordable.

Space settlement has tremendous potential benefits for mankind but requires a much more robust and inexpensive launch capacity than is available today. Traditional approaches to improving launch have failed to deliver a sufficiently capable system over the last few decades and shows little promise of doing so. To address this issue, we propose orienting launch development towards the tourist market, which, at the right price, is large enough to support tens of thousands of flights per year. Just as computers once cost millions of dollars and were only available to the few, space tourism today is the province of the wealthy. However, as the cost of computers plunged, they have become part of everyday life for the world’s middle-class. Space tourism promises to do something similar for personal space flight. Just as one day millions of years ago life, for whatever reason, crawled out of the oceans and onto dry land, space tourism may well begin the spread of life throughout our solar system.


1. Johnson, R. and Holbrow, C., “Space Settlements: A Design Study,” Tech. Rep. SP-413, NASA, 1975.

2. Lewis, J. S., Mining the Sky, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1996.

3. Wetz, J. R. and Larson, W. J., Reducing Space Mission Cost, Microcosm Press and Kluwer Academic Publishers, El Segundo, California/Dordrecht/Boston/London, 1996.

4. Webber, D., “The Changing Role of Spaceports,” Beyond Earth: The Future of Humans in Space, 2006, pp. 190–194.

5. Collins, P., Iwasaki, Y., Kanayama, H., and Ohnuki, M., “Commercial Implications of Market Research on Space Tourism,” 19th International Symposium on Space Technology and Science (ISTS Yokohama), No. ISTS 94-g-21p, May 1994.

6. Abitzsch, S., “Prospects of Space Tourism,” 9th European Aerospace Congress – Visions and Limits of Long-term Aerospace Developments, May 1996.

7. Barrett, O., “An Evaluation of the Potential Demand for Space Tourism Within the United Kingdom,” Tech. rep., Bournemouth University, Dorset, England, March 1999.

8. Crouch, G. I., “Researching the Space Tourism Market,” Presented at the annual Conference of the Travel and Tourism Research Association, June 2001.

9. Rutan, B., public address, San Jose, California.

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