You won’t go to space any time soon, no matter what the billionaires say

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson
Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson Patrick Pluel/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images; Hollis Johnson/Insider
  • This month, billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson went on suborbital space flights with their respective companies.
  • The billionaires say they plan to make space tourism mainstream, but the trips came with hefty price tags.
  • Space law experts say the prices aren’t the only thing that will stop the average person from going on a space tour.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have drawn public attention to space tourism after they traveled to the edge of space this month, but it’s unlikely the average person will get to visit space in the foreseeable future.

It is likely that space tourism will be a hobby solely reserved for billionaires and centi-millionaires for many years to come.

Ticket prices for suborbital tours on Branson’s Virgin Galactic are selling for around $US250,000 ($AU339,510) per person. To date, about 600 people have reserved tickets to fly with the company to the edge of space.

While Bezos’ Blue Origin has yet to release its ticket prices, the Amazon founder has indicated that the tickets will be competitive with Branson’s company. The first available ticket on Bezos’ flight sold for $US28 ($AU38) million at auction and the entire 10 minute trip on Tuesday cost the billionaire about $US5.5 ($AU7) billion out-of-pocket. The same day, the company said it had sold about $US100 ($AU136) million worth of tickets for future passengers to ride on the 4-person aircraft.

Bezos said he plans to launch future flights at a “very high” rate going forward. “We need to get as good at running space tours as we are as a civilization at running commercial airliners,” he said.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that he believes the cost of going to space, in particular visiting Mars (a trip that would cost about $US10 ($AU14) billion per person using current technology), will one day be equivalent to the cost of buying a house.

But, the truth is current technology is too expensive for the average person to be able to afford a seat on one of Bezos, Branson or Musk’s rockets. Though Bezos and Musk have been progressively working to make space travel more affordable through the development of reusable rockets, the industry is still in its beginning stages.

Space law experts told Insider that even outside of the sheer cost of space tourism there are several hurdles the companies must overcome before space tourism can become a viable industry for everyday people. These include creating standard regulations akin to the policies that guard airplanes, as well as developing strategies to better manage air travel and pollution from the flights.

People who ride with Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic “are not astronauts or passengers, legally speaking,” the director of McGill’s Institute of Air and Space Law, Ram Jakhu told Insider. “They are called spaceflight participants, which means they are essentially people participating in an experiment with a massive risk.”

As it stands, individuals that currently purchase space tourism tickets must sign an informed consent document releasing companies from liability if the ticket-holders are injured or killed.

Spokespeople from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic did not respond to a request for comment, but Jakhu and Frans Von der Dunk, a professor of Space Law at University of Nebraska-Lincoln told Insider the risk would likely deter the general public, even if the hefty price tag had not already narrowed the field of participants.

What’s more the flights themselves would also have to be more persuasive for tourists.

“Right now, these flights are just a sophisticated form of bungee jumping,” Von der Dunk said.

On Tuesday, one of Blue Origin’s flight participants, Wally Funk, expressed discontent with the trip, saying it was crowded.

“I thought I was going to see the world, but we weren’t quite high enough,” Funk said in a presser after the flight.

Branson’s flight received similar criticism after the Virgin Galactic flight only went 85 kilometers high, slightly lower than Bezos’ flight.