Private space missions: what can space tourism be used for?

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes off from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on its first fully private mission to the ISS on April 8, 2022.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes off from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on its first fully private mission to the ISS on April 8, 2022. (© NASA / AFP / Joel KOWSKY)

A new thrill ride for the ultra-rich, harmful to the planet. That’s what it’s all about space tourism. But experts call for more leniency: without completely rejecting these aspects, they highlight the benefits of emerging in this sector.

Access to science

The first argument is that these private flights can carry scientific experiments beyond their customers.

Space tourists “buy a flight that might not have been easier otherwise,” notes Ariel Ekblaw, founder of the Space Exploration Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

However, being able to send an experiment into space has been extremely difficult so far, with only two options: the International Space Station (ISS), with limited capacity, or satellite flights performed by aircraft, but which provide only a few dozen seconds of microgravity.

“So far, it has taken a very long time to work with public authorities, to obtain authorization, funding, to be selected from the very limited group of those who could leave the ISS,” Ariel Ekblaw explains to AFP.

In contrast, it took only six months between signing a contract and sending his own project to the station, aboard the private Ax-1 mission, which started on Friday thanks to three businessmen who paid for the trip.

His experiment, which focuses on self-assembling structures in space, had previously been flown aboard a Blue Origin ship, giving him a few minutes of weightlessness.

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These shorter flights make it possible to test the concept before spending more money on sending them higher, the researcher emphasizes. “The proliferation of these providers allows us to test more risky and innovative projects,” she adds.

Some companies, such as Virgin Galactic, have on their part announced that they want scientists to fly directly with their experiments.

The crew of the Blue Origin NS-19 rocket after their brief journey through space on December 11, 2021 near Van Horn, Texas.
The crew of the Blue Origin NS-19 rocket after their brief journey through space on December 11, 2021 near Van Horn, Texas. (© AFP / Archives / Patrick T. FALLON)

Funding for innovation

Space tourism also represents a source of funding for the development of new aviation technologies – in a drastically different way than public authorities.

The latter operates with taxpayers’ money, and therefore moves extremely cautiously, while companies like SpaceX, according to a faster development process, are not afraid to blow up prototypes.

Any government would be “embarrassed to publicly describe the flaws that SpaceX happily talks about,” said Mason Peck, a professor of aeronautics at Cornell University.

And as NASA focuses on cutting-edge scientific innovations, companies seek to improve the speed and profitability of launches thanks to recyclable vessels.

Earth's atmospheric layer seen from the ISS in September 2021.
Earth’s atmospheric layer seen from the ISS in September 2021. (© NASA / AFP / Archive / Handout)

Applications for transportation on the ground?

So far, space travel is very expensive and risky. Making them more frequent should both reduce costs but also improve safety, according to experts. “The more we practice, the more we succeed,” said Mr. Peck, also former head of technology strategy at NASA, to AFP.

A parallel can be drawn with aviation, initially also reserved for a privileged handful: “It started with a lot of accidents, different companies with different ideas on how to build aircraft,” recalls George Nield, former head of commercial space for the United States Aviation Authority (FEW). Today, it is the safest means of transportation.

But what can these more accessible spaceflights use?

According to experts, it is difficult today to imagine the future impact of space transport.

“For the next 10 years, I’m pretty sure we’ll see companies transporting people from one point to another on Earth in an hour,” Nield says. ‘It could happen without space tourism, but it would take longer. »

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket before launching into the space tourism mission Inspiration4 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on September 14, 2021 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket before launching into the space tourism mission Inspiration4 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on September 14, 2021 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (© AFP / CHANDAN KHANNA)

Environmental awareness?

The last argument put forward has paradoxically enough to do with the climate. Anyone who observes the planet from space realizes its fragility and the thinness of its atmosphere.

The hope, therefore, is that by returning space tourists will become more committed to protecting the environment.

“It gives you a sense of urgency to be a part of the solution,” said Jane Poynter, co-founder of Space Perspective, which plans to take tourists from 2024 to observe the Earth in a capsule drawn up to 30 km altitude. of a huge balloon.

This vessel has just been developed for its minimal environmental impact. Unlike some highly polluting rockets, whose contribution to climate change is currently marginal, but which can become problematic if the number of launches increases.

After all, according to Mason Peck, space research in particular helps to protect the Earth. “Thanks to advances in space technologies, terrestrial solar panels have improved,” he says.

Source: © 2022 AFP

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