Last Wednesday, noted science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of National History. The panelists included high executives from space companies, space organizations, and experts on space policy. The title of the debate was a concise “Selling Space”. Hopefully, it will become available on YouTube soon.
I share here a few conclusions that I drew from the many interesting points touched upon:
1. Access to space for ordinary citizens is still many years away. Even if the space tourism companies successfully pull their vehicles off the assembly line and into the launch pad (or runway), ticket prices will remain on the order of $100,000 for suborbital flights, and tens of millions for orbital and cis-lunar flights. On the upside, those same companies will be able to offer much lower prices for scientific research, compared to government-led missions.
2. There seems to be a disagreement between industry leaders and policy experts as to the inspirational value of space tourism to engage the public in space exploration. While some think that only government astronauts can inspire the public and younger generations, much like the early astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs of the 1960s and 1970s, others are confident that space tourists can add a certain educational value to their multimillion-dollar “joyrides”, as one panelist put it. I see merit on both sides of the argument, but I think space companies can renew the excitement for space exploration if their missions include precisely that kind of focus, exploration.
3. Some people are nervous about the safety goals of the commercial space companies. It’s probably natural that during the emergence of such a “disruptive” industry as NewSpace (the umbrella term that refers to the different private enterprises whose aim is to transport people and cargo to low-Earth orbit and beyond) some fears may arise. However, I’m confident that safety milestones are foremost in designers’ minds.