Q: can space tourism survive the economic downturn? Of course it can.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

No! No! No! Virgin Galactic is just fine. Do not take your money… Virgin Galactic is not in trouble. Don’t move your money from Virgin. That’s just silly. Don’t be silly.

Thespacereview.com has an article today addressing this question. Personally I see no need to worry, and I'll explain why after the first paragraph:
The travel and tourism industry worldwide is suffering: one only has to see the number of great travel deals being offered by airlines and hotels to understand that things are pretty bad. For the space tourism and private space travel industry, the question may be one of survival. Space travel by non-governmental individuals is, almost by definition, a luxury service. In bad economic times luxury goods and services tend to be regarded as dispensable. So how will the few firms that are actually offering these services survive the downturn?
The thing is though, space tourism is actually beyond just being a luxury service. At the moment having to pay $200,000 for a few hours of flight along with some 4-5 minutes in actual space (as Virgin Galactic plans to do) is far beyond what we generally consider to be a luxury. A sports car costing $90,000 is a luxury, as is a few weeks on a cruise ship costing $20,000 or so. Renting a yacht (apparently costs about $5000 per day) is a luxury. But $200,000 for a few minutes in space? That's far beyond even that. The only people that are willing to pay this amount of money are those that 1) have a ton of money to spend in the first place, and 2) are very interested in space.

Add to that the fact that the private space tourism industry technically doesn't even exist yet (except for Russia's sending up of "tourists" to the ISS), and we see that not only is this an industry built upon people that by definition still have a lot of spending money even during economic downturns, but it's also an industry that still has a huge amount of curiosity surrounding it. Sure, if you're rich and you want to spare a bit of money you can go with that $50,000 car instead of the one that costs twice as much, or you can put off your luxury cruise for a few months. But a voyage to space is something that just doesn't exist at the moment, and considering Virgin Galactic's huge waiting list (last year 100 people had already paid their deposits for the flight and now has 45,000 registered potential astronauts), removing yourself from the list will mean that your trip to space will be put off by who knows how long. It's not like there's another company out there that can fly you up to space tomorrow if you cancel.

So considering the huge initial interest and investment, no I don't see any reason to fear that the space tourism industry will be affected by the downturn. And once flights finally start it will take quite some time to get through the list, giving the economy quite some time to turn itself around. If after a few years the economy still hasn't turned itself around then we'll have other things to worry about besides space tourism.


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