Space travel is far from its destination

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The private manned spaceflight industry will need to grow and find new markets to achieve its goal of becoming like the airline industry to get people into space.

Why is this important: SpaceX and others have already started selling their dream of rockets launching thousands of people into orbit, the Moon, Mars and even beyond.

  • But today, the private manned spaceflight industry represents a relatively small share of the space economy, and several obstacles prevent the industry from achieving its goal.

Driving the news: SpaceX announced last week that an American couple had purchased tickets to fly around the moon in a Starship vehicle.

  • Instead of having potential customers buying complete missions – like the dearMoon mission around the Moon – it allows those with the money to buy individual seats for a lunar flight.
  • “This mission is truly groundbreaking in that it really puts us on a very firm step towards air-like operations where now, for the first time, you can purchase an individual seat on the Moon,” SpaceX Director Aarti Matthews of Starship’s crew and cargo programs, said during a press call last week.

The big picture: The manned spaceflight industry is maturing. Blue Origin regularly launches paying customers on suborbital flights, Virgin Galactic works for the same purpose, and SpaceX flies private and astronaut crews into orbit.

Reality check: There is no guarantee that space travel will ever achieve airline status.

  • The market is obvious for air travel that transports people from place to place for business or personal reasons. But space travel has a much less clear market for ordinary people for the foreseeable future.
  • The demand for manned spaceflight and low Earth orbit activities, planetary exploration and planetary colonization “is currently largely created by government policy, as well as the vision and expenditure of individuals, as opposed to a very broad market appeal,” Carissa Christensen, Founder and CEO of BryceTech, tells Axios.
  • In order to create something resembling air-like operations in space, there must be destinations and reasons to go into orbit, including activities such as sightseeing at private space stations and manufacturing materials specialized in space, according to experts. But those anchors for the private market are still years, if not decades away.

State of play: The space travel market may not resemble the airline industry anytime soon, but the regulatory environment governing key elements of the space industry may begin to resemble the airline industry process in a not too distant future.

  • Today, every US rocket launch must be cleared by the FAA, a process that can be lengthy with lots of paperwork and logistical hurdles.
  • But in the future, this could be streamlined, with companies able to launch their rockets without specific launch licenses for each flight, much like an airline.
  • This will bring the industry to “more standardized operations”, Ian Christensen of the Secure World Foundation told Axios.

What to watch: “Air-like travel will be absolutely necessary when there is large-scale demand for commercial human spaceflight,” said BryceTech’s Christensen. “The question is, what will drive this large-scale demand? And when will that happen?”

  • A dramatic drop in the cost of spaceflight, which would allow more people to experience it, could spur a change in the industry.
  • SpaceX’s spacecraft – if it works as expected – could help reduce the cost of going to space.
  • The vehicle will be reusable and expected to have a high capacity to transport goods and people into space, enabling a major cost reduction that experts say could change the way people get to orbit and beyond. .
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