Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is set to launch its first tourists to space on Thursday this week.
The Galactic 02 mission, which follows the successful launch of the companies’ first commercial flight in June, will carry three paying customers – an 80-year old Olympian and a Caribbean mother-daughter duo.
Launching from Spaceport America in New Mexico, a three person Virgin Galactic crew will take the ‘space tourists’ high into the atmosphere, in a rocket ship known as Unity.
Unity will initially be strapped to mothership VMS Eve, before detaching and shooting above the Earth’s atmosphere to give passengers a few minutes of weightlessness.
Billionaire Branson has been flying high since the success of Junes’ Galactic 01 mission, which marked a shift in fortune for the brand after his other venture Virgin Orbits’ botched UK rocket launch and bankruptcy earlier in the year.
Last week, Virgin Galactic reported a 500 per cent increase in revenue as amateur astronauts queued up for tickets.
But analysts and experts are split on the economic benefits of space tourism, and whether it can eventually become more than just a hobby for the super wealthy.
As of 2021, the space tourism market was valued at a modest $600m, but it is forecast to grow to over $7bn by the end of the decade.
“Space tourism, usually considered a fantastical concept reserved for a space-faring civilisation of the future, is becoming closer to reality for many of the world’s wealthiest individuals” Trisha Saxena, investor expert at Seraphim Space, said.
It’s “very early days,” she added, but it could “emerge as a prominent driver of the global tourism economy,” with strong demand already evident. Virgin Galactic has already sold 800 tickets, albeit with an asking price of $450,000.
‘Cheaper’ options are available though, with US start-up World View offering reservations for its ‘stratospheric balloons’ at $50,000. Commercial space stations such as Voyager Space’s ‘Starlab’ hotel are also in the works.
Others are more sceptical. Will Lecky, director of consultancy Know.space, told City A.M. that in the near term, it is “only going to be a niche activity in terms of its impact on the wider economy,” and paid for by the super-rich.
“If space tourism does come to the UK, we wouldn’t expect it to have a big aggregate UK economic impact… though it could have a positive impact in terms of jobs, skills, and investment at the local and regional level,” he explained, as well as “spur on new R&D”.
Virgin Galactic itself would see a number of challenges in venturing across the pond, including insurance and regulatory hurdles, he added, though noted the potential for entering the UK market.
“Get it right and the demand could be robust if the safety record develops as hoped, particularly given that the ability to see Europe from space will attract a new tranche of potential customers,” he said.