Alyssa Carson, 18 and a recent high school grad of Baton Rouge International School in Louisiana, U.S., is headed to Florida Tech this fall to study astrobiology, the scientific exploration of life on earth and in space. Anyone who has met Alyssa knows that this major has been years in the making and is merely a red stepping stone toward her ultimate goal: to visit the planet Mars in 2030, around the time NASA plans to land astronauts on the red planet. Her high school superlative? The teenager most likely to walk on Mars.
Considered the world’s youngest astronaut-in-training, Alyssa attended her first space camp at age 7 and went on to attend 19 others, including camps in Turkey and Canada. “Space camp was the best opportunity for me to learn more about space and to get more involved in it,” Alyssa told Forbes magazine this month. “I got to ride simulators, do simulated missions, build model rockets and learn robotics and aviation.”
From there, when she was 12, NASA invited Alyssa to discuss missions to Mars as part of the MER (Mars Exploration Rovers) 10 panel in Washington, D.C. At age 13, she delivered a TEDx Talk in Greece (the first of three). And at 15, Alyssa became the youngest person to be accepted into the prestigious Advanced PoSSUM Space Academy, where she received the certification in applied astronautics, officially making her certified to do a sub-orbital research flight and venture into space. By the way, she also speaks four languages and has some 140,000 Instagram followers.
While Alyssa plans to potentially help NASA study and colonize Mars in the 2030s (she recently said, “Mars remains my ultimate goal, even if I have to wait until the early 2030s for the rocket, technology and crew to be ready”), she has been watching with interest as private industry marches toward recreational space tourism.
Enterprising and rich entrepreneurs have all turned their innovation to the skies. Companies like Virgin Galactic, which has a waiting list of citizens who want to travel to space; Blue Origin, started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; and SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, are working in different ways to commercialize space travel. Alyssa just told Virgin Media in July 2019, “The technology is there. It’s going to be interesting to see just how soon it happens, but space tourism is the future.”
That ‘future’ is hurtling toward us — and may be happening sooner than we all think. David Erickson, senior fellow and lecturer in Wharton’s finance department, recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to discuss a big business deal involving Virgin Galactic that promises to propel the space-tourism industry forward.
Here are 10 signs that mankind is getting closer to taking that next giant leap – recreational space travel:
- On July 8, 2019, Virgin Galactic, a British spaceflight company that is part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, announced that it would merge with Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH), a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) that was formed two years ago with the goal of buying a technology company. It raised $600 million and had about two years to make an acquisition or funds would go back to investors.
- This merger will create the world’s first and only publicly traded commercial human spaceflight company.
- Following the merger announcement, Virgin Galactic said that it believes it has “overcome a substantial number of the technical hurdles required to make the company a viable and profitable commercial service.” It pointed out that its spaceship, VSS Unity, is the first and only commercial service thus far to have put people in space. The capital provided by SCH will give Virgin Galactic “the support needed to reach commercialization,” the company added, saying it has reached an “inflection point” in the development of commercial spaceflight for a safe experience.
- Wharton’s Erickson called the deal, which will close in the second half of this year, “a merger that suits both parties.” SCH will take a 49% stake in the combined company, while Virgin Galactic will be able to revive its space mission. The company was previously counting on a $1 billion investment from Saudi Arabia, but suspended the deal after questions arose around the death of journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.
- Erickson said SCH’s investment in Virgin Galactic is similar to putting money in “very early stage” and “very speculative biotech companies in which revenue generation is years away.” However, by merging with SCH instead of doing an initial public offering, he said Virgin Galactic could avoid “the scrutiny they would typically face in a two-week IPO road show.”
- With this merger, Branson’s company will soon have access to lots of capital to invest in its space-tourism activities. After the deal closes, SCH founder and CEO Chamath Palihapitiya plans to invest another $100 million in the company. Palihapitiya is a Sri Lanka native with a net worth “rumored to be close to $1 billion,” a fortune he amassed as a senior Facebook executive when the company went public.
- Virgin Galactic, which had two successful manned space launches earlier this year, already has $80 million in deposits from more than 600 aspiring space travelers in 60 countries, for a total of $120 million in potential revenue. Those customers reportedly include pop singer Justin Bieber and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The company said it intends to offer customers a “unique, multi-day experience” including zero gravity and views of Earth from space. After this year’s launches, about 2,500 people have asked to sign up, Branson told CNBC in an interview.
- And when it comes to competitors Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the space race is on. Blue Origin is planning a crewed space mission in 2019 and seeks to get people to the moon by 2024. Musk wants to take SpaceX to Mars and has set longer-range plans: ferry cargo by 2022 and humans by 2024, build a city in the 2020s and colonize the red planet in the 2030s. SpaceX is already carrying cargo shipments to the International Space Station on its Dragon spacecraft.
- One of the keys to success is to “demonstrate safety and reliability,” said Iain Boyd, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan who also joined the K@W SiriusXM radio show. “If the first few space flights of any of these companies go well, “then people will come,” said Boyd. “But if anything goes wrong, it’s going to be very interesting to see if this kind of market can ride that out.”
- Space tourism is not just a private-company endeavor. Fans of NASA (like Alyssa Carson) will recall that last month the U.S. government space agency announced it wants to let space tourists onto the International Space Station – for a cool $59 million per trip. This could happen as soon as next year, although limited to two separate trips per year. Welcome to the final frontier.
- Forbes: Alyssa Carson
- CNN: NASA Wants to Land Astronauts on Mars by 2033
- Virgin Galactic and SCH Merger
- Mars Exploration Rovers
- Alyssa’s First TEDx Talk
- Alyssa’s 2nd TEDx Talk
- Alyssa Carson Website
- K@W: Virgin Galactic Revs Up Space Tourism
- Advanced Possum Space Academy
- K@W: Remembering the Dark Side of the Space Race
- TechCrunch: Jeff Bezos Aims Blue Origin at the Moon
- Business Insider: Elon Musk Says SpaceX Is On Track To Launch People to Mars Within Six Years
What is space tourism? Why and when would you want to become a space tourist?
Why is Virgin Galactic’s recent merger so important to its space-tourism mission?
Who are Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson?
Space has been one of the fundamental fantasies of humanity, especially after World War II, when people finally realize that the earth, although meaning almost everything to most of them, is only a tiny bit of the whole universe——people would dream about aliens fighting each other, escaping earth after natural disasters, and beautiful scenery on some fictional planets. Most people have wanted, at a certain point of their life, to be in space, away from earth, where all problems are.
However, space travelers have been carefully chosen by governmental agencies, significantly depending on either the scientific skills or the military skills of individuals. Space traveling has always been connected to global politics or science during the last century. Not to mention normal tourists, almost no artists and philosophers haven been able to gain new ideas by going to the space. For most of us, the space is far away and full of romantic feelings——we see space in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars; we dream of space walking listening to Elton John’s music; we read about space on News and all those science fiction novels. In fact, we know few about the true space, only knowing about it by watching some scientific documentaries or hearing from high school physics teacher, unless you are a super fan like Alyssa Carson——some even still believe that the earth is literally flat.
It’s very exciting to know that commercial space tour is possible in the near future, although it may be very expensive, despite at the same time we should perhaps not focusing to much on the space and put more efforts on society on the earth.
As a high school student, knowing about space from films and music, I have always wondered about what inspiration I may get when I finally pay a visit the space. Besides, it’s always good to know that after global warming and all the other messes on our planet, our species can go to the space and continue to live.
The driving force of humanity lies in its curiosity, the yearning to discover the unknown. Space is simply too irresistible for humans to ignore. We see this burning passion within many astronauts, but perhaps within none more than Alyssa Carson. Alyssa’s dedication to traveling to Mars has been extremely admirable and it is unbelievable that at 12 years old, she was discussing missions with NASA. I’d like to focus on a particular comment: “The technology is there. It’s going to be interesting to see just how soon it happens, but space tourism is the future.”
We’ve already seen the beginnings of space tourism through Virgin Galactic, a company focusing on the commercialization of space travel. It’s already begun to launch thousands of customers beyond the stratosphere for a couple of hours to experience zero gravity and a view of the Earth. The spaceflight company owned by Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin), has also begun to offer trips to space. It seems as though space tourism is only going to increase in popularity from the present to the future. Yet, I find there to be numerous issues that the article hasn’t addressed.
Each commercial flight to space, although relatively short, has a much greater carbon footprint compared to a normal airplane flight. Virgin Galactic has stated that they wanted to launch 400 flights annually, which would not only greatly increase its carbon footprint, but could also cause further damage to our ozone layer. The emissions from rockets such as soot and aluminum oxide in rocket oxide deplete upper-atmosphere ozone, which would heat up the Earth. It’s ironic that the view people are willing to pay millions for is actually harming the Earth by hastening global warming.
Of course, we cannot forget the cost of spaceflight. As shown in the article, Virgin Galactic has made 80 million dollars in revenue from merely 600 people and even the U.S. government space agency has shown interest in bringing tourists onto the International Space Station for a whopping 59 million dollars per trip! The millions, possibly billions, in gross revenue spent by wealthy customers could benefit thousands in need. Although I don’t have a right to decide what others do with their money, it seems wasteful to spend that much on a niche only the top 0.1% can experience. It not only ruins the environment, but it’s a short trip lasting only 30-60 minutes. With that amount spent, the actual space exploration to planets beyond can be advanced and we can start planning for actual progress for humankind as a whole. For example, Elon Musk’s claims referenced in the article about colonizing Mars seem to hold promise. The thousands of tons of rocket fuel wasted for these short excursions could be used to send robots that test the viability of crops being grown or how oxygen would be artificially made (Martian reference). There are infinite possibilities to better the world and I find it to be a major disappointment that it’s wasted on something so trivial.
Of course, these are just my thoughts on the future of space tourism. There is no doubt that this industry will continue to expand and customers will, in turn, pay hundreds of thousands to have the “experience of a lifetime.” The technology in the future will likely surpass what we have now and I’m hopeful that something will be invented to lessen the environmental impact of rocket fuel so that the trips that the uber-rich won’t destroy our world. In the article, there is no mention of Virgin Galactic talking about the environment, only business statistics and the amount of profit. If the largest spaceflight company disregards something of such importance, I can only foresee a dimming horizon in what lies ahead.