Is Space Tourism an Unnecessary Splurge?

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Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org  

It’s interesting to see how much people are willing to pay to travel from point A to point B:  Is $50 too much for a 15-minute Uber to the airport; is $500 reasonable for a one-way flight from JFK to LAX?  For a few hundred thousand dollars, today’s trendiest travel just takes a person from point A and back, but it does include a brief stop in the stratosphere. So, is consumer space travel worth its astronomical price?

For Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk, the answer is, of course, “yes.”  These three billionaires not only want to be astronauts, they want others to share the celestial experience, provided they can ante up the soaring prices.

On July 11, Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic and a variety of other Virgin companies, became the first of the execs to experience outer space when his corporation’s SpaceShipTwo carried him and a small crew to an altitude 9.5 miles above the earth.

The two other tycoons are expected soon to follow suit, the next being Bezos in his company’s Blue Origin craft on July 20.  Interestingly, Musk reportedly bought a ticket on Virgin Galactic about 15 years ago; he likely will also fly on one of his own SpaceX ships someday.

It shouldn’t be long before prosperous private citizens will be boarding spacecrafts and floating in zero gravity.  With already over 600 tickets sold to individuals that reportedly include Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio, Virgin Galactic appears to be leading the space tourism race.  However, its competitors are also reserving spots, such as a seat that SpaceX sold to a Japanese billionaire for a trip around the moon.

So, how much does a flight into space set a person back?  Seats on Virgin Galactic have been selling for $250K each. and will probably increase after its successful maiden voyage.  Still, a few hundred thousand dollars is a bargain compared to a ticket for the upcoming Blue Origin flight with Bezos, which cost the winning bidder a staggering $28 million; although, Blue Origin’s suborbital capsule travels over 62 miles above earth compared to Virgin Galactic’s 9.5.

Those are enormous amounts of money spent on an activity that is essentially entertainment, i.e., there doesn’t seem to be a reason why an ordinary person has to fly on a rocket ship.  It just seems like something someone would choose to do for the thrill of it or to claim the one-of-a-kind experience.

However, before anyone starts pointing a finger too vigorously at these affluent amateur astronauts, it’s helpful to recognize that many people regularly indulge in expensive, and often short-lived, entertainment experiences.  For some it’s hundreds of dollars to see a sporting event or a Broadway show; for others it’s thousands of dollars to travel to a special destination for skiing or scuba diving.  I’ve been among the indulgers.

A little over a decade ago, a research paper I’d written was accepted for presentation at a conference in Honolulu, and fortunately my wife was able to join me on this first-time trip to Hawaii.  Given the unique opportunity, we took a few extra days to visit Kauai, “the Garden Island,” where we decided to splurge on a very special flight of our own—a helicopter tour of the isle, including passes over stunning Waimea Canyon and the spectacular Napali Coast.

I believe at the time tickets cost us nearly $200 each, which before the ride seemed like an extraordinary amount of money for 50-minutes, but we rationalized that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which it was.  If there are a few places in the world that are worth a helicopter tour, Kauai is one of them.

Still, with all the needs in the world, it’s worth asking if money spent on such momentary pleasures should be used in other ways.  Maybe a $200 helicopter tour doesn’t matter as much because it’s a fraction of the cost of a ride into space, which for most people, whether they can afford it or not, probably more easily crosses the line into what they’d consider to be unnecessary and excessive consumption.

One person who’s made that suggestion is senator Bernie Sanders.  During a New York Times interview, he questioned the value of the space tourism race, saying, “You have the richest guys in the world who are not particularly worried about earth anymore.”  His accusation reminded me of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ maxim, “Some people are so heavenly minded, they’re of no earthly good.”  Are Bezos, Branson, and Musk too “heavenly minded”?

Perhaps Sanders has a point—maybe the cost of space tourism shouldn’t only be measured by its direct costs but also in terms of its opportunity costs, or how money spent on space tourism could otherwise be used.  Swiss bank UBS has estimated that space tourism could be a$3 billion industry by 2029.  There’s a lot of good that those billions of dollars could do.

On the other hand, perhaps some people are looking at the industry’s impact too narrowly.  Maybe space tourism is doing and can do more earthly-good than many realize.

Already, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has lent a big hand by delivering supplies and crew to the International Space Station.  Although those are professional astronauts not tourists, the potential payoff from a large end-consumer market has often encouraged companies in certain industries to invest more of their expertise and resources to develop technology and perfect products that benefit others.

Airplanes and computers are two examples. Military pilots flew many flights before there was commercial aviation.  Likewise, businesses used mainframe computers long before individuals used personal ones.  In these cases, emerging consumer demand attracted competitors into the market, which helped to improve technology and lower prices.  The same will likely happen with space travel.

At the same time, there are also examples of earthly-good that the space tourism industry is accomplishing already:

  • Blue Origin is donating $19 million of the $28 million winning bid for the seat on its New Shepard rocket; the beneficiaries are 19 different space-related nonprofits.
  • There are likely hundreds if not thousands of people whose jobs are currently tied to space tourism, and that number will continue to rise as the industry ascends.
  • According to SpaceX, point-to-point space travel, accomplished by leaving earth’s orbit, could soon make possible a 40-minute flight from New York City to Shanghai.  In other words, space tourism is leading to a new era of travel for more utilitarian reasons.

​Perhaps the greatest thing that space tourism is doing is inspiring the next generation of creative thinkers and risk takers.  On his recent galactic journey, Branson spoke excitedly of how space captivated him as a child and how he hopes young people today will take inspiration from his stellar endeavors:

“To all you kids down there.  I was once a child with a dream, looking up to the stars.  Now I’m an adult in a spaceship with lots of other wonderful adults looking down to our beautiful, beautiful earth.  To the next generation of dreamers, if we can do this, just imagine what you can do.”

Launching anyone into space, including ordinary people, is a risky proposition for all involved, in more ways than one.  However, current and future benefits to humanity appear to outdistance those costs, making space tourism a stellar example of “Mindful Marketing.”


About the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org