The web site of Smithsonian magazine includes a brief interview with Joe Sutter, author of a new book about the 747. There’s a brief but interesting exchange in the interview of relevance here:
If you were a young aerospace engineer just starting out today, what area would you be most interested in? The private space industry seems quite exciting at the moment, for example.
Space tourism is exciting, all right, but it’s just for the elite few. If you look at the world today, commercial aviation is where flying machines truly benefit humanity.
Sutter is correct: commercial aviation has orders of magnitude greater impact on the world than space tourism, and will continue to do so for the indefinite future. However, recall that once commercial aviation was “just for the elite few”. A similar interview 80 or so years ago would have had someone like Sutter saying that locomotives or steamships, not commercial aviation, are transportation systems that “truly benefit humanity”. One must be careful about taking historical analogies too far—commercial aviation grew quickly since it could serve as a transportation system to link up existing destinations, an option not really available for spaceflight—but it does note that one should be careful about dismissing a technology as being just for the elite.