On Wednesday evening, the American Museum of Natural History in New York hosted it annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, this year on the topic of “Selling Space”, or the commercialization of spaceflight. Host Neil DeGrasse Tyson brought together both officials from a couple commercial space companies (Bigelow Aerospace and Space Adventures) as well as other experts, spending nearly two hours discussing various aspects of commercial spaceflight. Much of the discussion tread familiar ground, but there were a few interesting items brought up during the discussion:
A Space Adventures Soyuz seat goes for $52 million currently. It’s been widely known for some time that the approximate cost of flying to the International Space Station on a Soyuz spacecraft with Space Adventures is about $50 million—assuming that a seat is available, which today is rare since all the Soyuz seats are being used for ISS crew transfers. At Wednesday’s event, though, Space Adventures president Tom Shelley said on more than one occasion that the price is $52 million. That’s about $20 million less than NASA pays for Soyuz seats, the panelists noted, although the NASA contract includes additional services.
Space Adventures believes there’s price elasticity in the orbital space tourism market. When Shelley said that $52 million price, there was an audible reaction from the audience at the museum, one of shock. Tyson later asked Shelley if he believed the demand curve for orbital space tourism was elastic: would demand go up if prices went down? “If you dropped the price in half, would you have twice as many people signing up?” Tyson asked. “More than twice as many people, we believe,” Shelley responded. He added that the demand Space Adventures has already demonstrated for space tourism has helped support investment in other commercial space transportation systems that could later carry people into orbit.
Space Adventures is still pursuing a circumlunar commercial mission. The company has been quiet in recent years about plans to fly two people on a Soyuz spacecraft that would loop around the Moon, a mission with a current estimated ticket price of $150 million each. In early 2011, for example, Space Adventures said they had sold one seat and were “finalizing” a deal for the second seat. Calling that circumlunar mission “my personal favorite,” Shelley said they planned to carry out the mission by 2017 or 2018. “We have a couple clients under contract and we hope to take that forward,” he said.
People still get hung up on the definition of “space.” How high up to you have to go to be considered to have reached outer space? During the debate, Tyson was critical of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from “the edge of space,” and the panelists agreed that his jump was nowhere near any such edge. They differed, though, on some of the proposed suborbital flights to altitudes of 100 kilometers or so. Tyson said that some people have the “operating definition” of space where you can see stars in the daytime, which he said is about 100 kilometers. (In fact, 100 kilometers, also known as the Kármán line, is often used as the “boundary” of space and is based on aerodynamics, not the visibility of stars.)
Tyson got so wound up about this he managed to confuse suborbital and orbital spaceflight. “When you say ‘low Earth orbit,’ you’re going up to 100 kilometers and going back,” Tyson said at one point, as members of the panel tried to correct him.
People disagree on whether commercial human spaceflight is inspirational. Do people get excited about private citizens going to space in the same way as they do for government astronauts? Space historian John Logsdon doesn’t think so. “I don’t think commercial space is going to serve as inspiration. That’s where the government comes in,” he said. “Rich people taking joyrides is not inspirational.”
Space Adventures’ Shelley strongly disagreed. “We get calls and emails from people on a daily basis saying, ‘I am so inspired by what it is you’re doing, opening up space. I never thought it was going to be possible for me to be able go to space'” as a government astronaut.
Risk remains a major concern. Spaceflight is in inherently risky, and there was some debate if private spaceflight was riskier than government missions, or if private space travellers would be more willing to accept risks. “One of the big differences in this shift from public-sponsored human travel to private-sponsored human travel is the acceptance of higher risk in the private sector,” said Logsdon, noting that some who attempt to climb Mount Everest die in the attempt, but accept that risk given the rewards of scaling the world’s highest mountain—even if thousands of people have done it before.
Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace stressed that less expensive private spaceflight, though, was not inherently riskier than government sponsored missions. “Lower cost does not inherently mean less safe,” he said. “There’s this pernicious misperception that commercial space is going somehow to be less safe or more dangerous or we care more about money than NASA. Nothing could be further from the truth… If we have a bad day, we lose everything.”
Wanda Austin, president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, did argue that spending a little more on “mission assurance” activities (which she said did not have to cost “oodles” of money) was worthwhile. However, at the end of her brief appearance (she appeared via videoconference for the first half-hour of the event because of a prior commitment in California), she did answer positively when Tyson asked her if commercial spaceflight was “ready for prime time.” “We are taking the right steps,” she said. “We’ve already walked through the door, Neil. This is not something that maybe will happen, this is something that is already happening.”