SpaceX achieved something historic this past weekend with its Demo-2 launch. The company’s Crew Dragon vehicle became the first private spacecraft to take humans into orbit—a milestone for NASA, the American space industry, and the company itself. Afterwards, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters that the mission had helped establish the success of a new business model, where NASA is one of many customers turning to private industry to meet its travel needs into low Earth orbit.
Much of the media said that SpaceX had just launched a “new era” of spaceflight, where low Earth orbit is commercialized and private vehicles can now ferry people to and from space. “NASA doesn’t want to be the owner and operator of the hardware,” said Bridenstine. “We also don’t want to be the only customer. We want SpaceX and others to go get customers that aren’t us.”
But while SpaceX is now a proven option for sending people into orbit (Boeing will be too, once it shows that its Starliner vehicle can take astronauts into space), it’s too early to say there’s a viable market of customers who want to use this option. “I think this launch, and Crew Dragon, are more symbolic than they are real in terms of opening up orbit to widespread private travel,” says John Logsdon, a space policy expert at George Washington University.
To better understand this, we should reexamine how SpaceX developed its flagship Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon, the cargo-delivery predecessor to Crew Dragon. In 2008 SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (later absorbed by Northrop Grumman) were awarded billion-dollar contracts by NASA to develop commercial launch vehicles for cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station. Part of NASA’s goal wasn’t simply to find a resupply replacement for the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle, but also to help give a boost to a fledgling private space industry.
For SpaceX, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. The company became a reliable service for ISS cargo resupply missions. But more than that, “there was a market already waiting for those capabilities,” says Casey Dreier, the senior space policy advisor for the Planetary Society. The Falcon 9 would break into the global launch market as a cheaper alternative thanks to its reusability, becoming a top choice for commercial satellite launches as well as US Department of Defense contracts that were once monopolized by rival United Launch Alliance. Dragon has only been used for ISS missions, but its reusability helped cut additional costs; and later on, it would help inform SpaceX how to develop Crew Dragon.
The story is different for private human spaceflight. According to Dreier, “this is more of a Field of Dreams approach”—build the capabilities first (Crew Dragon and Starliner), and then hope the market shows up (customers outside NASA). But so far, SpaceX has only two non-NASA missions set up for Crew Dragon (one for Axiom Space that’s sending one privately trained astronaut and three tourists to the ISS; and one for Space Adventures to send four tourists on a three- to five-day stay in orbit). Boeing has none so far.
Human spaceflight is still very expensive, no matter how much of your architecture is reusable. You need to have reliable life support systems. With seats on a Crew Dragon flight going for around $55 million each, space tourism into low Earth orbit doesn’t seem like a sustainable source of revenue—there just aren’t enough rich people with that kind of money to burn. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, which have made space tourism a complete or major part of their businesses, are so far focused only on suborbital flights that last a few minutes and are much cheaper.
Logsdon also points out that the preparation for Demo-2’s launch alone was quite extensive (airplanes on standby around the world, ships in the water kept out of the launch path, massive preparations at Kennedy Space Center). And that was a government-backed mission; a private mission will not necessarily enjoy as much latitude. “If that’s the way launches have to be conducted for this particular system, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s viable as a frequent way of accessing orbit,” says Logsdon.
If the costs and risks were more palatable, it would still be far from clear that human spaceflight leads to economically valuable activities. Companies have long batted around the idea of using the microgravity of Earth’s orbit to speed up manufacturing of large masses or hazardous materials, or developing novel pharmaceuticals that could better treat ailments in people on Earth (since crystal structures grow differently in space). But those are still quite vague ideas, and it’s not clear we’d even need humans in space to realize them.
“There may be something that we just haven’t thought of yet,” says Dreier. “But we’ve had the same conversations since the 1970s. The fact that the answer is not obvious should tell you something.”
That leaves one other major market for commercial human spaceflight: foreign national astronauts. “Among the potential customers with enough money to pay for this are other countries,” says Logsdon. Even on a private spacecraft, there’s still a strong degree of national pride attached to going into space.
Greg Autry, a space policy expert at the University of Southern California, thinks this market is huge, given that SpaceX can offer ticket prices for less than $100 million per seat. Most obviously, this includes American allies who have gone up to the ISS in the past (a Japanese astronaut is going up to the ISS via Crew Dragon in August). “I think you’re also going to see a whole lot of countries from the developing world step up and participate,” he says.
Several countries including Chile and Saudi Arabia actually have astronaut corps or trained astronauts who could fly—they just don’t have the spacecraft to send them into space. And these flights might be the sort of experience needed to build up their space-faring capabilities and teach their own scientists and engineers how to pull off human spaceflight later on, as the United Arab Emirates is doing with its Hope Mars Mission.
SpaceX won’t be able to send just anyone into space. Any access to an American rocket system by a foreigner requires the State Department’s approval. “You’re not going to see anyone from Iran or China on these flights, that’s just not going to happen,” says Autry.
SpaceX and Boeing are not the only players to watch out for—Blue Origin will eventually be capable of sending humans into orbit, as will Sierra Nevada Corporation. But Logsdon says it’s “very questionable” whether SpaceX or anybody else can offer orbital flight for humans at a price that actually yields a profit. The vehicles are built, but the market still has to come.