2021 was a whirlwind for private space tourism, with this week being particularly important for the businesses founded by Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson.
While Bezos’ Blue Origin took a step forward in flying people to the edge of space, in what’s called suborbital space tourism, Branson’s Virgin Galactic stepped back, leaving the latter company at least a year behind the former in the niche market.
Blue Origin launched its second manned space flight on Wednesday – with two paying customers and guest William Shatner. A day later, Virgin Galactic announced an unexpected restructuring of the schedule to spend eight to ten months improving its vehicles, postponing remaining space tests, and officially confirming that it is not expected to begin commercial service before the end of 2022 .
“In our opinion, given the recent successes of SpaceX (private) and Blue Origin (private), this corresponds to a lost momentum in the race for space tourism,” wrote Truist analyst Michael Ciarmoli in a statement to investors on Friday.
Today’s reality does not match the perception of the space tourism race that was presented just a few months ago when Branson successfully flew into space with Virgin Galactic just nine days before the launch of Bezos with Blue Origin in July. Back then, the dueling space flights seemed like a head-to-head race between the companies.
However, three months later, Blue Origin has flown its second and third customers on its New Shepard rocket, while Virgin Galactic has yet to launch one of the 600 or so people who have reserved tickets for future flights.
The SpaceX Difference
In particular, Elon Musk’s SpaceX also launched and brought back four non-professional astronauts on the private Inspiration4 mission in September.
But the SpaceX experience is very different from flying Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin.
The SpaceX crew flew further into orbit than to the edge of space many times; they spent three days in orbit rather than a few minutes; and the price of a SpaceX trip is about $ 200 million (based on the $ 55 million NASA pays per astronaut for missions) versus $ 200,000 to $ 450,000 for a Virgin Galactic ticket.
Blue Origin has declined to disclose how much its passengers are paying for tickets. The only clue about Blue Origin’s pricing structure is a public auction the company held for a seat on its first flight on Bezos, which cost $ 28 million. Bezos has since said that his company has sold nearly $ 100 million worth of tickets on New Shepard flights.
In addition, Inspiration4 mission commander and benefactor Jared Isaacman told CNBC that his launch with SpaceX was not a “joy”. The mission’s main goal was to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the campaign has exceeded its target – raised $ 238.5 million to date, including $ 125 million from Isaacman.
While Virgin Galactic may fall behind Blue Origin in the suborbital market, Branson’s company previously estimated it sees demand from millions of high net worth individuals for space flights – far more than the two companies can deliver in the next decade.
That view was shared on Friday by some Wall Street analysts, who largely stuck to existing estimates for Virgin Galactic stock after the company’s delay.
“The company’s competitor, Blue Origin, expects only seven additional flights (28 people maximum) by 2023, which will ultimately have a negligible impact on the standout customer [total addressable market] for suborbital space tourism, “said Canaccord genuity analyst Austin Möller in a statement to investors.
Overall, 2021 is the year private companies bring non-professional astronauts into space, with 16 so far: four with SpaceX, four with Virgin Galactic and eight with Blue Origin.
It’s not finished either, as Blue Origin plans to launch its third crewed New Shepard flight before the end of the year. Additionally, SpaceX is slated to launch the Ax-1 mission for Axiom Space in early 2022, which will carry a retired NASA astronaut and three paying passengers to stay on the International Space Station – and Axiom has signed at least one contract for three more missions after that.
To learn more about the different approaches companies are taking to space tourism, click here.
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