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Government Remains Crucial for Private Human Spaceflight Companies

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
July 24, 2023
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Government Remains Crucial for Private Human Spaceflight Companies
Col. Walter Villadei (center) holds up an Italian flag during the Galactic 01 research flight.
Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

The rise of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic is opening up the thrills of riding rockets, floating in microgravity, and staring open-mouthed at spectacular views of Earth to those wealthy or lucky enough to book a flight. But while more private companies are flying individuals into space, governments around the world remain key to the success of commercial flight providers and future private space stations.

Consider the case of Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei. On June 29, he joined Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi and Pantaleone Carlucci of Italy’s National Research Council on a government-funded research flight aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity suborbital spaceplane. It was the first-ever commercial flight for Virgin Galactic, which charges $600,000 per seat for missions with researchers aboard.

The flight was not just about research for Villadei. It was part of his training for an upcoming orbital flight aboard Axiom Space’s private Ax-3 mission to the International Space Station (ISS). He will join Turkish Air Force pilot Alper Gezeravci and Swedish test pilot/ESA reserve astronaut Marcus Wandt on a flight paid for by their respective governments. Former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria will command the flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon for Axiom Space.

VSS Unity fires its engine
VSS Unity fires its engines during the Galactic 01 flight. Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

The Economics of Private Spaceflight

The gulf between suborbital and orbital flight is larger than most people think. Flying suborbital takes only about three percent of the energy as sending a crewed spacecraft to orbit. Participants on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard spend mere minutes in microgravity, while crewed missions to orbit can last days, weeks, or months.

The difference is reflected in ticket prices. Virgin Galactic began selling tickets at $200,000 in 2005, raised the price to $250,000 in 2013, and now sells them for $450,000. The rise in price is in large part due to massive cost overruns and more than a decade of delays in starting commercial service. Blue Origin has never released what it charges for flights.

If $450,000 is out of the price range for most people, it’s nothing compared to the cost of a seat on an orbital spacecraft. SpaceX charges NASA $55 million per seat to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. It’s not clear what Elon Musk’s company charges private astronauts, but it is probably a similar amount.

Roscosmos, the state-run corporation that runs Russia’s space program, also flies paying customers to the space station aboard Soyuz spacecraft. In October 2021, a Soyuz carried Russian film director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild to the station, where they filmed scenes for a motion picture named The Challenge. Two months later, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant, Yozo Hirano, flew to ISS on a 12-day mission. Roscosmos has not disclosed what it charged for the flights.

Galactic 02 suborbital passengers
Spaceflight participants on the Galactic 02 suborbital flight. Image credit: Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic plans to fly additional research flights with and without researchers in the cabin. But, that is not the company’s main focus. Approximately 800 people have signed up for space tourism flights to float around in microgravity and take in spectacular views of Earth. The first of these tourism flights called Galactic 02 is scheduled for August 10.

The pool of potential customers is much narrower for orbital flights that cost tens of millions of dollars than for suborbital ones. This has been reflected in Axiom Space’s missions thus far.

Lopez-Alegria commanded the company’s first mission to ISS in April 2022. He was accompanied by three wealthy businessmen: American real estate investor Larry Connor, Canadian businessman Mark Pathy, and Israeli fighter pilot turned entrepreneur Etyan Stibbe.

Ax-1 crew on the International Space Station
Ax-1 crew members Mark Pathy, Larry Connor, Michael Lopez-Alegria, and Eytan Stibbe. Image credit: Axiom Space.

Axiom’s second flight to ISS was commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. American race car driver and investor John Shoffner paid for his own space. The other two members of the crew – Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi – were sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government.

The Ax-3 mission will include three participants whose flights will be paid for by governments. Ax-4, which is scheduled for mid-2024, will include the winner of the Space Hero reality television show. It also could include a government-sponsored astronaut from Hungary.

Inspiration4 crew members Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Christopher Sembroski and Sian Proctor aboard the Crew Dragon. (Credit: Inspiration4)
Inspiration4 crew members Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Christopher Sembroski, and Sian Proctor aboard the Crew Dragon. Image credit: Inspiration4.

Billionaire Jared Isaacman led the three-day Inspiration-4 mission in September 2021, in a campaign to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Isaacman was joined aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft by educator Sian Proctor, physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux, and Christopher Sembroski. Arceneau is a childhood cancer survivor who works at St. Jude as a physician assistant. Proctor and Sembroski won their seats through competitions that were part of the fundraising effort.

Isaacman will lead another Crew Dragon orbital mission named Polaris Dawn that is scheduled for later this year. Former US Air Force Scott Poteet will serve as mission pilot. SpaceX employees Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon will serve as payload specialist and medical officer, respectively.

Starlab space station
Starlab in orbit. Image credit: Nanolabs.

Private Space Stations

The ISS is due to be decommissioned in 2030 after more than 30 years in orbit. The US government has been funding a number of companies that are developing private space stations to replace it, as NASA focuses on the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon.

NASA wants to maintain a presence in Earth orbit, however. It wants to be one of many users of private space stations, on which it will conduct experiments in microgravity and test out technologies needed for deep space missions.

It will likely not be the only government doing so. Denver-based Voyager Space recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Indian National Space Promotion Authorization Center (IN-SPACe) to explore the use of India’s Gaganyaan crewed spacecraft to service Voyager’s commercial Starlab space station.

Parabolic Arc is part of Multiverse Media, which is owned by Voyager Space CEO and Chairman Dylan Taylor.

“We are thrilled to join hands with ISRO and IN-SPACe to explore the utilization of the Gaganyaan spacecraft for Starlab,” said Clay Mowry, the Chief Revenue Officer of Voyager. “This collaboration creates opportunities for joint exploration, research, and commercial endeavors across Voyager’s enterprise and Indian space entities. We are eager to leverage the potential of the Indian space ecosystem and contribute to the advancement of space exploration.”

An agreement would give Gaganyaan and its astronauts a space station to visit and conduct experiments in. Gaganyaan’s first uncrewed flight test is scheduled for next year. Voyager Space is working with Nanoracks, Airbus, Hilton, and other partners to launch Starlab in 2028.

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