Space Tourism, Space Entrepreneurs and the Business and Economics of Space

July 26, 2021

 Mehmet S. Tosun headshotBy Mehmet S. Tosun, Professor and Director of International Programs, The College of Business at the University of Nevada, Reno

Recent developments related to Space are simply astonishing. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, went to space just a few days ago on July 20, 2021 on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. Blue Origin is a space tourism company founded by Jeff Bezos in 2000. In addition to the brother of Jeff Bezos (Mark Bezos), the two other passengers in the trip were Wally Funk (82), who became the oldest person to go to space and Oliver Daemen (18), who became the youngest to reach space.

Another billionaire, Richard Branson, also did a similar trip just nine days before on July 11 on the Virgin Galactic space plane, VSS Unity. Branson also received a license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for future commercial space flights, paving the way for many individuals to become space tourists (and astronauts) in the near future. According to a recent report, there are about 600 people who are waiting to go to space at a ticket price of $250,000. People who paid a deposit to reserve their seat are thought to include celebrities like Elon Musk, Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga and Leonardo Di Caprio, among many others. Branson, Bezos and accompanying passengers were not the first space tourists in history but the most recent ones. The first space tourist, Dennis Tito, paid $20 million to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2001. There are also many business developments related to space other than space tourism. Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), headquartered in Sparks, Nevada, started a new commercial space company called Sierra Space in 2021. SNC’s Dream Chaser is referred to as a “space utility vehicle” with the ability to take cargo and crew to low-earth-orbit (LEO) and land smoothly on runways, which is critical for sensitive cargo items such as science experiments. It is planning its first flight to the International Space Station in 2022.

Recent interest in space tourism and space economy more broadly by so many is quite remarkable. In his recent book Space is Open for Business, Robert C. Jacobson notes that space is not just a plan or a project but an ecosystem, an “organic, multi-path process involving hundreds or thousands of independent entities, all working in their own ways to succeed in their field of endeavor.” (Jacobson, 2020, p. 41) The size of the entire space ecosystem is already big but expected to grow exponentially in coming years and decades. While there is not an easy way to measure the size of the space economy, recent estimates put it at close to $400 billion. According to a Morgan Stanley report, the global space industry may triple in size to more than $1 trillion by 2040. According to a CNBC article, a Bank of America forecast shows the space economy reaching about $1.4 trillion by 2030.

It is also important to note that recent efforts are largely private initiatives. People are now talking about an era of space entrepreneurship that involves not just those renowned companies owned by billionaires but also smaller, less-known businesses and startups. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), there have been more than 900 space related startups that were supported by their Business Incubation Centers and intensive entrepreneurship programs. At the same time, governments have always been involved in space programs, for good reason. In addition to the excessively large investments needed for space-related programs, space involves a number of public goods (e.g. national security, maintaining peace, scientific explorations) and externalities (e.g. orbital congestion from satellites and space debris). Markets may not work well in situations involving public goods or externalities, warranting government intervention. Space is seen as a global commons, where commons is defined as a resource that is open to a community without any individual ownership. In commons situations, when private parties act only in their own interest with profit motive, they may overuse and harm the resource, leading to what is called the “tragedy of the commons.” Space debris, with a total of 128 million pieces of space junk in LEO, could create a tragedy of the space commons. Problems like this require involvement of not just one but many governments and private sector players to figure out long-term solutions. We are definitely seeing a more decentralized space economy with greater private involvement now compared to the centralized government-led programs from few decades ago. However, better coordination between private parties and governments will be key to a healthy space economy in the future.

Note: It is rather difficult to say exactly where the atmosphere ends and space starts. A widely accepted definition uses what is called the Kármán line, which is at 62 miles (or 100 km) above sea level, as the boundary for space. According to NASA and the U.S. military, space starts at 50 miles (or 80 km) above sea level. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides a good summary on the definitions and more. Richard Branson and his crew in VSS Unity flew to an altitude of 53.5 miles, whereas Jeff Bezos and other passengers in Blue Origin flew to 66.5 miles.