Billionaires in space? The pros and cons of space tourism

Story by CBC Kids News • 2021-07-20 17:10

Would you pay to go to space? Let us know below


Selfies with Saturn? Postcards from the International Space Station? Hotels on the moon?

Thanks to space tourism, those could all become realities.

On Tuesday, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became the second billionaire within a week to reach outer space. He travelled aboard his company’s Blue Origin rocket on a spaceflight that lasted 10 minutes.

Joining Bezos was a hand-picked group including his brother, an 18-year-old from the Netherlands and an 82-year-old aviation pioneer from Texas — the youngest and oldest people to ever fly in space.

Jeff Bezos, third from the left, became the second billionaire within a week to reach outer space on July 20. He flew with Oliver Daemen, left, Mark Bezos, second from left, and Wally Funk, right. (Image credit: Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Last week, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson was the first billionaire to head up to the skies, reaching 88 km above Earth’s surface and achieving weightlessness for several minutes.

Richard Branson, fourth from left, and his crew flew 88 km above Earth’s surface on July 12. Some experts say he didn’t go far enough. They say space officially begins 100 km above the Earth. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

And this fall, billionaire Elon Musk will also enter the space tourism game, as he prepares to send four people to space in one of his SpaceX rockets.

Billionaire Jared Isaacman, left, Hayley Arceneaux, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski are set to be SpaceX’s first crew to head to space in September. (Image credit: Inspiration 4/Reuters)

It might be years before most Canadians can afford a ticket to outer space, and even then, ticket costs are likely to be many thousands of dollars.

But some planetary experts say the upcoming space launches led by billionaires could bring about a new era of space exploration, where you no longer have to be an astronaut to fly.

It’s a pretty exciting idea, but what are the pros and cons of sending tourists to space?


1. It's downright cool

The biggest perk of going to space is, of course, the sightseeing.

In more than 300,000 years of human existence, only around 500 people have been able to glimpse the view from outside our atmosphere.

Tweet from Richard BRanson reads I dreamed about going to space since i was a child, but it was more than I ever could've imagined

2. More space research 

This new era of tourism could make space science more accessible, said Marc Boucher, the founder and editor-in-chief of SpaceQ Media Inc., an online Canadian space news company based in London, Ontario.

The research that’s happening in space right now is “really expensive,” Boucher said.

“These flights of opportunities on these new suborbital vehicles will offer a much cheaper cost to do some of this research.”

3. New technologies

More space science could mean more cool, new inventions.

Many of our technologies are based on innovations that started in space, said Sara Mazrouei, a planetary scientist and educational developer at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“The last space race that we had to get to the moon gave us the technology for our running shoes, for our foam mattresses, for our bulletproof vests,” Mazrouei said.

“I'm really hopeful” that once we move beyond this initial set of billionaires getting to space, there will be room for more technological innovation, she said.

4. More space exploration overall  

Back in November 2020, many space experts remarked that SpaceX’s successful launch to the International Space Station marked a new era of space exploration.

In November 2020, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket became the first privately owned spacecraft used by NASA to reach the ISS. (Image credit: Joe Skipper/Reuters)

This included Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques.

“This is the dawn of a new era,” he said at the time. “[It] really opens up the door for cheaper, more frequent, more accessible access to Earth’s orbit.”

Saint-Jacques said this new level of access to space travel will allow national space agencies to “shift their focus” back to going to the Moon and eventually Mars.


1. It’s expensive

Currently, space tourism is not cheap, meaning very few people can afford to do it.

For example, Oliver Daemen, one of the crew members on Bezos’ flight, was a last-minute replacement for someone who paid $28 million US in an auction for their ticket.

His father bought the ticket for a lower, undisclosed price. 

Virgin Galactic already has more than 600 reservations from would-be space tourists, with tickets initially costing $250,000 US a piece.

Musk's SpaceX plans to take tourists on more than just brief, up-and-down trips. Instead, they will orbit the Earth for days and seats will cost well into the millions.

Although tickets are likely to go down in price as space tourism becomes more common, ticket prices will still be out of reach for most Canadians for the next several years.

2. It may be bad for the environment

Some experts say rocket launches could be damaging our ozone layer.

The ozone layer, which is within Earth’s stratosphere, is important for protecting us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

Experts say that certain chemicals in rocket fumes are getting trapped in the stratosphere and are eating away at our ozone layer.

Until now, the problem has flown under the radar, but with rocket launches becoming more frequent, the problem could become a much bigger contributor to climate change.

3. It may contribute to space junk

Any time something goes wrong in space, there is potential for spacecraft, satellites and other technology to be lost and trapped in Earth’s orbit.

Currently, there are millions of microshards of space junk that have accumulated in Earth’s orbit.

This illustration from the European Space Agency represents all the space debris 1 mm in size and larger that is currently orbiting Earth. (IRAS/TU Braunschweig)

Just a few months ago, one of those pieces of debris pierced through Canada’s robotic arm, called Canadarm, which is a fixture on the International Space Station.

There is a risk that more collisions will create more fragments, hence more collisions, in an escalating cascade of accidents.

That would make lower Earth orbit dangerous for the satellites we have come to depend on for global communications.

By sending so many more spacecraft into space through tourism without first solving the problem of space junk, the issue could be made even worse.

4. Things can still go wrong

Although we’ve come a long way since the 1960s in terms of space innovation and technology, there are still occasional examples of things going wrong.

Space is, after all, essentially like stepping into a microwave, with intense levels of pressure, supercharged cosmic rays, solar emissions and other dangers.

Until scientists find a way to perfect the safety of space travel, potential mishaps remain an important concern for the first space tourists of the next several years.

Submissions for our "Would you pay to go to space?" question have now closed. Thank you for submitting. 

With files from Nicole Mortillaro/CBC, Stephanie Dubois/CBC, The Associated Press and Chris Iorfida/CBC

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