3 billionaires' dreams of space tourism are more than flights of fancy, planetary experts say

The race between three billionaires to get into space and commercialize space tourism could make it easier for researchers and scientists to study suborbital space, according to some experts.

If space travel becomes more affordable, there's a potential for more research

Two of the upcoming launches will be within or near the so-called Kármán Line. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale defines the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space as 100 kilometres above Earth's mean sea level. (CBC News)

It might be several years before most Canadians can afford a ticket to outer space, but some planetary experts say the upcoming space launches led by billionaires could bring a new era of space exploration.

On Sunday, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson will become the first of three billionaires to get into space if the launch from New Mexico is successful.

Nine days later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin is planning to launch into space from Texas, with Tesla founder Elon Musk's SpaceX launch scheduled for later this year.

It's the beginning of what Kate Howells — Canadian space policy adviser for the Planetary Society, the world's largest non-profit space organization — says is the next era of space tourism.

And if trips to space become more affordable and more frequent, Howells and others say, researchers at universities and private companies could have a quicker way to travel to space.

"Previously, the only way for tourists to go to space was to fly to the International Space Station. And that hasn't happened for many years," she said.

"This is taking space tourism to the next level, opening up a more affordable — still not very affordable — but a more affordable way for tourists to go into space."

Branson and five crewmates from his Virgin Galactic space-tourism company reached an altitude of about 88 kilometres over the New Mexico desert — enough to experience three to four minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth — and then safely glided to a runway landing. (Virgin Galactic)

Ticket prices to get aboard aren't cheap, with someone paying $28 million US in an auction for a seat on Bezos's first flight to suborbital space.

If successful in their launches, Virgin Galactic's and Blue Origin's crafts will be near or within the edge of space. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world governing body for air sports, defines the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space as 100 kilometres above Earth's mean sea level, the so-called Kármán Line.

But the crafts will have enough height to give both crews a chance to view the Earth's curvature against the blackness of space while experiencing weightlessness for just a few minutes.

"That's the part of the experience that you're paying for," said Marc Boucher, founder and editor-in-chief of SpaceQ Media Inc., an online Canadian space news company based in London, Ont. 

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New space race, new research

This year's space race is much different than the race to the moon in the 1960s. The modern race is defined primarily by competition and dreams to commercialize space flight, said Sara Mazrouei, a planetary scientist and an educational developer at Ryerson University in Toronto.

But planetary experts like Mazrouei and Howells said this space race can also bring some benefits to Earth.

If trips to space become more accessible, research in suborbital space could happen more often — and that could lead to exciting discoveries.

Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos will be on board the New Shepard spacecraft when it launches July 20. (Isaiah J. Downing/Reuters)

"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 other experiments and for more involvement."

Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX all have calls out on their websites for what is known as payloads, referring to elements on spacecraft dedicated to producing mission data and then relaying that data back to Earth, according to the European Space Agency.

Boucher said the potential research opportunities are exciting.

"We have to understand that there's a lot of research that's going on in space right now. A lot of that is happening on the International Space Station, but it's really expensive," he said.

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

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With files from Inayat Singh and Alice Hopton


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