March 5, 2017    5 minute read

Space: The Final Frontier. With a Hefty Price Tag

Up, Up and Away    March 5, 2017    5 minute read

Space: The Final Frontier. With a Hefty Price Tag

This year will mark the 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, famous for landing the first man on the Moon. In the three years that followed, NASA carried out five further lunar visits, before interest in the programme dwindled, and the focus of the international community turned to the idea of sustainable life in Space.

Now for the first time in decades, mankind is once again on the eve of an extraordinary space voyage – one that will provide civilians with a chance to embark on commercial exploration, and everyone is invited.

The Pricetag

For a deep Space journey to Mars, the cost could be anywhere between $200,000 to $50bn. Last year, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated that the cost of a trip to Mars should be the same as the average house in the USA, which is currently around $200,000. However, with the technology and transport infrastructure available today, $10bn is a more realistic figure per passenger.

This is a significant price deviation, although with heightened competition, enhanced systems and Spacecraft able to accommodate a higher number of passengers, this top price will eventually reduce to a more sensible figure; predicted to be under $100,000 per head.

Great news, however: these projections carry little value without an expected time frame. As of last year, about 5% of SpaceX’s personnel were working on the new ‘Interplanetary Transport System’, the flagship craft that will help the company’s adventurous CEO to achieve his long-term aspiration of transporting one million people to Mars.

Slashing Costs

To bring the cost down from $10bn per person to a more affordable sum of $100,000, there firstly has to be sufficient demand to offset against expenditure. When the programme is fully established, the aim is to send one thousand ships, each carrying up to 150 people, every 36th months when there is prime alignment between Earth and the Red Planet. Even then the price will depend upon each seat being purchased.

Another financial factor to consider is the cost of insurance to cover humans on long journeys into deep space, for which they will be exposed to not only the natural effects of low gravity but also to high radiation exposure beyond Earth’s magnetic field. There is no technology in existence that can mitigate these risks, and so the easiest solution is instead to reduce the duration of travel.

The Longest Vacation

Currently this is expected to take up to six months, however thanks to the strength of the Raptor engine, which has been designed to be two times as powerful as the Saturn V Moon rockets used in the Apollo missions, this would in fact, only be 80 days, to begin with. With enhanced in-orbit refuelling technology and optimum flight trajectory, this could be further reduced to 30 days.

Finally, the rockets must be re-usable up to a dozen times so as to avoid the high price tag of reconstruction. If all of these factors fall into play, then costs will become far more affordable sooner rather than later.

The Main ‘Travel Agents’

Last week, SpaceX announced that two private citizens have “paid a significant deposit” to be flown around the Moon in 2018. Given that the company are yet to test their new Dragon capsule, with the first unmanned mission planned for the end of this year and the maiden manned voyage planned for the second quarter of 2018, the cost will be inflated, given the short time frame, as well as the need to mitigate risk. As such, this trip rumoured to cost in the region of $70m.

If SpaceX is not the hopeful traveller’s company of choice, or if a trip closer to home is preferred, then other options are available. Virgin Galactic are offering tickets for their sub-orbital Space journey at a flat, upfront fee of $250,000. This expedition involves six passengers being propelled to a maximum altitude of 110,000 metres.

A height sufficient enough to see into the blackness of Space and enjoy the curvature of the Earth. Alternatively, one can opt for Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin will offer a sub-orbital adventure including altitudes of up to 62 miles, four to five minutes of weightlessness, before then returning to Earth.

The Final Price

The ballpark figure for this voyage will be in the region of $150,000 – $200,000, with the extra incentive that those who take the first flights will benefit from early access to the ‘New Glenn’ fleet. These spacecrafts are to be tested in 2019, with the aim of achieving full Earth orbit and beyond. Between the years 2001 to 2009, seven space tourists also paid in the region of $20m-$40m for a trip on a Russian Soyuz craft up to the International Space Station.

Predicting the cost of a deep space voyage is not easy. Despite the fact that there has been twice as much venture capital funding ($1.8bn) invested in space exploration in 2015 alone, the most in one year since the beginning of the millennium, there is have a long way to go. Nearly every one of the aforementioned companies has broken their initial timelines, with footage of test flight disasters hampering the dreams of many.

A Distant Future

Until there is greater increase in public-private partnerships, improved technological collaboration between the major players as well as safety guarantees, then the cost of sub-orbital flights will remain grounded at around $200,000 per passenger. Journeys to the moon and beyond will still remain a distant dream. However, the renewed interest in space exploration is an excellent start.

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