Is This What the Future of Space Tourism Looks Like?

Today, space tourism is largely focused on providing the physical experience of a flight into space for the customer. However the COVID-19 Pandemic has shown us that being physically present in many activities, was not as important as we previously thought it was. In fact working remotely for many people quickly became preferred. Is it possible that space tourism is overly focused on the physical experience and completely overlooking the potential value of cyber-tourism travel? Could cyber-tourism completely change the game for Space Tourism businesses and customers?

Cyber-tourism as a general concept is essentially the electronic substitution for a physical experience, which helps overcome the barriers to having the experience in person (e.g. monetary, leisure time available, medical, mobility restricted, hazardous situations, distance). The electronics substitution technology is often referred to as telepresence and is used for such things as medical consultation/procedures, bomb disposal, museum visits, and personal communications.

Today there is widespread use and acceptance of commercial telepresence technology such as FaceTime, Zoom video conferencing, and virtual reality. All of these technologies have increased the acceptance and expectations of being present in rather than being in the experience.

For the purposes of this article, “telepresence” will be used in reference to the technology’s application to space tourism, i.e. Space Cyber-Tourism.

Is telepresence the future of space tourism? In order to understand the potential for telepresence in the space tourism industry, it is necessary to look at space tourism in terms of:

  • the product offering,
  • customer motivations, and
  • what challenges the businesses face.

SPACE TOURISM PRODUCT OFFERING TODAY

Space tourism businesses are currently offering a high end luxury experience that includes:

  • Flight in a space vehicle to suborbital space (BlueOrigin, VirginGalactic), or into orbit (SpaceX, RosCosmos via SpaceAdventures).
  • A view of the earth from a high altitude that will allow customers to see the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space
  • A period of zero gravity inside a very small enclosed space shared with other customers
  • The opportunity to refer to themself as an astronaut
  • Ground-based activities including: preflight training, exclusive networking events, VIP access for themself and their families, postflight celebrations and presentation of astronaut wings, media events, etc.

The following videos provide some insights into the space tourism experience.

SPACE TOURISM CUSTOMER MOTIVATIONS

Why would someone want to fly into space? Some insights into customer motivations are available from the Space Tourism Market Analysis which identifies the top three motivations for a customer to purchase a flight into space as:

  • to see earth from space
  • doing something that only a few people have done before (i.e. being a pioneer)
  • fulfilling a lifelong dream

It is worth noting that the customer motivation, and opportunity, to be a pioneer will diminish over time.

At what point does a space tourism customer flying into space stop being considered pioneering? We can use Mount Everest as an example. Between 1953 and the end of 1992, 427 people had successfully summited Mount Everest. However things changed in 1993 – summiting Mount Everest stopped being pioneering when commercial guiding businesses came into being. As of 2020, 5,720 people have summited Mount Everest. Today it is possible to summit Mount Everest as part of a commercial expedition for an average cost of US$44,500. It could be argued that space tourism stopped being pioneering after Dennis Tito flew to the ISS in 2001.

CHALLENGES FACED BY SPACE TOURISM BUSINESSES

Space tourism businesses are faced with numerous challenges related to the experience they are selling. The challenges fall into one of two categories, customer adoption and business sustainability as a going concern.

Customer resistance to adoption of new technologies is the major cause of new products failures. Customer adoption challenges directly affect the size of the addressable market and revenue growth velocity. A large addressable market and rapid revenue growth is important because it costs a lot of money for a space tourism business to operate. Note that customer adoption challenges are not urgent concerns for some businesses such as SpaceX, where space tourism is currently a side business and they are generating strong revenue from their core business which is commercial space operations (i.e. launching satellites, delivering and returning cargo and astronauts to ISS). For other businesses where space tourism is their primary focus and source of revenue, the customer adoption challenges are much more urgent. 

Customer adoption challenges currently include the following –

Ticket prices for a flight into space are extremely expensive, starting at $250,000 and rising as high as $55 million US, which limits the addressable market to the very wealthy. 

Customers must commit to several days of personal time (e.g. travel, pre-flight training) in return for 10 to 90 minutes of total flight time for suborbital flights. For orbital flights, customers may need to commit several weeks to months of personal time. The time demands on the customer limits the addressable market based on customers’ available leisure time.

60 to 80% of space travelers experience space motion sickness which is caused by zero gravity.  Space motion sickness has many of the same symptoms as other forms of motion sickness, e.g. cold sweating, nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue, vomiting. Space motion sickness will spoil the experience for the afflicted customer as well as for that of the other customers. It may only take one bad experience making the press to dissuade potential customers. After all, who wants to be dodging floating vomit in zero gravity?

Space flight comes with the real risk of death or personal injury. The in-flight astronaut fatality rate as of March 2021 was one death in 31 boardings or 3.2%. For comparison, the in-flight passenger fatality rate for commercial airlines between 2008 and 2017 was one death in 7.9 million boardings, which is an infinitesimally low percentage fatality rate. Also for comparison, between 2010 and 2018, the death rate for Mount Everest climbers was one death in 111 summit attempts or 0.9%. The FAA requires that all space tourism businesses make customers explicitly aware that they fly into space entirely at their own risk.

Customers can be disqualified (by the space tourism business) from flying due to one or more issues related to their medical fitness (e.g. weight, mobility, vision, height, hearing, ability to tolerate acceleration and microgravity, ability to perform safety procedures) or security risk. The #FAA does not currently impose or recommend any medical certification requirements for passengers.

Business sustainability challenges currently include –

Current businesses have very limited flight capacity because they are constrained by the number of space vehicles available, e.g. both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin only have one working vehicle to service customer demand. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have both stated they have a customer backlog. Delays in revenue growth which slow their ability to reach profitability quickly, exposes the businesses to becoming unsustainable from a cash flow perspective. Furthermore, delays in aggressively establishing market leadership leaves the door open for additional competitors to enter and service the unmet needs.  

The lifecycle of space vehicles will have a significant impact on the ability of the business to service customer demand and grow revenue, for example, how much time must be taken between flights for safety checks and refurbishment, how many total flights can a vehicle be used before having to be replaced, and how long does it take to build and bring into service new vehicles. While businesses have engineering estimates, there is limited experience to validate the reality. Elon Musk has stated that he expects to reuse a Falcon rocket over 100 times before needing to be replaced. As of January 2021, a Falcon rocket has been reused 18 times and the fastest turnaround time on a Falcon rocket has been 27 days. Virgin Galactic has no track record, however their stated intention is to launch two flights a day, they have yet to comment on vehicle turnaround time or reusability limits.

Business sustainability is critically dependent upon customer confidence in the safety of the vehicles. In absence of a track record of success for flights, businesses will be dependent upon aggressive #marketing and customer education regarding operations and vehicle safety features. Customer safety is already being used by Blue Origin in their marketing – highlighting that Blue Origin has an escape system while Virgin Galactic does not.

For space tourism businesses based in the United States, government regulation and oversight have been kept intentionally light in order to allow the space tourism industry to develop. Following a learning period, which is scheduled to end in 2023, the government is expected to implement more formal industry regulation and oversight which could make some businesses unsustainable (e.g. mandating additional safety features related to physical customers which require significant rework and recertification of the flight vehicle).

Individual space tourism businesses may have other challenges specific to them, for example see this article on Virgin Galactic.

The space tourism industry in general also faces the existential threat of an accident – any accident, by any space tourism business – that involves death or injury to customers. Such an accident would have a chilling impact on customer demand and would result in lengthy accident inquiries culminating in the implementation of extensive government safety regulations and oversight. 

IS TELEPRESENCE THE FUTURE OF SPACE TOURISM?

So now that we have an overview of the product offering, customer motivations, and business challenges – how does telepresence play a role in this context? 

Telepresence can potentially deliver on the following elements of the space tourism experience:

  • a view of earth from space 
  • preflight and post flight activities

Telepresence can potentially eliminate, or mitigate, the following challenges of space tourism businesses: 

Customer adoption

  • high ticket price 
  • risk of death or personal injury 
  • experiencing space motion sickness
  • medical disqualifications for space flight
  • personal time commitment

Business sustainability

  • unfulfilled customer demand
  • exposure to changes in government regulations and oversight
  • exposure to existential threat

Telepresence appears to be a good fit for space tourism, addressing or mitigating significant challenges, and delivering on one of the top three customer motivations – viewing earth from space. However, pictures and videos of the earth from space have been available for decades, for instance Ustream is currently operating a prototype real-time video stream of earth from the ISS space station. 

Telepresence will need to deliver on a unique and compelling space tourism experience where the visual and audio experience must be indistinguishable to being there physically. To satisfy the basic requirement, which is to view earth from space, the customer would need to be provided with a headset delivering immersive high resolution stereoscopic media where the view follows their head motion, and two-way voice with binaural audio. The experience could be extended by incorporating the telepresence capability into a robot packaging with support for manipulators, mobility, and additional functionality such as obstacle avoidance and pre-programmed autonomous operations. The technology to implement such a high fidelity telepresence experience exists today.

HOW WILL TELEPRESENCE AFFECT SPACE TOURISM BUSINESSES?

For existing space tourism businesses, high fidelity telepresence experiences represent both an opportunity and a threat. 

The threat is that competitors could choose to focus exclusively on delivery of high fidelity telepresence experiences. A telepresence-only focus would allow the use of smaller, inexpensive, and fully autonomous space vehicles which would be optimized for telepresence customers. Moreover, rather than focus on the suborbital telepresence experiences, new businesses could develop low earth orbit telepresence stations. 

The opportunity is for existing businesses to expand product offerings to include a telepresence space flight option which provides access to both flight and ground based activities. Telepresence can also open up other business models and revenue streams for space tourism businesses.

SPACE TOURISM AS A MEDIA CONTENT PROVIDER  BUSINESS?

Stepping back and looking at space tourism through the lens of telepresence, it becomes clear that the primary value of space tourism flows from the visual content. This represents an opportunity to monetize that unique content. 

Telepresence itself can be a source, or a production platform, to deliver media content such as reality TV shows, premium pay per view experiences, advertising, documentaries and entertainment films. As a specialized production platform, telepresence enabled robots can eliminate the need to send camera operators along with the actors or products (e.g. for advertising productions) into space.

Telepresence enabled robots also have the potential to facilitate zero gravity sports leagues. It will not be feasible for many years to put large teams of people into orbit to compete in zero gravity sports events. However it would be feasible to create a space arena (e.g. inside a SpaceX starship), populated with telepresence enabled robot players.

There is ongoing demand for new and innovative content by streaming services such as #Netflix, #PrimeVideo and #Disney. At the end of the day space tourism businesses could end up making more money as a media production business providing content to streaming service providers. 

Telepresence generated content could also be used as a basis for a very realistic space flight experience, where the customer would experience the flight inside a ground based space vehicle replica with multi axis movement.

WHO’S WORKING ON SPACE-CENTRIC TELEPRESENCE TODAY?

It should come as no surprise to learn that #NASA has been working on telepresence focused on space exploration applications for many years. The Mars rovers are good examples of NASA progress. All Mars rovers have been equipped with cameras and functionalities which allow remote operators on Earth to view the Martian landscape in stereoscopic vision and control the rovers.

Looking into the future, NASA is exploring how space exploration can be performed using telepresence enabled robots rather than humans. For example NASA is researching a scenario where astronauts are sent into orbit around an asteroid/moon/planet and telepresence enabled robots are sent to the surface. Those robots are then controlled by astronauts in orbit. This approach has the benefit of significantly reducing mission cost and risk to human life, as well as expanding the scope of research possible on the surface.

NASA has also experimented with a telepresence enabled robotic device called Robonaut. Robonaut is made in a humanoid form in order to allow it to use tools and controls made for use by humans. #Robonaut can be controlled remotely using telepresence and is able to perform certain tasks autonomously without human guidance.

Avatarin was the first commercial business to come out with an explicit plan to deliver on a space telepresence experience. They deployed their first Space Avatar prototype in May 2020 to the Japanese segment of the ISS. Unfortunately, the first prototype did not break any new ground, it is simply a remote control webcam which does not provide a high fidelity telepresence experience, or any mobility or manipulation capabilities.

Avatarin have recently announced the second generation Space Avatar that could be a basis to provide a telepresence space tourism experience. However their initial focus is on commercial applications in space operations and explorations. No timeline has been given on the second generation functionalities or schedule.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

The space industry in general is very dynamic. Transformative business models are being enabled by new technologies which break down the entry barriers to providing new solutions for space operations, space exploration, and space tourism. New technologies include such things as: microsatellites, commercial satellite launch services, robots, high fidelity telepresence, artificial intelligence, high resolution video, low earth orbit communications networks, AWS ground station services.

While it is hard to predict the future with confidence, there is no doubt that telepresence will play an increasingly significant role in space tourism, space operations and space exploration.