First rocket to orbit Earth not launched by a nation-state.
First orbital rocket landing on Earth.
First orbital rocket landing at sea.
First launch of astronauts from U.S. soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program.
On April 8, 2022, SpaceX scored another "first" in space, sending a crew of "private astronauts" to the International Space Station (ISS) -- at $55 million a head -- in a mission organized by Axiom Space. In so doing, SpaceX blazed a new trail in the burgeoning space tourism industry and showed would-be professional space tourists Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic (SPCE 4.93%) how big this industry really could get.
Ax-1 splashdown -- and beyond
On Monday, April 25, Axiom Space's Ax-1 mission to ISS splashed down safely off the Florida coast, bringing that mission to a successful end -- but this isn't the end for Axiom. Far from it.
Over the next couple of years, Axiom plans to fly three more "Ax" missions to ISS, roughly one every six months. Then, in 2024, Axiom will launch (again with SpaceX's help) specially designed space modules to attach to ISS. These Axiom-owned modules can then be used to house even more space tourists on the station.
In 2028, the company will take its final step: Detaching Axiom's modules from ISS to form their own, privately owned and operated space station, orbiting separately from the International Space Station.
What it means for space tourists
Axiom's plan envisions a booming and growing market for space tourism. And yes, $55 million a head sounds like a steep price to pay for it, especially with Virgin Galactic charging less than half-a-million dollars for rocket rides to space. But when you consider the relative costs of the service being provided -- time in space -- I actually think SpaceX and Axiom may be offering the better deal.
Consider: Ax-1's stay at ISS was extended to 16 days by unfavorable weather conditions on Earth that delayed the astronauts' return. But even had they stayed only the allotted 10 days, the $55 million cost would have worked out to $5.5 million per day -- or per 1,440 minutes in space. The rocket portion of a Virgin Galactic (or a Blue Origin) flight to space, however, lasts only 10 minutes -- 1/144th of a day. Therefore, one full day of "space time" on Virgin Galactic rockets would cost closer to $65 million, or about 12 times more than what SpaceX and Axiom are charging per "space minute."
Leave aside the added attractions of SpaceX flights also flying higher and faster, being orbital, not suborbital, and (when contracted to Axiom) including a visit to ISS to spend time with real astronauts. (Leave aside, too, the potential for an extra six "free" days in space). A simple comparison of the prices for minutes in space shows you that SpaceX and Axiom offer space tourists a better deal.
How big could this business get?
What's more, over time, I'd expect SpaceX and Axiom to be able to offer even better prices as demand for space tourism picks up, the market expands, and economies of scale kick in.
How big could this market get? For a comparison, consider that the U.S. airline industry began with a single solo airplane flight by Orville Wright near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 -- but grew exponentially from there.
Over the ensuing 35 years, air traffic in the U.S. expanded from one flyer in 1903 to 6,000 in 1930 -- to 450,000 passengers in 1934 -- to 1.2 million by 1938.
And obviously, this chart could keep going up. But the farther right you go, the more it would resemble a long flat line followed by another line just going straight up -- U.S. airlines carried close to 1 billion passengers in 2019, the year before the pandemic. As it is, I think the point is clear enough: Once it got started, air travel growth went parabolic, and the same thing could happen with space tourism over the next 35 years.
Space tourism wild card
Here's where things could get really interesting. On May 19, Boeing (BA 0.97%) is scheduled to retry a crewless test flight of its CST-100 Starliner space capsule. Assuming Starliner makes it to ISS and back safely, that would open up the possibility of a crewed test flight later this year, potentially yielding a second human-rated spaceship model for America.
In that scenario, it's conceivable that Boeing, like SpaceX, could also enter the space tourism business. That would give us two space tourism providers competing to drive costs lower, each offering multi-day excursions orbiting Earth, visiting the ISS, and potentially even visiting the moon, and each offering better rates "per minute in space" than either Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic can match.
My prediction: Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic both need to up their game and build rockets capable of reaching orbital speeds and multi-day flights to space -- and soon. Otherwise, SpaceX and Boeing will drive them out of the space tourism business entirely.