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OPINION: Reality check for suborbital tourism

Spaceflight has always had a dual personality. For a case study, look no further than Virgin Galactic.

As we learn this week, the firm is making steady progress towards providing an air-launch service for small satellites. Meanwhile, its original business – to air-launch a rocket-plane capable of taking six passengers on a short suborbital ride, for $250,000 a seat – languishes years behind schedule and is awaiting the outcome of the investigation into last year’s fatal test crash.

Both projects demand lots of engineering and build on established practice. The difference, however, is fundamental – and is a distinction that everyone else in the space business should note. The push to offer a satellite launch service stems from confidence that a clear market demand could be satisfied profitably with acceptable risk by applying commercial sector cost control to a limited objective. The reasonable expectation that satisfying this demand economically will lead to more demand makes for growth; a sound investment.

Suborbital tourism, on the other hand, is a wildly risky venture motivated by ideas like saving the world by letting people see its beauty from space and unshackling humankind from the confines of one mere dot of a planet in the vast cosmos and… whatever.

Spaceflight, in short, is a solid engineering business too often burdened by visions of a dubiously desirable future just beyond human reach.

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