The recent accident involving Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo – and the tragic death of one pilot and critical injury of another – highlights the dangers inherent in any type of space flight. It has also brought up the inevitable discussion of what the accident implies for the viability of the space tourism industry, of which Virgin is at the forefront.
The industry’s ability to remain viable in the near future will depend on both technical capabilities – determining what caused the accident and ensuring it doesn’t happen again – and the response of potential customers.
Research we’ve carried out in cooperation with individuals involved in the space industry and published in academic journals provides the only publicly available estimates of the level of demand for the type of sub-orbital flights that Virgin Galactic are offering. It shows their offering may be too risky for most would-be voyagers, but not risky enough for serious thrill seekers who may hold out for the more exciting orbital adventures.
Virgin Galactic reports that, to date, not a single individual has cancelled their deposit placed on a future sub-orbital flight. Our research implies that this could be expected in the short run since there is no real cost to the individual from jumping out of the queue when there is no clear date set for public flights. But the longer term viability of Virgin Galactic and similar ventures may be at risk.
The space tourism market
The market for space tourism is incredibly small, even when you only considers those wealthy enough to cover the huge costs of a voyage. While surveys show many people would like to go into space, those who would even consider doing so at the prices currently being asked would be less than 10% of even the most high net worth individuals (people with more than US$5m in assets).
Aside from wealth, our research shows that those considering space tourism are more likely to be male, younger people (interest declines in correlation with age), and likely to have an advanced university degree. Our surveys also show that demand for space travel is sensitive to price. So, all in all, this is a market that is unlikely to generate more than niche demand any time soon – regardless of the SpaceShipTwo crash.
There is a strong relationship between those who are more likely to consider space tourism and those who are more likely to exhibit thrill and sensation-seeking tendencies on psychological tests. Those who would consider sub-orbital and orbital voyages are likely to already own risky toys such as motorcycles, speedboats and guns. Those interested in the more adventurous orbital flights are also likely to engage in activities where they might be harmed physically such as hang-gliding, skiing and racing.
This thrill-seeking nature implies that people most interested in space would prefer options that are more, rather than less, risky, so may prefer the orbital alternatives of other companies.
Conversely, the sub-orbital voyages offered by Virgin are likely to appeal to people who enjoy risky things, but not risky behaviour. They are thrill-seekers but of the safer variety.
When we look at the impact of accidents on people’s attitudes, we see a clear relationship between accident rates and a decline in interest in space flight. Individuals expect that accidents will occur, but are much less likely to consider space tourism as an alternative to other thrilling activities if they see a large number of accidents taking place in a short period of time.
Virgin Galactic’s future
Taken together, our work hints at a difficult future for Virgin Galactic. Independent of the daunting technical task ahead, the sort of safe-but-thrilling alternative it envisions is potentially not safe enough for those willing to consider it and too safe for thrill seekers who will wait for orbital alternatives.
Plus, given its niche positioning and the operational costs of conducting a flight, it is unlikely that potential customers will accept more risk even with a lower price, or that Virgin Galactic will be able to find a price low enough keep customers while making the venture viable other than as a very specialised niche.
So, while its current stable of customers have yet to cancel their bookings, what is more important is whether the next tranche of customers will consider space as a tourism alternative without assurances that the thrill is there but the safety is not much different from any other form of amusement park ride.