The space is the limit now

This month, the mystique of space travel became a very real possibility for anyone who has the money to pay for a seat on a rocket. Billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos took their trips to the edge of space and back, floating in weightlessness for a few minutes, admiring the curvature of the planet they call home and claiming a thrill that few civilians will ever be able to. Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Bezos’ Blue Origin have certainly pushed the boundaries in human exploration of space – in a wildly heady and flamboyantly elitist way.

That this marks a moment where space travel opens to all is an exaggeration. Prices for a seat on Virgin Galactic’s flight next year are said to be in the region of $ 250,000 – not quite small change. Even with economies of scale setting in as more people venture into space, private space travel is likely to remain a billionaire’s playground for a while longer. And there is no lack of interest – 7600 people representing 159 countries submitted bids at the auction for a seat alongside Bezos. While a mature market may well be decades away, this must be acknowledged as the moment when conquering the last frontier, for so long the purview of powerful nations, became a project for private space companies and their uber wealthy clients.

At a time when NASA hasn’t sent its own manned shuttles out to space in a decade, that privately run space exploration is now available, and opens doors that may have long been shut. Bezos and Branson have entered a space dominated by Elon Musk – whose SpaceX has already achieved much more, launching its first rocket in 2010 and most recently, carrying two astronauts to the International Space Station and back in 2020. They’ve all certainly pushed some boundaries of space exploration that were important to be pushed.

Does it really mean anything for the rest of us back on earth, especially those of us nestled in the southern hemisphere? More avenues for space exploration certainly open more doors for space science. Concurrent with space flights, private sector funding into advanced research and exploration of space could elevate human understanding and accelerate new discoveries. Space offers solutions to many of earth’s biggest problems – energy, waste, overpopulation; space entrepreneurs and the injection of their wealth could revolutionise Earth’s symbiotic relationship with space while solving critical issues of our future.

What’s alarming, however, is that these tech billionaires in question are pursuing their own visions and ambitions. Any space agenda set by private business and larger than life personalities can fall short of regulation and of prioritising public benefit – Musk for example wants human settlements on Mars while Bezos has talked of sub-orbital living spaces. By ceding space-exploration capacity and strategy to private business, even the most powerful governments are losing control over what has long been a secretive, mysterious project.

Whatever the potential pitfalls, it cannot be argued that this month’s joy rides to space have transformed two men’s flights of fancy to milestones of human achievement. The scale of this moment and the breadth of influence will only be evident into the future. Despite the criticism about being ill-timed and tone-deaf to the real problems the world faces, Branson may have been right when he told the children of the world “if we can do this, just imagine what you can do”.