Tourist flights in space constitute “visionary activities” for “imagine how space could develop in the service of humanity”, estimated the astronaut Jean-François Clervoy Tuesday, July 20 on News i. While Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is due to take off this afternoon aboard his ship New Shepard with three tourists, Jean-François Clervoy explained that space tourism funded by billionaires could help reduce “the share of taxpayers in this kind of activity”.
News i: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson in space, is it a competition of billionaires or are they the beginnings of real space tourism? Is it possible, space tourism within everyone’s reach?
Jean-François Clervoy: I think these are mostly the activities of visionaries who have long been trying to imagine how space could develop in the service of humanity. We know that space is very useful but difficult to access. In astronautics, it is a very difficult industrial activity. It’s very risky, it always takes more budget than necessary, there is a lot of delay. 90% of the money put into these activities goes to wages, so it mostly creates high added value jobs. Everyone has their own vision: Elon Musk is more of a visionary of humanity living on other celestial bodies, Richard Branson is an adventurer and Jeff Bezos is a dreamer who dreams of going to space since childhood. They are of course happy, but those who buy tickets indirectly finance the salaries of men and women. Somehow it will lessen the blow of publicly funded space exploration. So that will reduce the taxpayers’ share in this type of activity. Space tourism consists of giving non-professionals the experience of flight in space, the view of the Earth, weightlessness, the big kick in the back on take-off … But the laws of physics are essential: to reach space, if only suborbital, I am not even talking about orbital flight which requires speeds and energies fifty, one hundred times greater, it takes a lot of energy. It is therefore necessarily a higher level of risk than that of an airliner and it is expensive. Instead of 200,000 euros today to go 100 km, it may be 30, 50,000 euros, but not cheaper.
What exactly will the passengers on this flight experience this afternoon? Is it a real experience of space? Will they go higher than Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic nine days ago?
It is a real total experience of space but very short. They will experience the phenomenal thrust in the back that pushes them upwards: you feel yourself accelerating vertically, after two minutes you are above the atmosphere during this propulsion, when you reach 30, 40 kilometers the sky becomes black even when taking off in broad daylight. The third characteristic when you turn off the engines is that you are in zero gravity: you are in pure free fall and nothing brakes or stops you, you go up then you go down again. For this flight it will only last three minutes, but the most sensational experience of any person who has been in space is the sight of the planet seen from so high that we can see the curvature of the Earth. We see that it is a finite body on an empty, black background of the cosmos. It gives a perspective on the condition of humanity, on this finite object that is our planet and it makes you think. The passages of this afternoon’s flight will go a little higher but there is no visual difference. There is a small difference in weightlessness duration, two minutes for Branson, three for Bezos, but the view will be the same.
How is this different from what the other billionaire also fascinated by space, Elon Musk, offers? Do these rockets pollute?
Elon Musk plays him in the court of much larger, in what is called orbital space. To be in orbit, you have to reach a horizontal speed of 28,000 kilometers per hour, whereas in the case of Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, when they reach the top of their trajectory, they have zero speed and descend vertically. To stay in orbit, you have to reach a very high speed and that costs a hundred times more expensive. The banknote, instead of being a few hundred thousand euros, is a few tens of millions of euros. We will experience it in the fall with the Inspiration4 mission. Regarding pollution, it depends on the type of propulsion: there are some that produce toxic and polluting gases, this is the case with the Virgin Galactic engine, but if it does not fly too often it will be really very negligible. That of Blue Origin [la société de Jeff Bezos] only spits water vapor so it is clean. If the oxygen and liquid hydrogen that are used to fill the tanks are produced from renewable energies, we can say that the activity is 100% clean.