Since 2001, seven private citizens have paid the Russian Space Program close to a quarter of a billion US dollars for an adventure of a lifetime: A ten-day trip to the International Space Station (ISS) in Earth orbit and return to Earth. One person even paid to fly twice. This program was stopped in 2009 because the ISS construction was completed and there was no room for space tourists. There is a waiting list of people who can afford to pay $50 million (and are healthy enough to fly) on flights with Space Adventures.
Space travel is becoming a viable business again, and the “New Space” industry is creating a growing and diverse range of opportunities for brands, with space hotels being designed and space tourism a growing business. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (“The World’s First Commercial Spaceline”) is taking bookings on sub-orbital passenger flights, Space Adventures is planning a tourist lunar fly-by and Elon Musk’s SpaceX is signing commercial contracts to provide cargo missions to the ISS. Other operators, too, are vying to send citizens into orbit, creating a need for to create cohesion and guidelines around space travel, just as other travel industries have organizations (such as hotels and cruise lines have) to help market, promote and organize a still-fledgling industry for consumers, governments and operators alike.
Cue the Space Tourism Society, a Los Angeles-based organization that was founded in 1996 to focus on expanding the space experience to as many people as possible. John Spencer, a former NASA designer who’s the founder and president of STS (and also the EVP and Chief Designer of Mars World Enterprises) spoke with brandchannel as part of our series of Q&As with featured speakers at the upcoming IIR Foresights & Trends 2015 conference on Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in Los Angeles.
brandchannel: Space tourism was once a billionaire’s fantasy. Nowadays, how is the space tourism industry making the experience more accessible to a wider audience?
John Spencer: There are three main mediums through which people can have a space experience:
1. Real space flight including orbital flights, lunar flybys and lunar surface activities; and, eventually, manned Mars exploration and settlement.
2. Earth-based immersive simulations, NASA Visitor Centers, space museums, camps and theme park attractions [such as Space World in Japan and Disney’s Tomorrowland attraction].
3. TV, movies, computer games and virtual worlds.
There is a synergy between these three mediums so a person interested in space experiences can, as they become more affluent, have ever increasing real space experiences from zero gravity flights to sub-orbital flights to real space flights.
brandchannel: What’s the model and purpose for the Space Tourism Society?
John Spencer: In 1982 I started promoting space tourism as the main commercial space activity in the future. I modeled the space tourism industry after the cruise line industry, which is the perfect business/industry model. The cruise lines use advanced technology to design, build and operate their ships and they market to a wide international market. In the mid-1990s I created the concept and space architectural designs for orbital super yachting modeled after the ocean going super yacht culture and industry. The idea is to widen both the market for space experiences and also potentially acquire vast investment and technical development for the orbital yachts. They would need yacht clubs and eventually a coast guard type of support service we all call the Space Guard. In addition to the space/lunar cruise line passengers and space yacht passengers there would be a large number of crew members who work in space. They get paid to have the space experience.
brandchannel: What’s the estimated size of the space tourism market five years from now?
John Spencer: In survey after survey, millions of people have answered “Yes” to the question, “Would you like to visit Earth orbit if it was safe and affordable?” By 2020 the space tourism industry will have far better marketing and media tools to promote the life-changing space experience, attracting millions of additional people answering “Yes” to the space question. By 2020 SpaceX should be flying astronauts and possibly space tourists to the International Space Station (ISS) and putting a space habitat in Earth orbit for Bigelow Aerospace. There could be monthly flights of space tourists to the ISS and the Bigelow Station. Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace should be operating weekly flights to sub-orbit. There are several other companies and countries planning to provide manned access to Earth orbit and Space Adventures is planning to provide lunar fly-by’s within five years.
brandchannel: Elon Musk famously said that humans must become an interplanetary species in order to survive catastrophes like nuclear war or viruses. Engineers and designers are starting to plan how people may not only visit asteroids and moons but also live and thrive there. What is your vision for the future of humans in space?
John Spencer: Human destiny is to peacefully populate our solar system then someday reach for the stars. Within the next fifty years we will become a space faring civilization tapping into the limitless raw materials, energy, scientific discoveries and bold ideas space exploration and settlement offers and inspires. The space tourism and space sports industries will be the leading funding, media and development drivers of this off-world expansion because there are millions of people who want to have the space experience and billions of people who want to see extreme sports events, the more extreme the better.
brandchannel: With the potential for widely available space tourism comes the opportunity for consumer brands to incorporate the space experience into their marketing. How do you feel about the power of private labels to both sponsor and/or commoditize the space experience?
John Spencer: Space is one of the most popular, exciting and prestigious endeavors any country or corporation can be directly involved with. It will only become more so in the future. In late 2012 Red Bull hosted the “Mission to the Edge of Space” [with Felix Baumgartner] media event to break the record for the highest skydive andgenerated tens of millions of media hits. Over the past decade, Virgin Galactic has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in free media attention for the Virgin brand and expects to eclipse that when they are flying celebrities and movie stars.
Space is a powerhouse theme for sponsors and consumer products. Weddings and honeymoons in Earth orbit and on the Moon will generate huge media attention. In the future, “The Great Lunar Rover Race” around the Moon’s equator in manned rovers, which is one of my ideas, will capture worldwide media attention and huge corporate sponsorships.
brandchannel: Virgin Galactic is a relatively new player that made headlines for a fatal crash in October 2014. Are there any efforts within the industry to position and regulate the safety of new ventures?
John Spencer: Yes, since the early 2000’s there has been a sustained and funded industry efforts to work with the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to establish regulations to govern the operation of private space enterprise/space flights. Their mission is to protect the general public as well as the passengers and crews. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation was established as the space industry representative to Governments.
brandchannel: As space tourism becomes available to more people, how can the industry grow in a sustainable and ethical way?
John Spencer: The industry is highly scalable and sustainable as we add more and more things for people to do and see off-world. The ethical standpoint is a good question. One way is to use “Green Space” which means only use environmentally friendly fuels for the rockets and space planes. Only use manufacturing techniques that minimize waste products and toxic materials. Another issue is how we treat our employees and the people who live near spaceports. Keeping weapons out of space is also a real issue to be worked on.
brandchannel: What are the political hurdles to space tourism? What are the potential issues, and what is being done to address them?
John Spencer: There have been few political hurdles affecting the space tourism industry for orbital tourism and probably the same will be true for lunar fly-by’s and lunar orbits. However, there could be political issues concerning the development and operation of lunar resorts and sports facilities on the lunar surface in regards to owning the land they are assembled on. Space attorneys and others are currently addressing the issues of ownership of asteroids and parts of the Moon.
brandchannel: With the ongoing privatization of the space industry, a surprising number of commercial companies are vying for white space opportunities in commercial space vehicles and NASA contracts. Amidst the competition, are there any brands you’ve noticed are doing well at finding their niche in the space industry?
John Spencer: To date there are ten billionaires who have started or invested in private space enterprise/tourism companies. These include Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft; Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com; Larry Page, co-founder of Google; Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and founder of SpaceX; and Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Companies including Virgin Galactic. More billionaires and mega corporations will be joining the space enterprise club soon.
Two space access companies stand out because they have multi-billion dollar contracts with NASA and other groups to deliver satellites and cargo to the ISS: Orbital Sciences Corporation has about two billion in contracts and SpaceX has close to five billion dollars of contracted work to date. A third company called Blue Horizon was founded and funded by Jeff Bezos. It is developing space access and operations systems directed at lunar development.
brandchannel: What possibilities and trends for space tourism excite you the most?
John Spencer: Orbital super yachting and space sports. These will be the financial and media drivers to accelerate the growth and diversity of our real space industry. For Earth based space experience, my company Mars World Enterprises, Inc. (MWE) is establishing “Mars World™” as an exciting global brand. We are designing and developing a proposed (not yet funded) $1.9 billion mixed use immersive attraction and resort called: Mars World™ Las Vegas (MWLV). Millions of people a year will be able to explore and enjoy a simulated city on the red planet and experience an amazing and inspiring future. We plan to open MWLV in mid-2021.