Fantasy no more, age of civilians hurtling into space has dawned

In the United States, a succession of startups have been embarking on space tourism projects. This is the beginning of an era in which people who are not regular astronauts can visit space for sightseeing.

Jeff Bezos, founder of major U.S. online retailer Inc., reached an altitude beyond 100 kilometers aboard a spaceship from Blue Origin LLC, which he also established. The entire process from launch to landing was livestreamed around the world on the internet.

Together with his younger brother, Bezos took his first manned spaceflight with the apparent aim of demonstrating the safety of the spacecraft. An 18-year-old man and an 82-year-old woman also were on board, creating the impression that ordinary people can also ride the spaceship.

Earlier, British entrepreneur Richard Branson flew to space aboard a spaceship developed by his U.S.-based firm Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc., enjoying a state of weightlessness for a few minutes. A glimpse can be seen of a rivalry to stay ahead of Bezos.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of major U.S. electric carmaker Tesla Inc., is also planning to take a trip to space on a spaceship from his firm SpaceX. The plan calls for full-scale space travel that will last several days as the spacecraft orbits the Earth.

Musk also is planning a future trip around the moon, with Japanese businessman Yusaku Maezawa expressing his intention to participate in the project.

Reservations to take Virgin Galactic’s flights have already been made by 600 people. Tickets reportedly cost as much as about ¥28 million per person. At this price, customers will be limited to some wealthy people. It is vital to gradually lower the price and broaden the range of participants.

There are still issues surrounding space travel, such as the fact that the laws of each country and international rules have yet to be fully put in place to deal with the progress in space travel. It will also be necessary to study how to ensure the safety of rockets carrying travelers into space and the surrounding areas of spaceports that are used for launching and landing bases.

Space tourism’s present mechanism is to return to the point of departure. However, if a spacecraft can head for another place on the Earth via space, a super-high-speed means of transportation connecting far-flung continents in dozens of minutes can be possible. Since there is a certain market expected for such travel, companies are looking earnestly at this as a new line of business.

In Japan, there are few examples of billionaires who have succeeded in internet and other businesses using their financial power to take on high-risk enterprises in other fields. Although there are some startups among others working on developing their own rockets, it is expected to take time before they will be commercialized.

To expand the space industry as a whole, it is important for the Japanese government to provide strategic support, through such measures as nurturing startups in a planned manner and attracting investment from the public and private sectors. The government should nurture leaders of the industry so that the country will not fall behind other nations in launching satellites and other new business fields.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on July 27, 2021.