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Tourism is one small step on our way to the stars

For those without $250,000 to spend on a trip to the edge of the atmosphere, this week’s public market debut of Virgin Galactic may seem of limited interest. Yet while space tourism may smack of frivolity, it is a niche in a much wider, fast-growing space industry. Handled properly, the commercialisation of space could drive developments with widespread benefits.

In its purpose statement, Virgin Galactic quotes its founder Richard Branson saying it “will open space to everybody — and change the world for good”. These are bold words for a company offering starry selfies to the well-heeled. The market response has been muted: on Friday the shares were trading more than 15 per cent below their Monday opening. Virgin Galactic last year recorded a net loss of $138m, but says it will be profitable in 2021 — provided flights have started by then.

There are reasons for would-be space travellers, and investors, to be wary. The launch of flights has been long delayed; Sir Richard originally envisaged that customers would be in space over a decade ago. The industry as a whole needs to prove its safety record as well. Virgin Galactic suffered the break-up of a test vehicle in 2014, killing a pilot and delaying testing. A major accident involving customers could stop the sector from ever taking off.

Yet it is myopic to view private space tourism as a wasteful extravagance. Just as in the original, state-led space race of the 1960s, technological spin-offs from the new competition between the likes of Sir Richard, Elon Musk and others are likely to be useful elsewhere. The commercial pioneers have also restored the sheen to space exploration — no mean feat in an age when British and US kids are more interested in becoming YouTubers than astronauts.

Celestial safaris are just one branch of a commercial space sector that analysts from UBS last year predicted would rise in value from $340bn to nearly $1tn in the next two decades. At the quotidian end of the spectrum, the internet of things will demand more satellite launches to improve connectivity: Elon Musk’s SpaceX sent up 60 satellites in May for that purpose.

Asteroid mining could also offer lucrative opportunities for precious metals and minerals. The space sector will still have to find ways to reduce its environmental impact, given the resources and fuel needed to produce and power a rocket. Yet digging up minerals from floating debris rather than on earth might reduce the overall environmental costs. The raw materials could then be utilised for in-space manufacturing, using automation to produce goods and send them to Earth.

A few have even envisaged that humanity, faced with a scarcity of resources and growing population, might eventually develop colonies off world. Mr Musk has been the most vocal proponent of this goal: the Tesla founder has talked of living out his days on Mars. One day, perhaps, but for now this remains very much in the realm of science fiction. Other commercial opportunities are more readily within humanity’s grasp.

The technical hurdles in the way of the broader commercial exploitation of space are matched only by the management challenges. Governments and private sector bodies will have to co-operate at a time of geopolitical tensions. Supply chains need to be developed to make mining and manufacturing in space feasible. And space explorers will have to do a better job of cleaning up their junk than they have in the past.

But beyond our planet, there are opportunities which we have so far only glimpsed in passing. Unlocking them would be a universal boon. source ft.com

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