By Andrew Maynard
August 24, 2017

This week, Elon Musk dragged space fashion into the 21st century with the newly revealed SpaceX spacesuit. But can he do the same for space tourism?

The allure of space travel is deeply embedded in our psyche. Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From Earth to the Moon captured some of this drive. But it was JFK’s 1961 Moon Shot speech, and the space programs that followed, that encouraged ordinary people to imagine they might one day be able to travel beyond the Earth.

That possibility came closer in 2004 when Burt Rutan’s SpaceShip One became the first private vessel to carry its three pilots into suborbital flight. Since then, a handful of companies have been pushing hard to kickstart the future of space tourism.

$250,000 will secure you a seat on Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, even though the company has yet to make its maiden passenger voyage. And Jeff Bezos is also gearing up to give budding space tourists a similar experience with Blue Origin’s Space Capsule.

Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are promising a few minutes of weightlessness and stunning views of the Earth from space—albeit at the cost of a second mortgage. But these are little more than titillating carnival rides compared to true space travel.

For this, aspiring space tourists need to look to SpaceX. In February, Musk announced plans to fly two paying passengers around the moon in 2018. This is still the equivalent of a stroll down the street given the vastness of the solar system. But unlike the toe-dipping experiences promised by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, it’s more likely to capture the full space experience.

And that includes the risks.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in recent decades, it’s that space is dangerous. For space tourism to come close to succeeding, companies offering trips beyond the Earth’s atmosphere are going to have to grapple with a complex and shifting risk landscape.

Space travel encapsulates a remarkable frisson between risk and safety. For many people, the anticipated experience of being in space seems to far outweigh perceived personal risks—just look at the number of people willing to risk their lives on a one-way trip to Mars!

Yet irrespective of what individuals are willing to accept, the possibility of civilian injuries and deaths present a major challenge to the future of space tourism. Expect to see crippling insurance premiums, cold-footed investors, and the specter of regulations that potentially suck the lifeblood out of a fragile industry. But also expect public backlashes against seemingly reckless private ventures that potentially leave deep public scars if they fail.

These and similar risks don’t spell the death of space tourism by any stretch of the imagination. But success will depend on weaving a subtle course through new risk territory. Of course, it’ll mean ensuring that passengers are adequately protected in the event of system failures, and that they’re kept as safe as possible without restricting the experience they’ve paid for. But it will also mean granting companies the social and legal license to operate.

And trivial as it may seem, a well-designed spacesuit taps in to all of these. Naturally, you can’t succeed in space tourism simply by creating a sexy spacesuit. But you can do a lot with a suit that’s functional, desirable, and iconic. And you can excel with one that makes the complete experience worthwhile—not only for the wearer, but for the rest of us who are vicariously experiencing this new adventure from a distance, and everything it promises for the future.

This is a tall order. But maybe Musk’s sleek new spacesuit will bring us a step closer toward a viable and vibrant future of space tourism.

Andrew Maynard is a professor in the Arizona State University (ASU) School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and director of the ASU Risk Innovation Lab.

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