Richard Branson blasted off into space on Sunday and returned safe and sound, but the Wall Street Journal reports that perhaps a bigger challenge for Branson's Virgin Galactic company still lies ahead: Can it make space tourism a viable business? Jeff Bezos, of course, hopes to do the same with his Blue Origin company, with the Amazon founder's inaugural flight to space scheduled to launch later this month. Coverage:
- The numbers: The Journal story has some surprisingly tangible numbers on all this. An estimated 2 million people around the world have enough money to travel to space, and Virgin would likely need to book about 1,700 of these people per year to make its model sustainable. The stats come from equity analysts Vertical Research Partners.
- Rising prices: Virgin has booked about 600 reservations so far at about $250,000 per ticket, but one analyst tells Barron's that he expects the price to keep increasing, and perhaps even double by 2030 as demand increases. Virgin could do $3 million in such sales this year but $1.6 billion yearly by 2030, per the story. All in all, Branson's "safe return gives fresh credibility to space tourism." Regular Virgin flights are expected to start next year.
- An asterisk: Branson's craft reached an altitude of about 53 miles above Earth. That does indeed qualify as space in the eyes of the US military and NASA, which set a 50-mile threshold. However, the Los Angeles Times notes that a world body that governs such things—the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, or FAI—sets the mark at 62 miles. That threshold is known as the Karman Line, and Bezos' trip is expected to reach it. The Verge notes the two billionaires' companies have been sniping about this.
- Not so rival? Though Bezos' company is a competitor in the field, CNBC notes that Branson should be rooting for a successful Blue Origin flight on July 20. Branson's voyage was "symbolically important for building consumer confidence in and demand for space tourism," an analyst tells the website. A successful Bezos flight "should generate further interest in the industry, which would benefit both companies."
- What passengers get: Neither company's flights go high enough or fast enough to enter orbit around the planet, notes the New York Times. "Rather, these suborbital flights are more like giant roller-coaster rides that allow passengers to float for a few minutes while admiring a view of Earth against the black backdrop of space." The 70-year-old Branson said he took copious notes to improve the experience—from training to flight—for future passengers.
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