Are Europeans interested in going to space?

Are Europeans interested in going to space?

Issue 70. Subscribers 2,817.
To my 62 new subscribers, enjoy your first issue, and, as always, if you have any comments, suggestions, or tips, you can reply to this email.

In 2006, ESA saw a bright future for European space tourism. The agency launched an initiative called the Survey of European Privately-funded Vehicles for Commercial Human Spaceflight that promised to award a €150,000 grant to companies developing these capabilities.

“ESA's interest in space tourism has been increasing thanks to a number of internal studies conducted over the last three years,” stated a press release announcing the initiative. “In each case, the studies showed the potential for developing the commercial human spaceflight market. This is the first time an ESA study aims to involve private companies working in the development of crewed space vehicles for the space tourism market.”

For context, ESA took this stance around five years before NASA launched the now much-lauded Commercial Crew Program in 2011. So, what happened? At least one contract was awarded to Starchase Industries for a suborbital tourism system called Thunderstar. While the company is still active, its one employee and £87,761 in assets don’t scream thriving business.

What is clear is that by 2008, ESA had very much cooled to the idea of supporting commercial human spaceflight. In a position paper published at the time, the agency recommended a position of cautious interest and informed support. The paper also stated that the agency should avoid interfering in the development of a fully competitive market. That is a position that ESA appears to maintain to this day despite the agency showing a renewed interest in developing sovereign European crewed launch capabilities.

Right now, there is only one entity in Europe developing a crewed launch capability: Copenhagen Suborbitals. This small group of enthusiasts is funded with donations and is building a single-stage rocket with a capsule just big enough to carry a single passenger. However, this project is very much focused on proving it is possible rather than developing a commercial service.

While space tourism is currently not on the cards for Europe, so-called near-space tourism is a different story. These companies are using massive balloons to carry passenger capsules to an altitude of between 25 and 40 kilometres. For context, this is more than twice the 12 kilometres that passenger planes top out at but significantly short of the 100-kilometre Karman line, generally accepted as the altitude at which Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins. The altitudes are, however, high enough to allow passengers to see the curvature of the Earth against the blackness of space. What these flights won’t be able to offer, however, is weightlessness. There are advantages, though.

Suborbital trips aboard the Blue Origin New Shepard vehicle or the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo last no more than 18 minutes. In fact, the Blue Origin flight lasts just 11 minutes and offers only three minutes of weightlessness. You’ll experience more total weightlessness during a parabolic flight than you will flying aboard either of these vehicles. SpaceX flights to low Earth orbit or the International Space Station do offer a longer, more sustained experience. However, for that privilege, you’re going to have to cough up over $60 million.

During a near-space flight, passengers will experience two to three hours of flight time at the maximum altitude. They’ll also receive all kinds of luxury amenities like gourmet food and a real toilet, something that SpaceX flights won’t offer. However, you’re also not going to get the rollercoaster ride of a rocket-engine-powered flight. You also won’t exactly be saving money with Blue Origin New Shepard flights starting from around $200,000 per person, which is comparable to seats aboard near-space flights.

If I had the money, which I certainly don’t, I am really not sure which option I would prefer more. The adrenaline junkie in me wants to say the rocket, but the frugal child of a Scotswoman in me sees better value for money in the near-space balloon ride. If you’d like to weigh in, leave a comment on which you would prefer below.

Currently, three different companies across Europe are developing near-space tourism systems. Below is a brief look at each of them.

Zephalto was founded in 2016 in France and is developing its Céleste capsule. The company has CNES as a strategic partner and has received funding from Expansion, a €300 million venture capital fund launched by Audacia and Starburst to support European aerospace and defence startups. As far as I can tell, the exact amount Expansion provided to Zephalto has not been made public.

The pressurized capsule has space for six passengers within three cocoons. The 100-metre-high balloon will carry the capsule into the stratosphere to an altitude of around 25 kilometres. The first Céleste flight is expected to take place in 2024.

A flight will last around six hours with a 1.5-hour ascent, 3 hours at the 25-kilometre max altitude, and then a 1.5-hour descent. Pre-reservation tickets for flights aboard Céleste cost €10,000, allowing purchasers to reserve a seat when tickets go on sale. To secure a seat aboard a flight, you’ll have to fork out around €120,000. A gourmet meal before the flight, drinks during the flight, and the services of a professional photographer are all included in the ticket price.

According to Zephalto, seats aboard the company’s first flights from late 2024 to mid-2025 have already been sold. The company is now selling pre-reservation slots for mid-2025 onwards.

HALO Space

Founded in 2021, HALO Space is based in Madrid, Spain, and has secured €3 million in seed funding. The company was initially developed by Arthur D. Little, an international management consulting firm, as part of its Breakthrough Incubator Program.

The company's capsule will be capable of accommodating up to eight passengers and one pilot and reaching an altitude of 35 kilometres. Like the Zephalto offering, trips aboard the HALO Space capsule will last approximately six hours. The capsule will feature a steerable parachute, which will be deployed at altitudes between 5 and 20 kilometres during the descent phase to enable a controlled touchdown.

HALO Space completed its first test flight of an uncrewed full-size prototype in December 2022. The capsule reached an altitude of 37 kilometres before returning to Earth and landing safely in a designated area. According to the company, it will perform a second test flight later this year.

Tickets aboard a HALO Space flight are expected to be priced between $100,000 and $200,000. The company aims to complete 400 commercial trips with 3,000 passengers per year from 2029. The first commercial flight is expected in 2025.

Based in Barcelona, Zero 2 Infinity was founded in 2009 and is developing a range of balloon-based space products. The company has secured €6 million in funding, including a €5 million Series A funding round that the company closed in 2015.

The company’s Bloon capsule will be capable of accommodating four passengers with two pilots. It will be launched from Spanish airports and air force bases and will reach an altitude of around 36 kilometres. The total trip will last four and a half hours, with a total of two hours at the maximum altitude. The balloon is detached during its descent, and a parafoil is deployed. According to the company, where the capsule lands is based on wind conditions. The farthest downrange a capsule could land is around 300 kilometers.

A seat aboard a Bloon flight will cost around €200,000.

To date, the company has flown a test flight of a 44% scale model of the six-seater Bloon capsule to an altitude of 32 kilometres. Getting to a maiden crewed flight will, however, require additional funding. Speaking to European Spaceflight, a Zero 2 Infinity spokesperson explained that it needs an additional €3 million in funding to complete a two-seater Bloon. Once the company secures that funding, construction will take approximately one year. To build and fly the first six-seater Bloon capsule, the company will need an additional €10 million. In order to complete preparation for the first commercial flight, including permits to fly and the construction of a dedicated tourism fleet of two Bloon capsules, the company will need at least €27 million more.

As part of a larger survey, I recently polled over 1,025 individuals from countries across Europe about their interest in going to space. The question asked the respondents to rate their interest on a scale from one to five, with one being no interest and five being very interested. Five hundred ninety-two respondents, or 57%, were either very or somewhat interested. Three hundred twenty-nine respondents, or 32%, were either not interested at all or mostly uninterested. The rest had no real feelings about the topic either way.

The average answer for respondents aged 18 to 40 was 3.95. After that, interest wains. Respondents aged 50 and above had an average answer of 2.5. The average response among women was 2.4. Among men, it was 3.7.

There is, however, a lot of bias here. The survey was about space policy, and, as a result, respondents likely had some interest, either in a negative or positive light, in answering a survey about space and spaceflight. It also did not consider the respondents' economic standing, which is needed to judge the actual size of the potential market. There is also a question of whether the interested respondents would consider near-space missions equivalent to going to space.

According to a Sifted article, Zephalto has already secured 450 pre-booked passengers. If true, that would mean the company has already sold out just over 75 6-person missions, which would be a staggering accomplishment. Sifted is a product of the Financial Times, which means its editorial standards are likely quite high. I contacted Zephalto to confirm the figure but have not heard back. If the figure is correct, I think it’s all but undeniable that there is a market. Is the market large enough, and will it be consistent enough to support one or multiple European space tourism companies? Now, that is the potentially billion-euro question.

I do believe that Space Tourism can only be good for European space programmes. There is very little that will inspire Europeans to be more passionate about funding important space programmes than experiencing a taste of what’s involved. And yes, it will still only be accessible to the wealthy. There is, however, a small workaround to that.

If one or all of these companies launched an ongoing lottery system, they could open the experience up to a far larger audience. Lottery ticket sales could pay for several passengers each year. This is far from a perfect solution, but if you truly want to “democratize space access”, a phrase I generally detest, giving working-class individuals a chance to have one of these experiences will be a significant step in the right direction. And as support for human spaceflight grows, so will funding for ESA-managed crewed spaceflight capabilities.

The comments from Zero 2 Infinity do, however, outline a harsh, sobering reality. These companies aren’t going to get anywhere unless they can find the funding. If we’re really lucky, one will survive to make it to commercial operation. However, there is no guarantee of that.

No posts

Ready for more?