Sir Richard Branson with his team of astronauts, VSS Unity spaceship is visible in the background

Richard Branson’s VSS Unity was in space only for a few munities and this mission is known as a suborbital mission

by Dr Ajey Lele

On 11 July 2021, the big showman of civil aviation (Virgin Atlantic) the billionaire Richard Branson, successfully ventured to touch the edge of space to make the idea of space tourism a reality. He took off from a spaceport in New Mexico aboard a spaceship of his own space company called Virgin Galactic and reached a height of around 85 km about the earth’s surface. Along with other crewmates, all Virgin employees did experience a few minutes of weightlessness and could see the curvature of mother earth. It was an experience of a lifetime for all of them.

Human’s visiting space is not a new concept. It all started some six decades back when Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet pilot, became the first human to visit outer space on 12 April 1961. He did complete one orbit around the earth. He was in space for 108 minutes and is known to have reached a maximum height of 327 km. Richard Branson’s VSS Unity was in space only for a few munities and this mission is known as a suborbital mission.

On 20th July, another business tycoon, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, would be attempting to reach space in his space company Blue Origin’s craft New Shepard. This also would be a suborbital flight. Today, these business tycoons are trying to lead by example and are keen to take out the possible fears in the minds of the people about the safety aspects of their spacecraft. Such bold attempts by these people are likely to go a long way to make the idea of space tourism a reality.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are likely to emerge as major players in the near future for the Space Tourism sector. For almost two decades they have been making sustained investments towards making the dream of Space Tourism a reality. Currently, there is a waiting list of around 600 people who are ready to pay around 2.5 lakh US dollars to have a five minutes of fun trip to space. It is expected that within a period of less than a one-year time, tourists would start visiting space.

In Indian context, there appears to be very limited interest of the big commercial players in the domain of space. As per the Forbes magazine(2021 assessment) India has the third-highest number of billionaires (140 in total) in the world after the US and China. But there is a total apathy in regards to entering in the business of space amongst Indian billionaires. It is Indian industry, which is known to have brought a revolution in Information Technology, however in the domain of space there is a total muteness from the billionaires club. In fact, ISRO has industry dependence for a long time. Though those who are involved with ISRO are basically assisting in the development of subsystems and are involved in fabrication roles. TATA and L & T have some interest and involvement in few ISRO projects. A person of Indian origin Mr Naveen Jain has founded a company in the US called Moon Express. But, otherwise it appears that Indian billionaires are not even aware that they can make money in the business of space!

What could be the reasons for the Indian billionaires not to invest in the space sector? Probably, they do not have the appetite for investment in the arena, where the gestation period could be around two decades and on top of that success is not fully guaranteed. So, are Indian billionaires risk-averse and not much keen to put money for innovation and R&D? It appears that many of Indian billionaires actually have a middle class mind-set and are not keen to take the road less travelled. Surprisingly, they can spend money for sponsoring cricketing events like IPL or some Bollywood extravaganzas, but have not shown the vision to invest into the outer space arena.

Today, SpaceX and other agencies are able to break the glass ceiling owing to the support of NASA. Luckily, the Department of Space and ISRO are keen for industry handholding, but currently only start-ups are found responding. At present, states like UAE have major ambitions in the space sector and have already undertaken successful missions to Mars. They are investing because they understand that their oil economy has finite life and they feel that the space sector is likely to emerge as a major player in deciding the future of the global economy.

Agencies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, United Launch Alliance, Orbital Sciences Corp and few others are making significant and focussed investments in the space sector. There are billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Robert Bigelow, Paul Allen and few others who are also investing in the space sector. There are many opportunities in the space sector for investment beyond space tourism and India’s industry should take note of it. From satellite manufacturing to satellite launching to development of ground infrastructure, there are many fields, which are offering business opportunities and dying for the attention of the billionaires!

There is a view that Richard Branson’s act is actually a rich person’s game for publicity. Some people call his spacecraft a billionaire’s toy meant for fulfilment of his individual dream and nothing more. However, in some cases it has been observed that technology adoption happens because of some acts of craziness. Few decades back mobile phones were a novelty. Initially only rich people were able to afford this technology. The cost of one phone (handset) then was something around US$ 5000 to 7000. Also, air travel was once considered as luxury meant only for the rich and famous. Presently, it is exacted that with more players entering into the field of space tourism, eventually even space tourism could become somewhat affordable. There is a need for Indian billionaires to realise that the space sector is ripe with opportunities and is expected to contribute majorly towards shaping the future of the global economy and still there is a time to get into the business of space.