Seven space tourists have paid their way into orbit. That’s it. But the prohibitive price tags and technological hurdles stiff-arming the mass market don’t concern Sean McClinton, a Seattle-based luxury travel consultant determined to see a million people clear the atmosphere in his lifetime. The founder of the 400-strong group Space Entrepreneurs, McClinton is on an economic mission, sure — he wants to provide boutique orbital options — but he’s also a humanitarian. McClinton is obsessed by the Overview Effect, the theory that anyone who looks down on their homeworld will want to save it. McClinton wants to make a business of converting people with the means to travel upwards to the nebulous pro-Earth cause.
It’s a business and personal goal that’s nothing if not ambitious given that fewer than 600 people have achieved escape velocity to date. McClinton is the first to admit this: He doesn’t, after all, picture himself selling tickets. McClinton’s goal isn’t to compete with Virgin Galactic or SpaceX; what he wants to do is manage peoples’ space itineraries, sort out insurance, and handle the financial planning involved with a massive expense. He wants to make space travel doable for more people. Convenient might be too strong a word, but something closer to that.
He spoke to Inverse about where he sees the fledgling space tourism industry headed.
If I wanted to become a space tourist, when would I be able to get into space or orbit?
It depends on how you define space and what kind of experience you want to have. If you’re looking to get above the common line — earn your astronaut wings as soon as possible — it’s not entirely clear whether your best option is going to be Virgin Galactic or XCOR, or even Blue Origin. Virgin Galactic by far has the most people signed up. Without the accident, you probably could have gone within the next two years.
So you’re probably looking at at least three years. XCOR moved to Texas where there will be commercial space launch capability. The other option is a little under half the cost of a Virgin Galactic flight. it’s a different experience. Blue Origin, they haven’t even reached space, but they did reach 300,000 feet and are now taking inquiries.
Obviously, space travel is expensive — it’s what, $10,000 per pound to get something into space now?
Where do you see that number headed, maybe 15 or 20 years out?
I heard from a space industry investor, who was at a Space X presentation, that they said $1,000 a pound by 2020 and $100 a pound by 2025. My guess is that’s nuts. If not wildly optimistic, that’s very optimistic. I think I’d push each of those numbers back five years, so I think we would be lucky to see $100 a pound by 2030. 2035 maybe. That’s just launch cost. That’s not accounting for any other cost associated with getting a human into space.
Are you trying to work out the best way for a client to get into space, or are you trying to convince a client he or she should go to space?
Traditionally, people look at space in the context of either government or science fiction. As I see it my job is to help people understand it’s no longer solely the case, that reality is slowly shifting. My job is to help people see that space is becoming more accessible and more realistic. I like space — I’m an enthusiast — I’m a child of the shuttle generation.
I want to help people get to space, but in order to do that I can help them understand. You may say, “I would jump at the chance to go to space,” but would you? If somebody said, “Ben, I’ve got a ticket for you to go to orbit,” are you going to run out the door or are you going to say, “That sounds good, but what are the risks?” So I just, through a long-term process, I’m trying to build relationships with people so they can think about what are the risks of spaceflight, what is the situation, what are the costs, then I partner with their financial planners.
I came to the conclusion that it’s not so much me convincing them, it’s just telling them this is what’s going on and allowing them to think whether it’s right for them.
As far as the barriers, or what the people you consult have to think through regarding risk, how do they raise those concerns? What’s your response?
A vertical takeoff and landing — from a perception standpoint — people believe that’s more risky than a horizontal takeoff and landing. But since the Virgin Galactic, I’ve found that to be slightly different. I think this past 365 days was tough. With Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, people see these very public launch failures and that’s a tough conversation, you know? I don’t try to paint a rosey picture and say, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll get that worked out.’ It’s helping them understand that the cargo launches, what happened in each scenario, turning out to be pilot error and then helping them understand what Virgin Galactic learned from a safety standpoint.
You might look at it in the context of Earth travel, where getting on an airplane is not 100 percent risk free, though we kind of think about it that way.
What can Earth travel teach the design of space tourist experience?
Most people have stayed at a Hyatt or a Holiday Inn or a chain hotel that has the basics and the free continental breakfast. But when you get to a higher level, then you start talking about those little details that when you add them all up, they make for a more memorable experience.
It would be anything from a free breakfast, to a room upgrade, to TV in the nude, to an iPad that you can use while you’re there. As I look at it, if you’re going to have an orbital experience that would be more comfortable than the ISS, then you can start with the astronauts and what they do for fun. They spin in circles, they throw each other — I don’t know if you’ve seen that, you can just throw someone like a ball — they play with their food.
So if you were to design a space experience from the ground up, you end up designing something where people could be playing in microgravity.
Weightlessness will be a big part of it. I don’t know what the percentage of the people in space have gotten sick, but it’s around 50 or 60 percent. Even with training, we’ll get space sick for a temporary period of time. So first, you have to think about how to train people for that. Then think about how to enjoy and have enough room to move around. The more room, the higher the cost, in general.
If you want to go for a ride, if you want someone to throw you down a hallway, or you want to do some spins or some weightless game that the ISS astronauts never have the time to think of, or the space? People are going to come up with these in some of these early orbital tourism flights. If they did some modified version of baseball or something, they would have to think about the space that they have available.
Has a space tourist ever done a space walk?
For me, that’s the ultimate. But I don’t think any of [the space tourists] were allowed. They didn’t go through that sort of training.
Do you think that will ever be feasible?
Yes. I think if you demand it, the market will speak. People will say, ‘I want to do this,’ and they’ll say, ‘How much will you pay?’ There’s a little higher liability there, but I think the market will demand that at some point.
Have you seen The Martian? Or Gravity? Gravity is more like fear. It promotes the fear of space. What I thought The Martian did really well was it made space seem hard — but not unusually hard. Just what you’d expect. The character Mark Watney had a good sense of humor and made jokes about things that a lot of people are unsure about when it comes to space. So The Martian ultimately helped to make space look more friendly, even though it isn’t friendly by nature.
We’re going to space, you know? It’s just a question of who and when.