For anyone with dreams of looking down upon Earth from the heavens, the past few years been very encouraging. Multiple high-profile and well-funded space tourism outfits have been getting closer and closer to taking paying customers into space.
Some hopes lost their wings, however, when Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic crashed late last year during testing. But Branson’s competitors are powering ahead, with some predicting flights as early as this year.
Currently, there is only one option for civilians to visit space – by dropping up to $50 million and hitching a ride on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. It is the same capsule first launched in 1967, which has been carrying astronauts to the International Space Station, parked in low Earth orbit since the 1990s.
Astronauts have described the spacecraft as cramped and dated with a violent return to Earth, but still the safest way to get into space.
The main reason so few are able to make the trip is the high risks involved in exiting the Earth’s atmosphere and making a safe return.
The cost of the research and development, from safety precautions to the enormous payloads of fuel necessary to launch a satellite – let alone a person – have traditionally barred access to all but government programs.
For a non-governmental company to take on those vulnerabilities on behalf of civilian tourists, it will take some creative travel insurance to help diffuse the risk.
The Virgin Galactic crash underscores the risks, with one pilot injured and another killed when its suborbital, rocket-powered spaceship, SpaceShipTwo, malfunctioned during testing.
The company’s design uses a suborbital-capable mothership named White Knight Two carrying SpaceShipTwo, which is able to perform a standard runway landing. Evidence from the crash suggests the White Knight Two arrived at the appointed 15,400 metres where it released SpaceShipTwo as expected. But nine seconds into the rocket burn, the ship’s braking system was triggered, creating drag as the ship accelerated, causing it to break apart.
Originally, Branson had announced in mid-2008 that the first commercial flight of Virgin Galactic would take place by the end of 2009. However, the 2014 crash has further put a new date in doubt, with the crash investigation to take up to a year.
Insuring the hype
With the anticipation building, it was hard even for insurance companies not to get caught up in the excitement early on. Global insurance giant Allianz announced in November 2011 that it would be offering new space travel policies from the start of 2012 to coincide with the Virgin Galactic maiden voyage.
It planned to “start contacting space liners, space scientists, travel agents, space travellers and consumer organisations,” in order to develop a coverage from the preparatory phase to the trip home. At the time, the Allianz Director of Global Accounts Erick Morazin told media that although prices were being finalized, trip insurance was likely to price between US$700 and go up to US$10,000, based on Virgin Galactic’s 2011 price point at US$200,000 per ticket.
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“Typically the price of an insurance policy is around 3-4% of the total trip cost. So if we were covering the cancellation of a trip, the loss incurred by the customer would be US$20,000 – the price of the deposit – so the cost of the policy would be around US$700,” Moranzin said in 2011.
He also revealed to reporters that Allianz had sketched out around 20 insurance packages that included medical and luggage, though he was worried about giving more details away, should competition take it as a cue to develop their own packages.
A new launch date
But it seems today that underwriters and insurers are sticking to the launch schedule, if not a set date. For now, Allianz and others with easy access to the game, such as Lloyd’s and International Space Brokers, who currently insure commercial space equipment such as satellites, are keeping their cards close to their chests as they watch the new space race unfold.
The reward has substantial potential. They stand to enter into an unexplored territory that includes the Mars One mission to Mars and Bigelow’s construction of commercial space stations, which could serve as orbital resorts.
Potential space tourists will have to be patient as we learn more about the vehicles and trips on offer before insurers can put a dollar figure on space risk.