By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
Despite excited speculation on future market demand, the space tourism industry is still in early development stages. Only a handful of extremely wealthy individuals have actually participated in a spaceflight for recreational purposes to date.
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As a result, we know very little about consumer perceptions and demand drivers. However, one obvious area of concern is the fear of flying. But will pteromerhanophobia (the fear of flying) have a significant effect on behavioral intentions toward space tourism?
Space Tourism Has Become a Reality of Modern Ingenuity
The space tourism industry is quickly transitioning from the pages of science fiction stories into a reality of modern ingenuity. In spite of this change, the space tourism industry is still an extremely new concept, with many unknowns concerning market demographics, consumer perceptions, and demand drivers and deterrents. One of those variables is the fear of flying and whether or not consumer demand will be materially affected by individual perceptions about the circumstances of spaceflight.
Fear of flying is a well-researched condition, affecting a significant minority of the general population within the context of traditional air travel. While there are similarities between airplane flight and prospective spaceflight that might give rise to an assumption that fear of flying would be just as prevalent in space tourism (e.g. small cabin spaces, high altitudes and close proximity), there are also strong distinctions between the two types of flight that might give reasonable cause for doubt (e.g. weightlessness and the difference between flight as transportation to a destination and flight as a destination in and of itself).
Space Tourism Companies Will Need to Do Their Consumer Research
Because of these dynamics and a lack of knowledge regarding their effects on consumer perceptions, this is an area that should be further explored if pioneering space tourism companies are to a) understand the concerns of their target markets, and b) have any chance of easing those concerns. However, the space tourism industry is very new, and research into this field is relatively sparse. The little research that does exist is primarily exploratory in nature.
A few studies have begun to investigate such areas as the general characteristics of the space tourism market, the future development and expected value of the industry, and the potential contribution from the space tourism industry to global economic activity. However, very little research exists that investigates specific consumer perceptions toward space tourism, which could predict consumer behavior.
Dennis Tito: The First Space Tourist
In 2001, American businessman Dennis Tito became the first person to officially engage in space travel for the purposes of tourism when he paid $20M USD for a seat aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, which took him to the International Space Station for nearly eight days. Since Tito’s pioneering trip, both public and private space industries have begun to see the tremendous untapped demand among the tourist public for mass-market space tourism.
Many Companies Are Working Toward Making Space Tourism Accessible for Everyone
Over the last 10 years, wealthy entrepreneurs with a vision of space have started dozens of companies to make space tourism accessible for all demographics through the advancement of technology and innovation. For instance, leaders such as Sir Richard Branson have completed preliminary testing on Virgin Galactic launch and spaceflight vehicles. Although operations have been delayed by fatal accidents and heavy regulatory oversight, Branson’s company hopes to begin commercial trips to suborbital altitudes as early as 2021, albeit at exorbitant prices.
The high costs of these spaceflight experiences are currently a significant barrier to mass-market penetration. However, costs aside, there are still other variables that may have a considerable impact on market demand.
For Some Consumers, the Fear of Flying Is a Significant Barrier to Spaceflight
One of those variables is the fear of flying (FOF). FOF, clinically known as pteromerhanophobia or aviophobia, is a condition that is estimated to affect anywhere from 10 to 40% of the population.
The monetary costs of FOF to the airline industry are staggering. One early study estimated that the FOF cost to domestic US airlines was over $1.6B USD in 1978.
This study, however, was only concerned with costs to airlines. The cost to tourism as a whole due to reduced visitation, based on 1978 dollars and adjusted for time and inflation, suggests that FOF is an extremely expensive phenomenon.
FOF is a topic of debate in the medical field. Some experts assert that FOF is a distinct fear brought on by the unique safety concerns of airplane flight. In this sense, the facts concerning spaceflight differ dramatically from traditional airplane flight.
Indeed, spaceflight-related disasters occur at a rate of approximately 1 in 50,000 while the rate of occurrence associated with traditional airplane flight is approximately 1 in 5,000,000, a 100-fold difference in risk. Interestingly, FOF is much more prevalent than driving fears, even though the statistical risk of an automobile-related fatality is 1 in 18,000, more than twice as likely as a spaceflight fatality and more than 200 times more likely than an airplane crash. So it is clear that phobias are not necessarily rational in relation to the objective evidence of risk.
Some Experts Argue that Fear of Flying Is a Manifestation of Other Phobias
Some experts argue that FOF is actually a contextual manifestation of other phobias, the stimuli of which are innate to the flying experience, referred to as flight-embedded fears. They include:
- The fear of small spaces (i.e. claustrophobia) brought on by tight aircraft cabin environments
- The fear of heights (i.e. acrophobia) provoked by being high above the ground during flight
- The fear of falling associated with height (yet distinct from the fear of heights itself)
- Anxiety disorders caused by uncontrollable social situations such as the forced proximity of passengers in a commercial airliner (i.e. agoraphobia)
Following this paradigm, there are apparent similarities and differences between spaceflight and traditional airplane flight that might affect the prevalence of FOF. For example, the spacecraft currently under development by most industry pioneers model traditional aircraft in terms of cabin space and passenger proximity, which suggests that claustrophobia and acrophobia would still be a concern.
Additionally, altitude (height) would be greater with spaceflight, which means that a fear of heights might only be worsened by the experience. However, in the weightless environment of space, there would be no real risk of falling, so it is plausible that a fear of falling might be mitigated or even alleviated by such circumstances.
One final distinction between space tourism and traditional airplane flight is that while airplane flights serve predominantly as a mode of transportation to reach a destination, spaceflight functions in the space tourism industry as the destination itself — at least until destinations in outer space are established. With space tourism, there are no alternatives to accomplish the tourism objective because the flight itself is the experience.
So in theory, viable space tourism markets might be more affected by FOF since there is no goal other than the flight itself. This is contrasted with airplane flight where tourists might be compelled to “tough it out” and suppress their fear for the sake of the destination to which they’re going.
Considering the current proliferation of FOF, its costs to the airline industry and its propensity to have the same negative impact on space tourism, it is critical that perceptions concerning FOF in the context of space tourism are thoroughly understood. Future space tourism companies would do well to investigate their target markets thoroughly so that they might try to accurately predict the ways in which FOF will influence consumer market behavior.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.