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Space tourism industry is ‘really in a major transformation’: expert

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George Nield, Commercial Space Technologies, LLC President, sits down with Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the outlook on commercial space travel, the upcoming Blue Origin space flight, and the benefits of private companies investing in the sciences behind space flight.

Video Transcript

RACHELLE AKUFFO: Dr. George Nield, Commercial Space Technologies LLC president joins us now. I mean, this is an incredible opportunity. Tell us about the lead-up to this and how you're feeling about it.

GEORGE NIELD: I am very excited. This is such a fantastic time for the space industry. I think we're really in a major transformation from a time in which almost anything that happened in space was done by governments to now, when private industry is playing an extremely important role. And that's just going to continue going forward.

DAVE BRIGGS: How far are we, doctor, from a commercial-- viable commercial space tourism industry in your estimation?

GEORGE NIELD: Well, I would just say that we've got two companies already flying. Interestingly, it used to be that in the United States, we did one program at a time-- Project Mercury, Gemini, the Apollo moon landing, the shuttle, and so forth. Today, there are six different US companies that are designing, building, testing, and actually flying vehicles meant to carry humans on board. So that includes SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Space, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and Lockheed Martin. And I'm sure we'll see more in the future.

BRAD SMITH: Doctor, what do you believe the tipping point will be in making it affordable for anybody who chooses to take advantage of a spaceflight opportunity?

GEORGE NIELD: Well, as you know, those tickets are expensive today, but I think as we see more and more flights take place, more and more companies, more and more vehicles, it's almost certain that the price is going to come down. I think many people estimate that by the time it gets down to the price of an expensive car or RV, then you're going to see lots of folks who are going to be able to experience this for themselves. And that'll be a really good thing for the industry.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: So for now, at least, since it is out of reach for some people when it comes to being able to afford this, this is a very interesting group that's been selected, including "Saturday Night Live's" performer Pete Davidson. Talk a little bit about the people that you're flying with and how much interaction you're even having ahead of this flight.

GEORGE NIELD: So there actually will be six different folks on this particular mission. So you mentioned Pete Davidson. He'll be flying as a guest on board. And the rest of us are paying customers. And each has an strong interest in space and very different backgrounds. We've talked a couple of times virtually. And I'm looking forward to getting to see and getting to know all of the other folks face to face when we head down to West Texas in just a couple of days.

DAVE BRIGGS: But doc, Captain Kirk flew on the first flight, NFL Hall of Famer Michael Strahan on the second one. I'm sure you're thrilled to have some comic relief aboard the Origin. But if there's one celebrity you want to be up there with you, who is it? Come on, be honest with us.

GEORGE NIELD: I think we've got a great crew, and I'm looking forward to interacting. We're all going to have different perspectives, but it's going to be an exciting ride.

BRAD SMITH: When you think about all of the opportunities that are coming from also being able to study either life in space or even just what the human body, what that reaction is, even for a brief spaceflight is, are there any things that you're going to be monitoring of your own vitals when you go up into space?

GEORGE NIELD: Well, I think these flights right now are primarily for the experience. So I'm certainly very much looking forward to being able to look out the window and see black sky and the curvature of the Earth and experience that magic of weightlessness. So it's just going to be the experience.

But I think as commercial spaceflight continues to grow, we're going to see private industry playing an important role in all the different kinds of space flights for scientific research and exploration and so forth. And they bring a lot of advantages compared to just having governments. We're going to see lower costs, increased innovation, probably a greater risk tolerance, new customers, new products, new markets, and new sources of funding and investment.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: So then one of the things that also gets raised when it comes to a lot of this space travel is perhaps the footprint it could leave behind on the environment. What are your thoughts on that? And what's really being done to offset some of that?

GEORGE NIELD: So that's a really important issue. Blue Origin in their new Shepard rocket, of course, just uses oxygen and hydrogen. And so what you end up with, with that is just water vapor. So there are no concerns there. But I think the more important opportunity is to recognize that by using space vehicles, satellites, and those that carry people on board, we're going to be able to gain so much information about what is happening on the Earth that we just haven't been able to do in the past.

We now have these mega constellations of small satellites that allow folks to look down at the Earth and see what's happening every single day. And so that's going to really help us in understanding where the issues are, where the problems are, where the opportunities are to help the Earth in the future.

BRAD SMITH: And even eliminating some of the pre-flight jitters that you may have, have you been able to talk to any of those who have gone on the trip before you in those all-civilian flights? Have you been able to talk to Jeff Bezos?

GEORGE NIELD: So during my previous jobs, including leading the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, got to meet Mr. Bezos and many others in the industry. And of course, I spent a number of years down at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where there's plenty of astronauts training and working on the shuttle program and the Space Station program and so forth. So I have some idea what this is all about, but it's really going to be exciting to experience it personally.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: Well, we'll be rooting for you as you head to the final frontier there. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. George Nield, Commercial Space Technologies LLC president. Thank you so much.

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