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Commercial space travel is here. Now what?

Space expert Chris Daehnick talks about how the budding commercial space industry goes beyond tourism, and why private companies are leading the charge into space.

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The Virgin WhiteKnightTwo mothership, carrying SpaceShipTwo, performs a flyover  in October 2010 during an event commemorating the completion of the Virgin Galactic Spaceport America runway in New Mexico.

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"We as humans have looked up at the stars as long as we've been conscious. And the idea of getting closer to them is something people dream about." That's Chris Daehnick, an associate partner with McKinsey, talking about the rise of commercial space travel, specifically the budding industry of space tourism.

Space travel may be a dream shared by many, but the journey to the stars as a civilian is currently accessible only to the ultra-wealthy few. Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and the richest person in the world, and Richard Branson, British billionaire and founder of Virgin Galactic, ventured into low-Earth orbit over the summer and are beginning to offer tickets to space on their respective rockets for an exorbitant price. 

Daehnick leads an analytics team at McKinsey that focuses on aerospace and defense, using software that forecasts launches and satellite production, among other things. In his article Wall Street to Mission Control: Can space tourism pay off?, published in The Wall Street Journal, he argues that the commercialization of space isn't just about sending the elite on extraterrestrial excursions. 

"But what's really new, in the last five years or so," Daehnick says, "is this rise of completely private enterprises to provide trips to orbit or close to orbit, which would be done other than for research or scientific purposes."

Instead, he continues, the commercial space industry is about transitioning the space industry from one solely supported by the government to something self-sufficient, with private enterprises investing in rockets, equipment and experiments in space. 

Up until the early 2000s, government-funded agencies, including NASA and the European Space Agency, largely sponsored space travel, research and development. Now these agencies are increasingly looking to the private sector to assist, or more often, lead the development of innovative technologies for missions deeper into the final frontier. 

Daehnick notes that it's unclear whether there's a real market for space tourism, because of its inaccessibility. But the overarching pull to pursue commercial opportunities in space is driven by the awe-inspiring attraction of space itself. 

"Sputnik, the first launch of an artificial Earth satellite, energized this huge wave of science and math education in the US," Daehnick says. "And that in turn spawned a lot of people who went on to be entrepreneurs or do technical things. You could argue that many of the founders of those companies were probably, in some way, inspired by that initial energy."

Daehnick spoke with CNET's Sophia Fox-Sowell, sharing a wealth of insights into the growing commercial space industry and how space tourism could impact the economy. Watch their full conversation in the video above.