Space travel will only be “a game for rich people” if its cost can not be reduced, said a founder at a Chinese rocket launch startup on Friday.

“If every trip to space costs $1 million, it won’t be a commercial market,” Cheng Wei, founder of Chinese space company Rocket Pi said at the Beyond Expo event held in Macau on Friday. (our translation).

Cheng said that the first step for the commercial exploration of the universe would be sending animals into space.

“We first have to develop the ability to send lifeforms other than humans, like cells or primates, to travel in space to gather data before human exploration can be fully achieved,” said Cheng.

Companies in the emerging market also have to consider regulatory challenges, the entrepreneur said. “This is a long march and we still have a lot of hurdles to overcome,” he added.

Co-founded by Zhuang Fengyuan, an academic at the International Academy of Astronautics, Rocket Pi is among the early movers in the private space exploration sector in China, developing and operating space launch systems for in-orbit experiments for biopharmaceutical studies.

The company is currently on track to launch a biological payload carried by a satellite, called Sparkle-1, later this month, and put several more into orbit next year, Cheng told TechNode. It has set a long-term goal of building a space lab to enable human space travel after 2025.

China has just started constructing its own space station and the country’s research in space life sciences is still at an early stage, Cheng said. He added that there is significant work to be done in helping commercial space travel become a reality, such as reducing the acceleration load for less experienced space travellers so that they can have a safer, smoother ride.

In April, China began building its first permanent space station, Tiangong-1. SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, made history in September by successfully launching the first orbital flight with four amateur space travelers, marking the first time that an all-civilian crew reached space.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen