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How I Fell Out of Love with Space Tourism

It's elitist, overpriced, and overhyped

John Spencer

This week, a newly formed private American space concern called Space Development Ventures (a group that includes two former NASA astronauts) announced the launch of a global contest called Spaceship Earth Grant brought to you by Star Harbor Space Training Academy. The group promises the winner of the essay and video contest an expense-paid suborbital space flight “on the carrier of their choice.”

Carrier of their choice? To space?

Indeed. These are heady times for the space industry, a collective global effort on the verge of wresting control off space travel from the cumbersome grip of massive government entities and transferring it to the nimble hands of private enterprise.

According to the Los Angeles-based Space Tourism Society, there are currently at least 20 private companies around the world seriously working to bring regular ol’ people (well, rich regular ol’ people—more on that in a minute) into space on what everyone presumes will soon become a routine basis.

Companies—including Elon Musk’s SpaceX (founded “with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets”), Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, real estate investor Robert Bigelow’s Bigelow Aerospace and California-based XCOR Aerospace—seem closer to realizing the dream of everyday space tourism than you probably realize. 

There’s something sacrosanct about our approach to space travel. Instinctively we understand the noble commission undertaken by the visionaries leading humanity into space. These are the pioneers who are taking us, after all, into what many believe is mankind’s inevitable future, maybe even our best hope for survival as a species.

It’s exciting.

It’s thrilling.

For me, though, it’s also a little scary, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. After spending a whole lot of time reviewing the various public proclamations and PR campaigns of our intensely dynamic fleet of space entrepreneurs, I’ve begun to worry about the state of space tourism.

I wonder if a trip to space is really going to be worth the $45 million ticket price—the reported going rate for a booking with Virginia-based Space Adventures, the only commercial company that has so far flown private citizens into space.

But beyond things I’ll never be able to afford, I’m also skeptical that the space tourism experience is going to live up to the considerable hype in which the industry showers itself, and whether it’s going to be able to achieve the lofty goals of new worlds and enlightened perspectives its proselytizing underwriters almost universally assure us it will.

As they have with a discouraging roll call of other magnificent undertakings—world travel, rock and roll, university education—bottom-line dreamers suddenly seem poised to turn the heady fantasy of travel to distant realms into just another cheap (figuratively) commodity, cluttering the final frontier with the same tired ideas from the one they’ve already spent.

We've Heard This Somewhere Before 

“Five, four, three, two, one. Zero. All engines running. Liftoff! We have a liftoff! Thirty-two minutes past the hour. Apollo 11. Tower cleared!”

Even for earthlings who weren’t around to remember it, those words from NASA control center inside Cape Kennedy announcing the Apollo 11 moon launch on July 16, 1969, still resonate with the drama and otherworldly awe we innately associate with space travel.

By comparison, the rhetoric surrounding today’s commercial space travel schemes is dull, trite and, worst of all, familiar.

More often than not, the words used to sell modern space travel mimic the overblown, brochure-speak employed by airlines, hotels, and travel websites trying to convince us to book alcoholic beach holidays in the Caribbean, honeymoons in Thailand, and weekend getaways in luxury hotels that look the same in Hong Kong as they do in Hoboken.

Virgin Galactic’s cliché-ridden promotional messaging, for example, encourages customers to “throw off the bowlines. Sail away. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover” and “prepare to turn dreams into reality” with “the ultimate space flight experience.”

Arizona-based World View pounds the interstellar drums for its “voyage of a lifetime,” while promising the “highest-end luxury experience you can imagine.”

If all of this sounds depressingly recognizable, you may recently have been exposed to the febrile messaging of one of the many earth-bound cruise lines seeking your business.

That’s no coincidence.

The Space Tourism Society says, after all, that it’s “focused on modeling this new industry after the highly successful cruise line industry”—a business the late historian Paul Fussell once described as “tourism with a vengeance.”

From Hype to Hyperbole

OK, I get it.

Private concerns need to sell where NASA or the Russian Federal Space Agency do not.

But it’s a matter of course in the tourism racket—most others for that matter—that where advertising goes, over-promise follows.

Headquartered in Tucson, World View is a respected outfit doing cool things with high-altitude balloons.

Instead of rockets, the company plans to use high-tech helium balloons to lift a capsule with six passengers—paying $75,000 each—to an altitude just above 100,000 feet for two hours.

With the first words of its centerpiece promotional video, however, World View CEO Jane Poynter sells a somewhat elevated experience.

“Now World View is a lot more than luxury space travel,” Poynter says, employing the slightly unctuous, over-rehearsed style of the airline executive who blasts the company’s corporate messaging on every screen and speaker in the cabin while you’re trying to settle into your flight. “It’s about giving people that incredible perspective of seeing the Earth that we live on as a globe in the blackness of space.”

That sounds like a pretty cool view, except that it’s sort of unrealistic.

The 100,000-foot altitude to which World View says it will take its “voyagers” actually just scrapes the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere.

It’s nowhere near high enough to see Earth, as Poynter emphasizes, “as a globe in the blackness of space,” a line suggesting that famous image of our spherical Blue Marble captured by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972.

To get the Earth “as a globe in the blackness of space” perspective that Poynter promises, you have to go far beyond even the distance of the International Space Station—which orbits around 250 miles above Earth—a feat much greater than any company is currently even thinking about offering anytime soon (with the exception of Space Adventures, which is contemplating lunar flybys).

The flight that World View promises to deliver sounds fantastic, but it’ll get passengers only high enough to see the curvature of a portion of our planet.

“At 100 miles up, you are just skimming the surface and you don’t get a feeling for the Earth as a whole,” said Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins in a 1986 interview.

To put that in perspective, World View’s 100,000 feet of altitude is equal to about 20 miles.

“From 100,000 feet you get a sense of at least the curvature of the earth and you will see the sky turn from blue to black and you will see the thinness of the atmosphere,” says retired NASA astronaut and a partner in Space Development Ventures Ron Garan, whose 2,842 orbits of Earth, 178 days in space, and four spacewalks makes him one of the most experienced astronauts in history. “If you put all three of those together you can get the sensation you are looking at part of a planet in space, but your brain has to extrapolate the rest.”

After Poynter, the next figure to appear in World View’s aspirational video is Taber MacCallum, the company’s chief technology officer.

MacCallum says he wants to make space travel “like taking an aircraft across the country” (fun!) and that his “dream for World View is that people have the experience of a lifetime.”

Now married, Poynter and MacAllum met while they were each participants in the ill-fated Biosphere 2 mission in Arizona from 1991-93. This experience is, as near as I can tell, Poynter’s chief qualification to subsequently head up a commercial space endeavor. It’s virtually impossible to find her academic credentials listed either on the company’s website or anywhere else on the Internet.

When I emailed the company’s PR firm asking about Poynter’s professional and academic background I received back the brief bio available on the site that mentions Biosphere 2 and says that Poynter “worked on missions to mars [sic] and projects to mitigate climate change... dived with sharks... raced motorcycles... and flown in zero gravity.” There’s no mention of an academic background whatsoever.

No crime there, but something about multi-million-dollar scientific concerns not providing basic information that I think most people would consider relevant puts me off my Tang and Pillsbury Food Sticks just a little bit.

It’s hard to say exactly what sort of experiences space tourists are actually going to get from the coming generation of commercial spacecraft.

Most of the ships that will carry them away from Earth still exist as prototypes or artist renderings.

Some, like the capsules attached to World View’s balloons, will have large banks of windows.

Judging by images on its website, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo looks more like a conventional airplane with porthole windows.

Same for the windows of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.

In forecasting the magnitude of the views from suborbital space, however, there are plenty of authoritative sources from which to draw conclusions.

“The Earth through the window of the spacecraft looked approximately as it does from a jet plane at high altitudes,” wrote Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first person to enter space when he orbited Earth in 1961.

Space: The Ultimate Status Symbol

The slick, 18-page Virgin Galactic brochure that promotes its vision of commercial space flight includes a prominent display quote from Michiel Mol: “There are over 6 billion people on earth, to be one of six astronauts in space looking down on them will be a very special thing.”

Mol is identified only as a “Future Astronaut,” which leads me to assume he’s one of the more than 600 people who have put down a deposit for a spot on a future VG space flight that will travel 68 miles away from Earth and provide a reported four or so minutes of weightlessness at a cost of $250,000 per head. (In January of this year, quoted VG CEO George Whitesides saying that, “For Galactic, 2014 is the year that we plan to go to space, and start operating commercially.” Those hopes now seem distant. The official company timeline on the VG website currently extends only through 2013.)

Back here on Earth, Mol is a Dutch software scion and co-founder of the Amsterdam-based Space Expedition Corporation, which acts in part as a booking agent for space flights. He’s perhaps most well known as a Formula One team owner.

Mol’s standing in what can sometimes feel like a clubby industry of the über-wealthy swings the discussion to another bothersome feature of space tourism—elitism.

I’m not just talking about money—From Queen Isabella to Jeff Bezos, grand adventure has always required grand coffers.

I’m talking about an attitude that flies in the face of the “let’s democratize space and use it to teach humanity about peaceful co-existence” ideals spread by NASA pioneers such as Ron Garan, and space philosopher Frank White, whose 1998 book, The Overview Effect, speaks of the power of space perspective to unite us all in a kind of beatific galactic brotherhood.

Forgive me for sounding a bit pedantic here, but Mol’s “looking down on them” remark strikes me as telling.

When guys like Garan and White talk about looking back at Earth from space, the payoffs they tend to dwell on are the incredible colors and weather patterns—from space, lighting strikes “look like strobes in a disco,” Garan tells me—and the warming sensation of all-encompassing humanity, not some aristocratic wet dream of lording ultimate dominion over the hoi polloi.

“For most of the people who have thus far flown as private space travelers, the bragging rights was a far second for them,” says John Spencer, founder/president of the Space Tourism Society. “In the future, I think you’re right, the (bragging rights) is going to be a major part of the whole thing ... It deals with pride and prestige and ego.”

Spencer has his own grand ambitions for space. Among them are staging a race around the Moon on lunar buggies, and plans to build a 300-foot-long space yacht called “Destiny,” a craft made up of a dozen inflatable sections to be assembled while in Earth orbit.

“It’s not hard at all to imagine the richest corporations spending $6 billion for their own orbital super yacht,” he tells me. “For mega-rich people and corporations, the cost doesn’t matter, they can finance it over 50 years like you finance a house.”

“Your best bet for going to space in the next 25 years is to cozy up to a billionaire friend who will have me design and assemble his orbital super yacht and you get to go as his guest,” Spencer tells me, with a laugh.

We've Seen This Before Somewhere

Far from delving into its myriad personalities and promises, I’d actually begun my research into the state of space tourism with a simple question: Will the experience of space travel live up to the hype? And astronomical price?

Sure, space travel sounds amazing, but we’ve all seen “Gravity,” and even “The Dream is Alive” in IMAX was a revelation as far back as 1985.

Despite the gospel space evangelists constantly preach, I don’t need to feel the rumble of the launch pad in my loins to grasp the concept that our planet is a relatively insignificant particle of matter in an unfathomably immense and breathtaking universe—Buckminster Fuller called us inhabitants on “Spaceship Earth” way back in 1968.

So does anyone really need to cough up a quarter-million bucks to fly into space, float around for a few minutes, and look back at the planet through a porthole just to drum up the epiphany that, “Hey, Earth is actually part of the solar system, it’s the only planet we’ve got, and it sure is a beautiful place”?

I admit mine sounds like a pissy approach—space travel is sacrosanct!—but I actually would someday like to fly into space and if I ever manage to pile up $250,000 or find a compliant billionaire to suck up to in order to get there, I want to know if the ride will be worth the cash or humiliation.

After reading interviews and various items published by astronauts and other space travelers, and speaking with a variety of people who have lots to say on the subject, I’m still not sure.

On one hand, everyone who’s been to space—from Soviet cosmonauts to Dennis Tito, the world’s first private space traveler in 2001—raves about the experience.

Upon looking back at Earth from space, the reaction of Don Lind, who served as a mission specialist aboard Spacelab 3 in 1985, is typical of many.

“I have probably looked at as many pictures from space as anybody … so I knew exactly what [I] was going to see,” he said a few months after his flight. “There was no intellectual preparation I hadn’t made. But there is no way you can be prepared for the emotional impact. … It was a moving enough experience that it brought tears to my eyes.”

Lind spoke those words to Frank White in “The Overview Effect.” White is a onetime Oxford Rhodes scholar who, though he’s never been to space, has spent a great deal of his life studying and writing about the psychological, emotional, and spiritual effects of cosmic travel on those who have.

The philosophy of the “overview effect”—the term describes a theoretically heightened perspective that astronauts experience as a result of viewing the Earth and humanity as a unified whole—is embraced and/or exploited in some way by virtually every company involved in commercial space tourism.

According to NASA futurist and engineer Kenneth Cox, who wrote the foreword for the second edition of the book, principle tenets of the overview effect include “an abiding concern and passion for the well-being of the Earth … an understanding that everything is interconnected … and a higher level viewpoint, involving new awareness and consciousness” coupled with the desire for greater stewardship of Spaceship Earth.

Like virtually everyone in the industry, White is unceasingly bullish about space tourism.

He’s eloquent and persuasive when speaking of the near limitless powers space travel has to heal the myriad ills of mankind.

“I see an opportunity for humanity to evolve in a positive direction,” he says of what he expects to be the democratization of space. “As with anything, we have a choice about that, and I am trying to highlight what seems to me to be good choices. … Unfortunately (private space travel) is being positioned as a joyride for the rich. It doesn’t have to be such.”

Introducing God to the Stars

This all sounds well and good, but it seems to me that White’s overview effect is just as likely to be countered by what might be called the Rushmore Effect—that uneasy sensation of going to great trouble to see a famous site only to experience guilt, psychological dissonance, and a desire to hit the gift shop after snapping a selfie and becoming bored with the view in a matter of minutes.

Most of us, after all, get tired of the miraculous airplane views from 30,000 feet in the time it takes to fire up our laptops or swivel our faces in the direction of the “Friends” reruns or “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” cross-country feature jittering on the overhead TVs.

The truth is, like college and alcohol, people seem to take away from space travel whatever attitudes they bring to it.

The last man to walk on the moon, as part of the 1972 Apollo 17 crew, Eugene Cernan told White in an interview that within Earth orbit “you get a new perspective, but you don’t have time to get philosophical about it.” 

Mary Ellen Weber, who flew on the shuttle Discovery in 1995, said that, “when it came to the actual experience, I had already heard a lot about it, so it was not shocking to me. It was great, but not a shock.”

More typical, at least from my reading of space traveler accounts, than having what White calls a transformative “positive impact on human consciousness,” space travel simply reaffirms deeply entrenched beliefs, particularly among the devout.

After flying in the Space Shuttle as a payload specialist, Prince Sultan Bin Salman Al Saud of Saudi Arabia reported that upon viewing Earth from space his immediate reaction was to praise Allah. “I just said, in Arabic, ‘Oh, God,’ or something like ‘God is great,’” he said.

Former Florida congressman Bill Nelson, onetime chairman of the House committee that oversees NASA, had a similar reaction when he flew aboard the shuttle in 1986.

“I frequently recalled what King David had written thousands of years ago in Psalm 19,” Nelson told White. “‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork.’”

Given the trouble religious fanatics have gotten the rest of us into here on Earth, to say nothing of the ongoing militarization of space, I find it nearly impossible to be as optimistic about the possibility of space tourism elevating mankind’s collective sense of unity as White and virtually every other outfit that uses his idealized vision of space to promote its agenda.

Reinforced Biblical and Koranic beliefs are about the last thing we need from sending people into space.

Space Tourists and Space Travelers, but No Space Cowboys

The private citizens who have so far paid to go into space don’t like being called “space tourists.”

Like vacationing snobs who seek to distinguish themselves from package-tour riffraff, they’ve settled on the term “private space travelers” to describe themselves.

Their horror at being described in pedestrian, if accurate, terms is understandable given the pejorative taint that’s made “tourist” a dirty word.

After all, by the 1870s, English clergyman and diarist Francis Kilvert had already declared that, “Of all the noxious animals, the most noxious is the tourist.” The English rock band Pulp highlighted the enduring bias in more proletarian terms with their 1990s radio classic “Common People,” in which Jarvis Cocker righteously declares, “Everybody hates a tourist.”

The nascent space tourism industry has compliantly embellished the rhetorical ruse, trundling out its best brochure idioms to flatter its new clients.

World View calls its customers “Voyagers.” XCOR Aerospace prefers “Explorers.” Virgin Galactic goes with the familiar “astronauts,” which, even if it does confer a bit of undeserved mission control officialdom, actually seems reasonable enough to me.

I probably shouldn’t get too worked up about this—it’s human nature to want to puff yourself up a little bit—though I do find the “millionauts” and “billionauts” terms coined online the most precise names so far.

And as Space Tourism Society founder John Spencer notes, there’s bound to be a lot of self-glossing among future space travelers. (God, just imagine the Facebook and Instagram strutting!)

Even so, I have a feeling private space travelers are going to behave pretty much like earth tourists.

Early NASA astronauts listened to “Swan Lake” and classical symphonies while orbiting Earth. Aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1996, chemical engineer Al Sacco Jr. stared agog back at Earth while listening to Dan Fogelberg.

A Capsule With a View

If I were to put money on the companies that look like best bets to deliver the kind of orbital-altitude experience worth my life savings, I’d go with Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin.

SpaceX is judicious about trafficking in the “save the world through space travel” mumbo-jumbo that’s become a pillar of commercial space company pitches. Instead, it concentrates most of its descriptions on pragmatic stuff, like cargo capacity and delivering payloads that might help sustain life on other planets.

In adopting a measured, incremental approach to development, and for the most part avoiding grandiose claims, Blue Origin, which is “focused on developing rocket-powered Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and orbital space,” is one of the few companies I found that makes clear the critical distinction between experiences gleaned from flights at orbital and suborbital altitudes.

The difference between the two is so vast that moonwalker Eugene Cernan once maintained that NASA was really operating two different space programs, “one in Earth orbit and the other beyond.”

“Until we get back into orbital tourism, private citizens are not going to have that amazing view of Earth,” John Spencer told me.

As Frank White points out, “For most of us, outer space is closer than our favorite vacation spot. What makes it seem so far away is the cost of getting there.”

White’s is an interesting perspective, a fascinating way to look at an industry that generally promises to take us no further than the distance covered in a long commute, yet that somehow is so remote that our imaginations can’t yet behold what lies there.

Needless to say, I’m not there yet.

And even though I’m not personally convinced that it’ll be worth polishing the boots of a billionaire to get there, I do hope that those who soon will go might send me a postcard.

I’ll look forward to it, even if it doesn’t quite look like this: