Why does space tourism matter?

Space tourism is a perennial hope. Someday, more humans than just trained astronauts will hopefully be able to look down on Earth from above. Plans for space tourism have been around for decades, yet they have failed to materialize. Alan Ladwig, who formerly worked for NASA and now works with STAR HARBOR Space Academy, recently wrote a book on the subject of space tourism. He shares with us his views on the history of space tourism and why it matters.

Why did you write your book on space tourism?

From 1983 to 1986, I was the manager of NASA’s Space Flight Participant Program, the opportunity for “ordinary citizens” to fly on a space shuttle mission. Although the selection criteria for the first two spaceflight participant opportunities were designated for an educator and a journalist, it didn’t stop thousands of people from writing to NASA to plead for a chance to board a space shuttle mission. Most of the time, those letters ended up on my desk. I was the one who sent back that heartbreaking form letter that threw cold water on their dreams.

I didn’t enjoy sending rejection letters in response to their offers to jump into the rumble seat of the next shuttle. I was actually quite sympathetic and shared their dream. However, there were no flight opportunities beyond the first two participant categories.

The letters I received were filled with passion and personal details on why they wanted to see Earth from above. Stapled to many of the letters were newspaper clippings with stories featuring their dreams to fly or artwork illustrating their visions of spaceflight. The authors of the letters expressed genuine and inspirational rationales on why they wanted to fly. They told me to “look no further… I’m the one!” They were spring-loaded and ready for launch.

You can’t blame them for believing in the dream. For numerous decades, visionaries, government officials, space companies, and the media told us our ticket to ride was just a rocket away. It wouldn’t be long before space travel was available to people other than professional astronauts. All we had to do was keep the dream alive. Unfortunately, all the optimism and promises of the past were too often overhyped and unrealistic. I wanted to share that history.

A friend encouraged me to end the book on a note of hope, so I also provide a glimpse of the current crop of companies that promise to deliver on our dream and offer an assessment of whether they will finally succeed. The historical narrative is told in conjunction with what was actually happening in the space program while promises of recreational space travel were being promoted.

See You in Orbit? Our Dream of Spaceflight was intended to harmonize the public’s dream to fly in space with reality. “It’s always been my dream to fly in space”was the dominant theme of 80% of the letters I received from the public.

If, like that 80%, you share the dream, this book is for you. At the end of the story, you can determine if we are any closer to the dream and if we will ever join the zero gravity elite and earn the right to say, “See you in orbit!”

What is something about space tourism that is generally misunderstood or not known?

I’m not sure if it’s a widespread misunderstanding, but I hope everyone understands that space tourism is not completely risk free. Although the commercial providers are focused on delivering safe operations, spaceflight remains a risky endeavor. It’s naïve to think that launch companies will be able to maintain a zero-accident track record. There’s nothing like a tragic anomaly to ruin the romance of fulfilling a dream. I don’t say that to be an alarmist or cast doubt on the industry. It’s reality.

Another possible misunderstanding involves the amount of weightless time one will experience during a suborbital flight. It is estimated that a passenger will be able to free-float for five to eight minutes. That’s not long, and the time will pass quickly. To get the most out of the experience, pay attention to the training that is provided, let the provider take the in-flight photos, and focus on gentle movements during the moment of microgravity. Then, prepare for exhilaration.

Finally, people may not be aware of the many initiatives to fly private individuals that were proposed over the past 50 years.

As early as May 1965, The Martin Company proposed “The National Geographic Society Space Expedition” on a Gemini mission. They thought flying a writer or photographer “would strengthen public relations between the program and the people whose taxes make it possible.” At that time there had only been four Mercury and one Gemini orbital missions. That idea went over almost as badly as the proposal to fly a chimpanzee with an astronaut on a Gemini mission.

Just two weeks prior to the tragic 1986 Challenger mission that included Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe, the News Sun-Sentinel produced a five-page Sunday supplement titled “Welcome aboard the Starship Private Enterprise.” The article looked beyond the Spaceflight Participant Program and focused on private flights to the stars. It predicted space tourism might happen sooner than we thought: “Imagine the possibility someday of a well-to-do space buff plunking down several thousand dollars to take a ride around the Earth in a private space vehicle… Pretty far-fetched, you say? Not so; that someday may be less than 10 years away.”

Specifically mentioned in the article and ready to sell you a ticket for a flight in the early 1990s was Seattle-based Society Expeditions. This group of visionaries planned to finance research and development of a series of reusable spacecraft capable of taking tourists to orbit. Their flights were not designed for astronauts, politicians, or even a handpicked teacher. They were interested in flying “real” travelers – any average John or Jane Doe who wanted to fly in space.

Over 186 dreamers plunked down $5,000 deposits toward a $50,000 ticket to orbit the globe five to eight times on a Phoenix E spaceship to be built by Pacific American Launch Systems. The inaugural flight was to launch in 1992 – on the 500thanniversary of Columbus coming to the Americas. Refunds were eventually offered.

Throughout the 30-year tenure of space shuttle missions, the agency received numerous proposals from startup companies that wanted to fly customers on flights, conduct lotteries, put a module in the cargo bay to accommodate dozens of passengers, and even take over flight operations. None were deemed credible or financially viable. The book relates the plans many of these companies brought to the table.

The first serious step to open up spaceflight to the public occurred in 1996 with the debut of the X-Prize. Through a competition designed to lower the risk and cost of going to space by incentivizing the creation of a reliable, reusable, privately financed, human-rated spaceship capable of suborbital flight, it was hoped private space travel would finally become commercially viable.

Although it took longer than expected, the $10 million Ansari X-Prize was won in 2004 by a team led by Burt Rutan and Richard Branson. In 2008, Branson announced the first passenger flight would take place in the mid-2010 time frame. The launch date has been pushed back numerous times, but hope springs eternal that Branson’s Virgin Galactic, or Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, will succeed with the first commercial suborbital flight later this year.

What advice do you have for individuals interested in engaging with space tourism?

Maintain a commitment to your dream – even if you aren’t among the well to do with significant wealth. While flights are quite expensive and we’re years away from the mass market phase of space tourism, you might get lucky and snag a ride through a corporate promotion, a contest, or a sponsored mission to conduct experiments. My STAR HARBOR colleague Dr. Sian Proctor stayed true to her dream and won a seat on the upcoming Inspiration4 mission, so you just never know. If Space for Humanity succeeds, they have a goal to fly 10,000 citizens in the years ahead, beginning with suborbital flights.

Whether you’re interested in suborbital or orbital opportunities, follow the progress of the launch providers. Are they committed to a culture that prioritizes safety and testing? If problems arise during tests, is the company transparent and forthcoming with what occurred and what it has done to correct the issue? What are the early flyers saying about the experience? Is the training designed to achieve the maximum experience?

What is the primary motivation for people who have the dream to fly?

In a 1990 article about the space shuttle program, New York Times reporter William J. Broad observed, “The spaceship became a metaphor for an uplifting of the American spirit.” He also included a line President Reagan delivered to Congress in 1981: “The Space Shuttle did more than prove our technological abilities. It started us dreaming again.” Those are two positive reasons people want to fly – “uplift the human spirit” and start “us dreaming again.”

If you look at the letters from the 1920s that people sent to Robert Goddard volunteering to fly on his theoretical rocket ship to the Moon, those that dreamers sent to the Hayden Planetarium in the 1950s to sign up for their Interplanetary Tour promotion, or the pleas I received during the Space Flight Participant Program, you would be hard pressed to tell when the letters were composed. The motivations are the same.

We believe a trek into orbit will fulfill a yearning or spiritual quest or add meaning to our otherwise meaningless lives. Achieving star travel will extract a new level of excellence and unearth our true potential. We hear that those who have been there and back are blessed with an overview effect, where national borders give way to a renewed respect for the common heritage of humankind.

University of South Australia Professor in Tourism, Dr. Marianna Sigala, notes, “People will want to go to space for all sorts of reasons – adventure, spiritual wonder, even to gain fame and celebrity – and they will be willing to pay a lot of money for that experience and the services around it.”

Dr. Sigala describes the probable impact from space travel in similar terms as the overview effect. In the professor’s analysis, “Space tourism falls into the category of what is known as ‘transformational services,’ which are consumed not just to satisfy basic survival needs. Transformational services enable people to rethink and re-set their value system, their priorities, and way of thinking, to learn and to self-develop, to change their attitude, mindsets, or their behavior or perception about certain things.”

For Dr. Sigala, this emphasis on the higher calling of spaceflight “is what makes space tourism something more than just a trip for the rich – the experience will have deep meaning for many people, so I believe the space tourism industry can expect to see strong growth and demand, even after the novelty of being one of the first to experience it has passed.”

In contemplating the changed mindfulness about Earth, ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau once observed, “A new awareness, a space-age consciousness especially among younger people could cause mankind to abandon violence, money, and false material pleasures based on uncontrolled production and consumption, and to start preparing Planet Earth for a cosmic awareness and personal immortality.”

It’s yet to be proven if the impact of a brief hop, skip, and jump on a suborbital flight will last long enough to instill the overview effect or an orbital perspective within passengers. For the most part, all many dreamers want to do is have some fun and experience moments of joyful weightlessness. Hoping for abandonment of materialistic pleasures and preparation for immortality seems like a heavy responsibility to drop on a bunch of space tourists.

However, in between performing somersaults, slurping floating water globules, flying around like Superman, and taking endless selfies, the spaceflight participants / astronauts / wealthy tourists will hopefully take time to look out the windows and breathe in the awe and wonders of a borderless Earth. With regular launch schedules and a broader range of people flying, an enhanced cosmic consciousness may yet arrive.

In the near term, the ability to experience brief periods of weightlessness may be enough for someone to experience their eureka moment or find their muse. Who knows what might result from pinning astronaut wings on a spaced-out artist, entrepreneur, marketing major, entertainer, or village idiot? In any case, national governments are no longer the sole guardians of the galaxy, and a much more diverse crowd will tell us what spaceflight is really like. Perhaps after they land, passengers will have an overwhelming incentive to take Jacques Cousteau’s advice “to start preparing Planet Earth for a cosmic awareness and personal immortality.” How cool would that be?