It’s certainly a dream many of us have shared, to rocket into the heavens and return safely to Earth. Since the heady days of Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn, generations of children have fantasized about stepping onto the surfaces of the Moon or Mars, and about simply floating in weightless microgravity, miles above the spinning blue Earth. Myself, I often gaze with longing upon the framed letter hanging in my kitchen, the one notifying me that I’ve not been selected for the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut corps. I was 25 and in graduate school when I’d applied.
While I am disappointed that I was not selected for the corps, the fact that the recruitment process was a truly democratic one is nevertheless reassuring. That one can simply send off a resume to the Space Agency (albeit the Canadian one) is a grand leap forward from the days of internal military recruitment, so well documented in Tom Wolfe’s "The Right Stuff". Hence that letter,despite its personal bad news, offers hope hope that us commoners will one day find our way into the great boundless blackness.
These are indeed revolutionary times with respect to the changing accessibility of space. For we who have ranked Neil Armstrong among the champions of human exploration and expansion (alongside the likes of Columbus and Magellan, colonial motivations notwithstanding), the recent policy directions of the Russian space agency are of particular interest. Courtesy of the cash-strapped Russian program, American tycoon Dennis Tito became humanity’s very first "space tourist," having forked over a reported $20 million for a week long stay aboard the International Space Station.
Tito’s expedition was notable for a variety of reasons. It signaled that the global space program had evolved to the point of sufficient safety for an untrained individual to take part, and convincingly demonstrated the existence of a space tourism market. From now on, you don’t need to be a PhD scientist or a former fighter pilot with Olympic-calibre fitness to make it into space. All you need is $20 million.
The feat has cleared the way for further attempts to cultivate the space tourism market, most actively by private enterprise. The second man on the moon, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, is among the most high profile of this entrepreneurial army. Dennis Tito himself has committed his money and
business expertise to whittling the price of future tourist missions to a "mere" one or two million dollars. And the "X-prize", a $10 million bounty cast in the model of the prizes which launched the adventures of the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh, is up for grabs to any private company that can put three individuals into space and bring them back to Earth safely two times in two weeks. The intent of the X-prize is to jump-start the commercialization of space, to take access to the heavens out of the hands of monolithic and agenda-ridden governments and genuinely into the hands of small to medium businesses.
All this tourism activity bodes well for we who have long sought freedom from Earth’s gravity. There will no doubt come a day within the next few decades when, for the present price of a decadent African safari, a moderately affluent individual will be able to purchase a ticket into orbit …and maybe beyond. This is the true price scale and timeline being bandied about by the experts.
Therein lies my purist concern. While access by the masses is critical for the long-term development of outer space and its related resources, it bodes ill for the ambience, reverence and magic that, ironically, are the factors that attract both vulgar tourists and dreamers alike. Since only the affluent, or indeed the ridiculously rich, will be able to afford it, will outer space be the ultimate class-restricted club? The Monaco or Montserrat of the heavens? How long before recovering Hollywood bad boys seek the age-reducing effects of microgravity? I cringe at the thought of a Charlie Sheen, Paula Poundstone or Sean "Puff Daddy/P-Diddy/Puffy" Combs drunkenly defacing Neil Armstrong’s lunar landing site. I have no doubt that it will one day happen, but I hope I’m not around to hear tell of it.
Already, Radio Shack and Pizza Hut have filmed frivolous commercials aboard the international space station. A European designer is planning the first orbital fashion show. And Mark Burnett, creator of television’s Survivor, is actively seeking a launch service to enable the production of "Survivor in Space". Do we really need the likes of naked Richard Hatch and screech-voiced Jerri Manthey in our skies?
In terms of its potential for exploration and exploitation, outer space truly is the last great physical frontier. More than that, it may be humanity’s salvation, as it represents room to expand, resources to exploit, mysteries to uncover and challenges to unite us. Undoubtedly, the path to realizing its promise involves ultimately making this frontier accessible to non-governmental astronauts and even casual visitors. But let’s hope that our heavens do not become or remain the exclusive domain of the affluent and frivolous.
871 w. January 3, 2002