16 May 2000
- Tourism (Good)
Ever More Sightings of the 'T Word'
"...but it won't be for a lo-o-ong time yet..."
by Patrick Collins
As the "T Word" crops up more and more frequently in discussions of future space activities, senior figures in the space industry find themselves obliged to use the word and to acknowledge that tourism is going to become the biggest business in space. This often leads these people to venture guesses as to when space tourism may actually start. Interestingly, each date mentioned gets pushed farther into the future. In this way, taxpayers continue paying US$25 billion every year for current space activities, although these are clearly not leading towards the realisation of space tourism. These attempts to spread unrealistic projections to the public will presumably increase as the truth about tourism gets ever more coverage.

The recent mentioning of "space" in the media has brought about two results: good examples of the "t-word" and not-so-good examples of misinformation.

1) We have already noted Mr Goldin's extraordinarily inaccurate prediction in late 1997 that "within 50 years, a space hotel...is not out of the question." With Mir now 'open for business', he was wrong by a factor of 20! Mr Goldin, a professional 'cold warrior', spent his career acquring funding for government aerospace projects. His priority is not to promote space tourism, just to defend NASA's US$14 billion/year budget. He also has very little practical experience in either airlines or hotels--two giant industries that contribute hugely to economic growth.

2) On December 31, 1999, NASA Associate Administrator for Policies and Plans Lori Garver was interviewed on the Today Show. Asked "As I understand, NASA really does not want to get into the space tourism business" Ms Garver said: "NASA feels our job is really to provide the basic technology development so that the private sector can go and make the money doing things like space tourism".
Q: "But space tourism is something that you support, you just don't want to do it yourselves?"
A: "Absolutely. This is the cliche, the final frontier, people do really want to go and NASA feels like we are on the cutting edge to allow that to happen".

Unfortunately, interviewer Katie Couric didn't have enough background knowledge to ask Garver: "You say that, yet not even 1% of your budget is used to aid the development of space tourism, although NASA has acknowledged that it will be the biggest business in space. How does this fit NASA's legal obligation to support space commercialisation?"

Or "I see that in NASA report NP-1998-03-11-MSFC, you make a number of recommendations for NASA to aid the development of tourism. Why is NASA not implementing these? Indeed, why is that report not even available from NASA?"

Readers should know that, while president of the National Space Society Ms Garver was an advocate of space tourism, writing positively about it at least twice in the magazine ' Ad Astra' at a time when few people could yet bring themselves to use the 'T word'. So it's sad to see her muzzled at NASA and defending the indefensible. It's also noteworthy that Ms Garver didn't even refer to NASA's own positive report on space tourism! This is predictable, though, as her boss Mr Goldin is determined to shield it from the public.

As for predicting when space tourism will start, Ms Garver said: "Well, 30 years after the Wright brothers, a few brave and wealthy people crossed the Atlantic, so 30 years after the space shuttle... and that would be about 10-12 years from now." But equating the Wright brothers' first flight with the space shuttle is a quite false analogy: A truer one is of course Gagarin's flight - and as STA Chief Scientist Tom Rogers has pointed out many times, within less than 40 years after the Wright brothers, international air travel was booming.

3) A particularly interesting contribution was made in the January 1 issue of Aviation Week. Norman Augustine, a well-known aerospace industry figure who retired in 1997 from the position of CEO of Lockheed-MartinLockheed-Martin"> Corporation, wrote a piece entitled "The Wright Brothers Meet Adam Smith", which contained the following paragraph:

"But the most important space development will be the advent of a burgeoning tourist industry to near-Earth orbit during the middle part of the century, and to the Moon in the later part. Aside from the awesome human inspiration that springs from such undertakings, this development will offer the much-sought impetus to truly reduce the cost of travel into space. Fully-reusable airline-type operations will become not only plausible, but real. Orbiting five-star hotels will support visits of two or three days, during which 'astrotourists' will observe outer space through telescopes having a clarity unimaginable on the ground. Commercial space travelers will view Earth from a seldom-imagined perspective, even as they circle the globe every 90 minutes."

This comment is not at all bad (if a little late in the day) and supports many of Space Future's claims--such as that space tourism will be the most important activity in space; it will realise and pay for low-cost, 'airline' space-flight operations; lunar travel is also a certainty; and so on. However, the statement does not acknowledge one important fact--there is no reason to wait until the middle of the 21st century to develop passenger space-travel services.

Big business would not identify a promising new market, only to say, "We'll come back in 30 years." In this case, the technology is developed, and the market is waiting. The only reason for delay: Some prefer the status quo to the uncertainties of a new field. Mr Augustine's previous company earns revenues of about US$1 billion/year from expendable launch vehicles. Having retired, Mr Augustine is freer to speak out. Sadly, those who are still in senior positions within the aerospace industry, such as NASA Administrator Goldin, mostly refuse to discuss the subject.

4) In the following Aviation Week article, "Many a Breakthrough Lies in Store", Burt Rutan, designer of many award-winning aircraft and spacecraft, foresees that "...by 2015, at least 50 groups (maybe 200 or more) will have built and flown new spaceship prototypes using an enormous variety of design concepts. Many will have excellent success, proving there really can be low-cost, robust solutions.... Unless thwarted by regulation, this phenomenal advance would allow, by 2020, routine, inexpensive suborbital tourist rides offering a few minutes of weightlessness, a view from orbital altitudes and the excitement of re-entry. By 2035 orbital vacations would be available to anyone who today can afford a luxury cruise ship vacation".

Though perhaps a little more optimistic than the previous article, Burt Rutan is not exactly envisaging rapid progress. But if you add up the numbers, this means taxpayers will pay US$500 billion for the privilege of watching TV programmes about NASA and other space agencies over the next 20 years--while private companies struggle to scrape together the 1/1000 of this amount that needs to be invested in order to offer the public 5-minute space-flights.

5) However, the 30+-year delay envisaged by Norman Augustine is dwarfed by that of by Dr Edward Finch, former US Special Ambassador to the UN and a long-standing advocate of space commercialisation--but who still sees this as centred on manufacturing activities started by NASA In a recent article "Commercial Space Development in Millenium 2000: Legal and Geopolitical Issues Emerge" in the March/April issue of Ad Astra, he finishes with the words: "...and even space tourism will become a reality by the end of the next millennium."

Er... that's by 2999! At present budget levels, the space agencies would use $25 trillion in that time! We have to hope that taxpayers are going to spent their money more intelligently than that.
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Patrick Collins 16 May 2000
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