30 June 2001
News - Tourism (Good)
Space Tourism Goes to Congress
The first congressional hearing
by Sam Coniglio
At the first Congressional hearing on space tourism at the House subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, the room was packed with reporters, space activists, and a large number of young people.

The panelists were Mr. Dennis Tito, the world's first paying space tourist; "Buzz" Aldrin, the second man on the moon; Mike Hawes, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Station; and Rick Tumlinson, founder and President of the Space Frontier Foundation, an activist group promoting commercial space activities. These four panelists were a study in contrasts: the gentlemanly Tito, ever polite and wearing a designer suit, the bowtie-wearing Hawes, whose monotone voice fit the classic stereotypical bureaucrat, the techno-savvy Aldrin, always suggesting another technology solution to problems, and the fireball Tumlinson, whose baritone voice boomed through the room with visions of space travel for everyone.

Congressman Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA), chairman of the House subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics opened the first-ever hearing on space tourism promptly at 2:30 p.m. He introduced Mr. Tito as the "first man to breach the wall" into private space travel. With that, he asked the panel for their opening statements.

Dennis Tito opened by proposing that NASA reinstate the 'Civilian in Space Program' that was suspended with Christa McCauliffe's death in the 1986 Challenger disaster. He suggested space is more than a technological challenge--it is a cultural experience. He said people such as teachers, journalists, novelists, and opera composers should be allowed to experience space firsthand and return to Earth to convey their experience to the public. "By bringing their experiences back to Earth, the pleasures of flying in space can become part of our culture," he said.

He encouraged Russia to sell seats on their Soyuz vehicles to paying passengers. Despite the fact the Mir space station was deorbited and NASA fought against Tito's trip tooth and nail, the Russians honored their contract with him, Finally, he said the ISS could easily double its crew size to six and that current science onboard is limited.

Mike Hawes defended NASA by saying the ISS is still a construction site. "NASA does not drive space tourism, but it can be a catalyst. NASA is not a primary driver, but it can develop the technologies to make tourism happen. NASA must assure people are safe (on ISS). All ISS members recently set criteria for future participants, and they must consider carefully who can fly."

"Buzz" Aldrin said, "After forty years of exploration, space tourism has shown to be a catalyst for commerce and greater space activity. Space tourism leads to broader infrastructure for other space goals.... Only a large market will attract capital to space." He also noted that Boeing and Lockheed Martin have a monopoly on space travel and have no incentive to build a reusable launch vehicle for commerce.

Rick Tumlinson said that tourism may be the killer application for space. "This may be the moneymaker we've all been waiting to find," he said. While there has been interest in space solar power, mining Helium-3 on the moon, or processing materials in microgravity, Tumlinson testified, "flying people into space may be the one that propels this into a mainstream economic activity.... It's time to let the people go. Americans want to join in the fun of exploring."

Congressman Rohrbacher asked the panel about the feasibility for a lottery for a shuttle seat. Aldrin agreed, stating that it was part of the purpose of ShareSpace, an organization he founded. Tito disagreed, pointing out that the winner may not be qualified to fly. Tumlinson suggested using popular game shows to choose people. Hawes says NASA should not be the selectee; it is up to the private sector.

Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN) asked for a discussion on the apparent contradiction between NASA's claims that ISS can only support three people and Tito's claim it can support six. Hawes countered that ISS can support three to four people for long duration and more people during short periods as, according to the Russians, the air canisters need to be constantly replaced. Tito said most of the canisters are reusable and are recharged by ISS' solar panels. The limitations that NASA suggests are based on the canisters used on Russia's Mir space station, which had limited solar power to recharge
them. Congressman Rohrbacher directed Hawes to give the committee updated information within 24 hours, because the committee will soon be voting on a bill for NASA's ISS budget.

Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) declared that Dennis Tito is a national resource and asked how much time he spent with NASA officials after his trip. Tito's answer was "Zero." Boehlert said that six weeks is rather late for a debriefing and asked Hawes when NASA will meet with him. Hawes says they with check their calendars.

Congressman Boehlert then asked Tito, "With seats so rare on the space shuttle, why should they be used for a sightseer and not a scientist?" Tito replied that "typical shuttle flights have five people onboard for specific missions," yet it could hold seven or eight people. "Yes, there is value in science, but there is also a cultural value in space. There should be some balance. We should give taxpayers more" opportunity to have the experience.

Congressman Nicholas Lampson (D-TX) admitted he was wrong about his doubts about Tito's trip, but he was still concerned about sending people to ISS. He said Tito's trip garnered more interest in space since John Glenn's return trip a few years ago. He asked Tito about the article he wrote in Aviation Week about standards. Tito replied that he agreed with NASA that standards do need to be set and the people chosen need to be qualified. If the standards are reasonable, not as strict as for astronauts, then they should be able to fly. Lampson then asked Hawes if NASA billed Tito for
using its facility. Hawes says not yet, as they are waiting for the current ISS team to return. Finally, Lampson asked Hawes what work was deferred during Tito's trip. Hawes said the tasks were treadmill repairs, new rack activation, and testing the new robot arm.

Congressman Dave Weldon (R-FL), asked Hawes if the proposed Enterprise module could hold a non-professional crew. Hawes replied that, after a discussion with NASA and foreign groups, the Enterprise can replace a Russian module, but financial arrangements are a challenge. Weldon then did a quick calculation and estimated that with seven shuttle flights a year with two passengers each paying US$20 million, that NASA could earn almost US$2 billion a year. "Cost overruns could be offset by paying passengers. Why shouldn't we do it?" he asked. Hawes replied that every flight to ISS "we fly at maximum weight. If we add passengers, it is a trade."

Congressman Bob Etheridge (D-NC) was still not convinced. "My office has not been overwhelmed with mail. In what way has your trip affected people?" Tito replied that surveys conducted before the trip
showed that 80% of the people favored his adventure. Over 3000 articles were published worldwide on the topic and thousands more were on the Internet. "If the public is not interested, why would the media cover it?"

Etheridge then asked the panel, "What would keep the public interested in space?" Tumlinson suggested to just keep sending up citizens. Constant exposure to the public will keep the interest high. Aldrin suggested developing new systems that will make it easier and cheaper to bring people into space. Hawes said NASA's goal of building ISS would gain public support. Finally, Tito stated, "We think of astronauts as super people with multiple PhDs. But sending ordinary people gets the interest of other ordinary people."

Etheridge finally asked the panel if the United States could buy more Soyuz modules and still follow the Iran Non-Proliferation Act. (This act punishes Russia for selling military equipment to Iran.) Tito said this was a bit out of his area of expertise but thinks the US Government can find a compromise.

Congressman Weldon stated that the public thinks space as exotic, and they need to change this attitude. He asked Tito, "Do you feel like the first person?" Tito replied that when he had this dream to fly in space 40 years ago, he thought he would be the millionth person, not the first. "I was not planning to be in the Guinness book of World Records. My name may be long forgotten. I do not care."

Weldon, Rohrbacher, and Gordon brought up the ISS oxygen issue again. Hawes replied that with each passenger, food, air, and other equipment need to be considered--including backup systems.

Congressman Lampson said the odds for dying in the space shuttle are one in 250. Would people accept it? Tito replied "I calculated I had a 1% chance of dying. I accepted it. It was Russian Roulette with a 100-chamber gun." Lampson asked who would set the standards. Tumlinson responded, "Some government role is needed. But people will die in space. The people who want to go accept the risk." He compared the risks of climbing Mount Everest. "People climb it every year, and some people die."

Lampson asked what would take private industry to open it up. Aldrin said a next-generation shuttle could do it. Tumlinson reported, "We are two years away from opening up the frontier. Robert Bigelow of Budget Hotels is developing an inflatable hotel." Mark Burnett, producer of the "Survivor" TV series is negotiating with MIRCorp and the Russians to build a Mir 2.

Lampson stated that, except for communication satellites, investors are apathetic about commercial space. How can we change this? Tito replied that investors were irrational about the dotcoms but not space. There is not enough information for them to decide if there is a market for space tourism. "I am looking for a demand," he said. Rohrbacher commented that if investors were enthusiastic in space as dotcoms, we would be on Mars by now.

Tito says that in his eight-day trip he took 128 orbits. That is about $150,00 an orbit, or about $1,700 a minute for this $20 million flight.

"We will not permit the International Space Station to fail," declared Rohrbacher . To keep the program going, he recommended to "look at alternatives to meet the challenge, to assess all of the people" (inside and outside of NASA, including Mr. Dennis Tito, and activist groups such as the Space Frontier Foundation), and to "look at all decisions without ego," referring to NASA's fight to keep Mr. Tito off of the ISS.
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Sam Coniglio 30 June 2001
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