The main problem about space is how much it costs to get there: it's too expensive! And that's mainly because launch vehicles are expendable - either entirely, like satellite launchers, or partly, like the space shuttle.
So we need reusable launch vehicles. The trouble is that these will not only reduce the cost of launch - they'll also put the makers out of business, unless there's more to launch than just a few satellites a year, as there are today.
Fortunately there's a market that will generate far more launch business than satellites ever well - passenger travel. Market Research has shown that the idea of space tourism is very very popular. And so, just like aviation, the launch industry is going to find that most of its business will be carrying passengers.
But this idea of Space Tourism isn't at all familiar to most people, including the space industry, who are used to the idea that space is for research or military activities. Few people are aware of how much work has been done to show that tourism is a realistic goal, and how rapidly this work is now progressing.
Once travel to orbit becomes a commercial service, the question of how to get to space will be mainly one of saving up for a ticket - or looking for work in one of the many space hotels that will be built. Space offers unique pleasures including the view, and zero gravity activities that provide a whole range of things to do on an orbital holiday - including space sports.
Importantly, and contrary to what many people assume, the space agencies are not at all interested in space tourism, and are not trying to bring it about. This is a pity because space activities will never be profitable until tourism services begin, remaining small-scale, expensive, and dependent on taxes which come from you - which would you prefer?
Here are some key documents from the archive to get you started:
Introduction: Space Tourism
"Space tourism" is the term that has come to be used to mean members of the public traveling to and from space by buying tickets like an airline. It's a distinct category of "space travel" which also includes travel in space for work purposes - to date, mainly by government staff.
In recent years it has become increasingly recognised that, although government space agencies are not interested in space tourism, it is a legitimate objective of space development - and it is likely to generate substantial investment funds that will help to develop space.
Indeed NASA itself published a report "General Public Space Travel and Tourism" in March 1998 which endorses the idea of space tourism; points out that it is going to start quite soon in the form of sub-orbital flights; and argues that it is likely to become a much larger market for launch systems than satellite launch.
Although space tourism appears in a number of science fiction stories, it's very striking that in almost none of them is tourism portrayed as more than a small-scale activity greatly overshadowed by government space activities - military operations, scientific research, defence, etc. This seems to be a good example of how the Cold War pattern of space activities paralyzed the public's imagination. That is, government monopoly organizations carrying out "missions" in space ostensibly for the benefit of the taxpayer created a fixed image of what space activities are, which has dominated the imaginations of engineers and scientists, the media, politicians and the general public for several decades.
This effect has been so strong that even most science fiction writers became unable to imagine anything different - although they are generally thought to be some of the more imaginative members of society! Yet, search as you may, almost no stories set within the next 50-100 years feature near-Earth space tourism at all, and in those that do it is an economically and socially minor activity.
Space Future disagrees firmly with this collective image, and maintains that space tourism will become the main economic activity attracting commercial investment into space and thereby financing space development - within as little as a decade or two. That is, far from being a small-scale activity of just a few rich people, tourism in space will grow like air travel to become a mass market available to the middle classes, and will dwarf other space activities.
Encouragingly, the objective of space tourism is gradually coming to be more and more widely accepted - see the Space Future Timeline of space tourism. Compared to that coming reality, today's long-term projections by government space agencies (which are generally accepted by the media and appear in much science fiction) that in 50 years the sum total of human space activities will comprise a handful of scientists working at bases on the Moon and Mars, and perhaps a hundred in Earth orbit - will come to seem astonishingly blinkered.
In the following we discuss a number of examples of space tourism activities appearing in science fiction stories - both short stories and novels, and also film and video. The authors would be grateful for any references and (better still) excerpts from other stories, in order to make this survey as complete as possible.
Space Tourism in Science Fiction
Space Tourism in Books and Short Stories
The idea of tourism in space is the central story line in a number of well-known and not-so-well-known science fiction stories. It also plays a significant part in a number of other stories, and gets some sort of mention in even more. In the following we discuss a number of these.
"The Menace from Earth"
Robert Heinlein, 1957
A good place to start seems to be Robert Heinlein's wonderful 20-page story "The Menace from Earth", first published in 1957 by Fantasy House Inc, and more-or-less continually available in one or other edition of a short-story collection of that name. It's about a 15 year-old school-girl, Holly Jones, a 3rd-generation lunar inhabitant, whose hobbies are designing star-ships and flying in "Bats' Cave", a natural cavern two miles wide and half-a-mile high which is Luna City's air reservoir and is also used for recreational flying. (With weight 1/6 of that on Earth, almost anyone can fly like a bird on the Moon.)
The story concerns a rich tourist from Earth, Ariel Brentwood, who temporarily mesmerizes Holly's boyfriend, Jeff Hardesty, to Holly's discomfort. The heart of the story concerns Holly helping Ariel to try out flying in "Bat's Cave".
Realistically, Heinlein depicts tourism as being an important part of the lunar economy, and the flying scenes are wonderfully described. The theme is certainly a realistic possibility for early in the 21st century - quite soon now - and Heinlein takes his usual pleasure in working out the engineering details correctly. Holly describes her custom-made wings to the reader:
"They're lovely! - titanalloy struts as light and strong as bird-bones, tension-compensated wrist-pinion and shoulder joints, natural action in the alula slots, and automatic flap action in stalling. The wing skeleton is dressed in styrene feather-foils, with individual quilling of scapulars and primaries. They almost fly themselves."
A great bit of foresight, and a charming story as well, which captures the mood of 1950s USA at its best - something like the atmosphere of Norman Rockwell's paintings - fresh, optimistic, a little naive, but confident and going places - especially out into space, of course! Also a great example of Heinlein's skill as a story-teller with a clear idea of how the future of space activities could really be. (It's perhaps more correct to call him a "story-teller-engineer", in the same tradition as Nevil Shute, the airship and aircraft engineer and novelist.)
Kurt Siodmak, 1959
Another particularly striking story from the same era is "Skyport" by Kurt Siodmak, reprinted as a Signet paperback in 1961. This contains what must be (at least for Space Future types) the truly classic scene:
"Just tell me the general idea you have in mind - the idea Sven and my daughter keep so mysteriously to themselves. What is this thing that's so revolutionary and so daring? Fantastic and at the same time logical? I'm quoting, of course, my daughter."
"Skyport" contains what now seem funny scenes due to some technical misunderstandings, but these are excusable given that it was published between Sputnik 1 and Gagarin's first flight. It's essentially a realistic story - largely concerning boardroom wheeling and dealing between business rivals trying to get control of the orbital hotel as a pawn in their empire-building - unconcerned by its cosmic significance.
It also contains some excellent discussions about space law, interior design in zero-gravity, marketing and other subjects as they relate to a space hotel. It seems fair to say that Siodmak had a good idea of how extremely popular such a project would be, and how it would lead on to growth of space activities.
"A Fall of Moondust"
Arthur C Clarke, 1961
In the second rank of tourism stories, Arthur C Clarke's 1961 novel "A Fall of Moondust" (republished most recently by Bantam Books 1991) concerns the misadventure of a party of lunar tourists whose vehicle sinks in a crater full of dust. However, in the world in which it's set, there's a research station between the Moon and Earth, and another on the Moon, and it's clear that only very rich people get to be tourists, and they're a very small part of what's going on in space - so we're back in the traditional space paradigm.
Having said that, lunar tourism is always going to be considerably (perhaps 10 times?) more expensive than tourism in low Earth orbit, due to the Moon being 1000 times further away. However, there's no reason to suppose that lunar tourism won't grow to a large scale, and even become the dominant activity on the Moon - though it may be a close thing in competition with ice-mining for export to hotels in low Earth orbit - see "Tourism in Low Earth Orbit: The Trigger for Commercial Lunar Development?".
"Picnic on Paradise"
Joanna Russ, 1968
Joanna Russ's excellent 1968 novel "Picnic on Paradise" (republished most recently in 1979), is set much further into the future when interstellar travel is common. It concerns an unfortunate party of tourists who get caught up in a civil war while visiting a distant planet. They seem to be something like "adventure tourists" since they have a tour guide with them. The drama arises because she's fiercely aware that they're most likely all going to die very soon, and she's profoundly irritated with her idle rich clients and their hopelessly unrealistic ideas about what to do. A great read.
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Roald Dahl, 1973
In 1973 the childrens' fantasy story "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator" by Roald Dahl, was first published by George Allen & Unwin. It opens with Charlie and his parents and grandparents flying skywards in a glass elevator (it's a children's story, remember!). They continue upwards until they reach orbit where they come across the subject of Chapter 2, titled "Space Hotel U.S.A."
There's then some discussion of the rich and famous people who are going to stay in the hotel - one offering $100,000 per day for the "honeymoon suite", and it continues:
"...but you cannot send guests to an hotel unless there are lots of people there to look after them, and that explains why there was yet another interesting object orbiting the Earth at that moment. This was the large Transport Capsule containing the entire staff of Space Hotel 'U.S.A.' There were managers, assistant managers, desk-clerks, waitresses, bellboys, chambermaids, pastry chefs and hall porters."
The story subsequently turns into a battle with aliens, but even these short sections show that the author was thinking through the idea of orbital hotels rather clearly (leaving aside the gravity making machine, at least).
Mack Reynolds, 1975
This book is set in the near future where taxes in the United States consume almost all wealth. The rich and the Mafia have set up a 'Las Vegas in Space' for tourists and the tax-sheltered wealthy. The story revolves around a private detective whose case takes him to the station and forces him to confront its founders.
From the context of the story, it is pretty clear that a vacation in the huge resort platform was expensive, but not out of reach of reasonably wealthy tourists, and the hotel residents were not extremely surprised to be visited by the not very well-to-do private detective. At the least, it shows an expectation that resorts in Earth orbit would be expensive and exclusive commercial vacations, but no more so then high end cruise ships.
David Hardy with Bob Shaw, 1983
A very different sort of book is the picture-book "Galactic Tours", by the space artist David Hardy and writer Bob Shaw, which illustrates a range of tourist possibilities with sweeping imagination - from lunar and Martian holidays and skiing on Europa (one of the moons of Jupiter) in our solar system, to weird and exotic far-future possibilities in other star systems.
To stick to reasonably predictable matters, it's clear that lunar tours will become a big business. Once low-Earth orbit is routinely accessible to tourists, the 3-day trip each way to the Moon and back (using no more than Apollo-era technology) makes a 2-week trip a very realistic "package". One day too, tourists will travel to Mars and go skiing on Europa - at least a few early explorers should within a few decades from now. However, the journey times of a year or so needed to get to another planet from Earth make such trips much less promising as tourist destinations. It's a lot less realistic to imagine large numbers of people taking a few years off work than a couple of weeks, whatever the price.
But for these trips and the even more far-out ideas, it's worth remembering the striking effects of compound economic growth: at less than 2.5% per year, incomes grow 10 times per century - that means 100 times in 200 years! - and 1000 times in 300 years!! So however expensive you want to assume interstellar travel will be, it won't be more than a few hundred years before it will be economically feasible - a short time even in human history - let alone in cosmic evolutionary terms!
Alexander Besher, 1994
A more recent addition to science fiction about space tourism is "Rim" (sub-titled A Novel of Virtual Reality) by Alexander Besher (first published in 1994 by Harper CollinsWest, and reprinted by HarperPaperbacks in 1996). Much of the action takes place either in Japan or in cyberspace, but about 50 pages (out of about 300) are devoted to action in and around the 350-room "Station Seven Intercontinental" hotel that occupies the top 20+ floors of "Space Station Seven" and is described as the "the first orbiting luxury hotel in the world".
The description unfortunately contains a number of technical errors such as stating that the hotel is "...in geosynchronous orbit 280 miles above Neo-Tokyo" (!) - which are rather less forgiveable today than they were in the 1950s. But such remarks as that the hotel "...was a special favorite of Japanese honeymooners, who were prevented from traveling abroad by the New Nippon quarantine..." ring truer.
There's also unexplained artificial gravity, and no real thinking through of orbital hotel design - nor any scenes of ordinary guests enjoying the pleasures of staying in orbit - so Besher still can't be said to be describing the (relatively near) future that Space Future is promoting - but "Rim" is definitely "getting warmer"!
Encounter With Tiber
"Encounter with Tiber" starts with a near-future history of how space gets opened up to the general public - and space tourism is given a major role (though it takes up only a few pages out of more than 500). The scene is set with a second space shuttle accident, which poses the problem how is the money to be raised to pay for a new generation of fully reusable space vehicles?
Sig Jarlsberg, (something of a modern-day Delos Harriman, the businessman-hero of Robert Heinlein's classic story "The Man Who Sold the Moon") founds an ecological travel company for the rich and famous, 'Planet Vision Adventure Tours' which grows into "Share-the-Planet Tours .....a giant in the burgeoning industry of low-impact, high-priced tourism". In 1999 Sig assembles a group of super-rich clients (including the names of some of today's more famous billionaires) and convinces them to invest in a space tourism business venture:
In the following years the suborbital "Skygrazer", the reusable booster "Starbooster" and orbital "Starbird" upper stage are developed which reduce the cost of passenger travel to orbit.
The main story of "Encounter with Tiber" then takes over as messages arrive from intelligent extra-terrestrials and stimulate governments to finance more space activities. As a result, by the early 2010s there are 9 government space stations - 2 French, 2 Russian, 1 Chinese, 1 Japanese, 1 US and 2 international ones - with a total of 35 permanent staff. At that time the then still young hero of the novel makes his first visit to the new international station 'Starport' as "the first kid in space", and there's some discussion of a plan to buy 4 space shuttle External Tanks to be linked together into a 'space hotel', one to be "...just an empty padded space that people can use as a gym".
The hero describes the impressive view of Earth, and the fun of living in zero-gravity: "Swimming through the air to the other window was a lot of fun" and "...we played an odd game the Japanese had devised, Ping-Pong inside a Plexiglass cylinder that they had shipped up for some now-forgotten reason (to get the ball "over the net" you had to get it through the central hole)". Finally he opines "As soon as there's enough room up here..... there's going to be a real tourist trade. This is more fun than skiing and skydiving at the same time. If there were just room enough, think of what you could do." (The action then switches to 2075 for the encounter with the aliens.)
Realistic in giving space tourism a major role in raising the investment needed to develop space, "Encounter with Tiber" is also interesting in describing the leading role that a single visionary individual with enough resources behind them can play. The development of low-cost passenger space vehicles is certainly at a stage today at which wealthy individuals can and are playing a very significant role - as they did in the early days of aviation. (A few more would be welcome!)
"Not the Only Planet"
Damien Broderic, editor, 1998
In 1998 Lonely Planet Publications, the Austrialia-based publisher of books for travellers to out-of-the-way places, published the book "Not the Only Planet" as part of their new "Lonely Planet Journeys" fiction series. This is a collection of 10 stories by known science fiction writers, which might seem to offer a good chance of getting a vision of tourism in space.
But no such luck. The objective of the collection is stated as being stories that "...in some special way caught the experience of travel". However, only two of them are space travel stories of what might be called the reasonably near future, involving visits to Mars and Venus respectively - and even this is being generous. The first, while technologically feasible, faces the problem that Mars is unlikely to be a significant tourist destination for a ve-ery long time - for the reason that it takes a year to get there. The second story involves major futuristic prosthetic surgery to put up with Venus' hideous climate! Joanna Russ gets closest to the feeling space tourism in her alien phrase book - but that too is looking rather far ahead!
The rest of the stories are all more-or-less surrealistic (for want of a better word) - involving time travel, parallel worlds, psychological and far-future mind-bending. This isn't a criticism: the editor selected them from hundreds, as he explains "...it isn't difficult to find sf tales dealing with travel...... Science fiction and travel have always gone together....."
But this makes the point of this essay. Almost all science fiction writers over-look the possibility of near-term space travel by the general public. Collectively they just don't have a vision of an interesting and convincing near-future world of human space activities centring on tourism.
To put it differently, science fiction writers haven't painted a clear picture of how space is going to be opened up - the growth of space tourism leading to the development of more and more exotic orbital hotels, and lunar development based on exporting ice and other materials to these orbital facilities. But this isn't because they've considered the possibility and decided it isn't interesting - it's primarily because they aren't aware of the possibility. The image they mostly have of near-future, near-Earth space activities is that they're going to be more of the same - government technology development projects - and hence boring, not material for new and interesting stories.
But the facts remain that most people want to go to space; and NASA has confirmed in print that space tourism is feasible, near-term and could grow into the largest business activity in space. Space Future's scenario not only leads to an interesting and fun future in space, but it's the only scenario that does so. For that reason it's going to happen, and the signs are that it's going to start fairly soon now. It's just sad that science fiction writers haven't started drawing this future to the attention of the public yet.
Passing Mentions of Space Tourism
In a rather different category, tourists get a passing mention in quite a lot of science fiction stories. For example Ben Bova devoted a few pages of his "Moonbase Orientation Manual" to tourism on the Moon 40 years from now. However, the tourists are clearly not seen as important characters - just a few rich people visiting a government base, while taxpayers are expected to pick up the main tab for the serious work being done.
Space Tourism in the Movies
While there are plenty of movies from far in the past about space travel, we are unaware of any in which space tourism is a major business activity, or in which realistically portrayed orbiting hotels play a major role. Nevertheless the concept of tourism turns up here and there - just enough to show how the coming reality of space tourism has not been foreseen at all clearly in the movie industry.
Overall, it's probably lucky that zero gravity can't be faked (except in 20 second bursts inside an aeroplane). So Hollywood is going to have to build a studio in LEO to make all the great zero-G scenes that are imaginable! That should help to raise money for space hotels. Note, an orbiting film studio was one possibility investigated in the Commercial Space Transportation Study.
"2001: A Space Odysey" (1968)
The famous rotating low Earth orbit station in "2001" is sometimes quoted as an example of a space hotel. In the story, part of it is said to be a hotel, and people do apparently stay there while waiting for their connecting flights to and from the Moon. However, it seems fair to say that it's not a "real" space hotel. For example there's no sign of anyone having any fun - and there are no women or children. Flights are very few, and the activities seem to be exclusively governmental rather than commercial (as they would more-or-less have to be being operated on such a very small scale).
Furthermore, the activities on the Moon are clearly government ones - classic NASA-types doing "research" and making serious decisions that will affect humans' destiny etc etc in solemn tones. Very strongly influenced by the "ruling paradigm" of the Cold War era, "2001" seems to have been made on the assumption that that pattern would continue indefinitely into the future. Present-day budget cuts at government space agencies, and growing interest in commercial space activities and space tourism are showing the way to how mistaken this was. [IMDB]
"The Fifth Element" (1997)
At perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum, a large part of the action in "Fifth Element" takes place inside what is said to be an orbiting "hotel", which actually looks very like a huge cruise liner. It's spoiled by the fact that the story is very average 1990s nonsense, and there's no attempt at showing either zero-G scenes or Earth and space viewing lounges - which are surely the major reasons why people are going to go to space hotels. It looks little different from a gaudy and noisy Las Vegas hotel. [IMDB]
"Moon Zero Two" (1969)
"Moon Two Zero" came out around the same time as "2001" and featured space tourists prominently in the plot. The film is set in a lunar resort city. The protagonist is an ex-astronaut, the first man to land on Mars and owner of his own spaceship, with which he makes a living scavenging dead satellites. Prices are not mentioned much, but in one scene a lunar visitor offers him $10,000 to take her to the far side of the Moon in his ship. The rest of the movie concerns a mad tycoon's plan to crash a pure sapphire asteroid on the far side of the Moon (illegally of course), and the hero must to cooperate, or else. Regrettably, the film is not offically available now and hard to find, but copies may turn up on Ebay from time to time. [IMDB]