Primal Numbers – Space Tourist

When Flash Gordon was all the rage, the idea of an International Space Station seemed like nothing more than fantasy. So you’ve got to wonder what Flash’s creators would have thought of the latest in space travel: space taxis that include room for tourists to ride along. It sounds exciting, but this is one idea that should never get off the ground.

It is, of course, an amazing achievement. Not just to carry average, ordinary citizens to the International Space Station, some 400 kilometres above Earth. No, It’s astounding that we’ve conquered the challenges of space travel at all and now have a habitable outpost.

In part, that success lies in the fact that space travel is such a difficult thing. The industry is tightly controlled, with rigorous testing of both humans and machines. There are public and private protocols, and agreements that span nations. Running an aerospace program also costs billions, and mistakes are costly. In short, if you want to send anything from satellites to salamanders into space, you’ve got to run a tight ship.

So why would space programs want to introduce a random element to that mix?namely, paying tourists? Partly for the money. Not that the first few tourists will defray much of the cost. But funding for space programs always relies on their popularity. When space travel is cool and people are tuned into moon launches, governments are more willing to invest. When no one’s that interested, funding tends to dry up.

Another big reason is research. People have long been fascinated with the notion of colonizing other planets, especially as we continue to strain the resources on this one. Space tourism brings us one step closer to gauging the real-world effects on ordinary citizens, people who haven’t trained for years to withstand the physical and emotional stresses of seeing our planet through a spacecraft window.

Right now, in its infancy, space tourism doesn’t pose much of a problem. Travellers are few and the idea is still such a novelty that safeguards are high. Indeed, Boeing’s new space taxi program was just given the green light by NASA in September 2014.

And the space-tourism company Space Adventures has been around since 1998, but the CBC reports that singer Sarah Brightman will only be the “eighth paying passenger to travel to the station” when she completes her training for the trip in 2015.

Sounds good, right? A few well-known figures adding star power to research that could one day see human colonize other planets.

Yes, but the problem lies in that very popularity. Fast forward 20 or 30 years. Space stations are commonplace. Most people can afford the trip on a space taxi, much as plane rides used to be a luxury but cheap flights now abound and It’s hard to escape ads for discount resort deals.

Now translate those planeloads of tourists to an atmosphere where the smallest mistake can spell disaster.

Like orbital debris, for instance. It’s bad enough that, as NASA notes, there are already millions of bits of man-made debris orbiting Earth. Things like leftover spaceship parts. Some are bigger than baseballs but most are no bigger than a paint fleck.

Which doesn’t sound that bad?until you realize that those tiny flecks are speeding around at over 27,000 kilometres an hour and “a number of space shuttle windows have been replaced” because of the damage they’ve caused. Even if you keep your feet right here on terra firma, National Geographic lets us in on the worrying tidbit that “on average one piece [of space junk] returns to Earth each day.”

Then comes tourist season. All you have to do is picture the garbage strewn across planes, beaches, and movie theatres to realize the potential problem. Never mind the stories of planes being diverted because of arguments that erupt between passengers. It’s bad enough when that flight to the Grand Caymans gets diverted to New Jersey, but what would a space shuttle pilot do in that scenario?

There’s absolutely no denying that space travel and exploration will bring countless untold benefits. Even if we never find intelligent life or another Earth-like planet, we’ll gain a new perspective of how the universe works. Of our place in it and the wonder and fragility of our home.

But tourist taxis to Mars? Thanks, but I think I’ll stick to the Space Mountain ride right here on Earth.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.