Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously wrote in his 1905 book, The Life of Reason (from the series Great Ideas of Western Man):
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Established commercial space tourism and entertainment companies, as well as startups, would be wise to remember the history of civilian spaceflight. That’s because history tends to repeat itself — sometimes with devastating and deadly results.
To wit: recall the horrific Challenger space shuttle disasterin January 1986, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
At the time, NASA was promoting its spaceflight participant program, in which selected civilians in ordinary professions would travel into space with experienced astronauts by their side. But the NASA venture was shuttered after the Challenger shockingly exploded shortly after liftoff, killing high school teacher Christa McAuliffe of Concord, New Hampshire, along with the six other crew members.
Following the Challenger catastrophe, the advent of civilians in space was banned by NASA through about 2000. Then the esteemed space agency did a complete about-face, by giving commercial space tourism startups a green light to design and build modern spaceships for civilians to obtain a ticket to ride above Earth for recreational purposes.
Enter SpaceX, which was founded in 2002 by the celebrated multi-billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk. But his innovative reusable rockets exploded so many times on remote landing that SpaceX nearly went bankrupt. Yet Musk persevered.
Now flash forward nearly a decade later to the evening of September 18, 2021 (ET), when Musk achieved a major milestone: landing the historic Inspiration4 mission in the Atlantic Ocean after three days of orbiting Earth with an all civilian crew. But the SpaceX all civilian crew only received a mere six months of training and the spaceflight was autonomous, both of which pose further safety issues.
It’s true that today’s nascent commercial space tourism and entertainment industry is less expensive per launch than NASA’s Space Shuttle program. Yet it’s also true that more explosions have resulted from the spaceflight testing process. This includes a deadly crash by Virgin Galactic, owned by Richard Branson, in 2014. One test pilot was killed and another was seriously injured as he parachuted out of the burning spacecraft.
Although commercial spaceflight for civilians cost less today than NASA’s Space Shuttle program of yesteryear, these civilian missions are no less risky — and, in fact, could be considerably more dangerous.
Why put recreational civilian spaceflight solely in the hands of the private sector, which has significantly less experience than NASA?
Moreover, is space tourism and entertainment for the general public even a good idea?
Keep in mind that NASA, founded in 1958, has more experience than SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin combined! The space agency’s professional astronauts, most of whom are former military fighter pilots, have many years and decades of training and expertise.
The five main concerns I have about commercial space tourism for civilians include (but are not limited to) the following:
1) Safety of spaceflight in general, and passengers in particular, from launch to landing without any technical anomalies.
2) Dangers to the human body caused by traveling in space, which has already been well documented by NASA and others.
3) Astronomical ticket prices which only the super-rich can afford. As The New York Times (NYT) notes in reporting on the mission, “Orbital spaceflight is still far too expensive for anyone except the richest of the rich…”
4) Lack of transparency and biased media coverage. The mainstream news media maximizes glorification of spaceflight celebrity entrepreneurs — like Musk Branson and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin — while minimizing or ignoring the inherent risks to public safety. Moreover, as the NYT points out: “As a private mission and not one run by NASA, the crew had no obligation to make public appearances.”
Their accounts on Twitter and Instagram, which were busily updated in recent weeks as they prepared for launch, stayed silent while in orbit.
5) Despite pronouncements to the contrary, there’s no practical space science or research that doesn’t already exist via NASA and other institutions.
Nevertheless, Musk and SpaceX indeed deserve accolades for their ingenuity and fortitude in launching and landing the first all civilian space crew via the Inspiration4 mission, which successfully orbited Earth for three days.
Now, where do SpaceX and its competitors go from here? Will commercial space tourism only exacerbate the gaping divide between the super rich and all other socioeconomic classes?
Billionaire Space Cowboys
Another concern is that some 21st-century entrepreneurs have a troubling tendency of allowing profit margins to supersede serious safety concerns, whether that means hacking into their latest technology or protecting human bodies in space. But don’t tell that to Musk, Branson, Bezos of Blue Origin, or space startups and related companies. These space cowboys want to whisk civilians to orbital and suborbital space for superficial tourism and entertainment, but…
Enjoying a uniquely breathtaking view of Earth from space, as well as zero gravity, are frivolous endeavors when considering the real risks to life and limb. From Apple to Google to Silicon Valley startups, too many of today’s entrepreneurs put new products or experiences out first, and then worry about safety and privacy later — usually after something goes wrong. It should be the other way around.
Are commercial spaceflight startups and more established private companies like SpaceX immune from this trend?
Who do they put first, profits or passengers?
Space tourism is lining the velvet pockets of a few multi-billionaires, who are already among the richest men in the world, as they act like space cowboys riding herd in the Wild West of our solar system. Further, what about the arguable “pay to play” paradigm and lack of transparency shown by SpaceX and others?
While it’s true that proceeds from some commercial spaceflight missions will be donated to important charities to enhance medical research and other worthy causes (like Inspiration4 per a super-rich passenger), one wonders if such altruism is merely an initial publicity stunt for public opinion purposes? More importantly, putting civilians in space is analogous to putting fish on dry land. They simply don’t belong.
The human body is not made for space, as countless scientific and medical studies have repeatedly shown.
Whether it’s bone deterioration, heart problems or exposure to radiation, there are serious health risks for humans in space — not the least of which is an exploding spacecraft or some unforeseen calamity.
Then there’s the issue of companies like SpaceX purporting to conduct scientific research on their short flights — which is really just for PR purposes. Really? Come on…
- “It’s a bit of a left turn in the history of spaceflight. This is not a government-funded venture that prioritizes the scientific rigor involved in furthering our understanding of outer space.”
- “Think less scientific rigor and more sightseeing and Las Vegas gambling [in space].”
- “One researcher working on collecting biometric data during the flight even admitted that the Inspiration4 mission is finally showing us what true space tourism could actually look like, in other words, with the emphasis on tourism.”
Are Musk, Branson, and Bezos using PR ploys, like charitable donations and suspect space science research, to sway public opinion?
Clear & Present Danger
When Musk and SpaceX launched the Inspiration4 mission with a crew of civilians only, one super-wealthy participant reportedly shelled out $200 million to bankroll the flight (although half of that went to a noble charity).
While these 21st century space tourism companies promote a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience of space joyrides, the countless dangers to passengers are too often ignored, and not publicized by the news media — which cover private civilian spaceflight akin to a spin on Space Mountain in Disney World.
The big questions, which are not asked nearly enough include:
- Is the ultimate long-term risk to civilians (death and serious bodily injury) worth the purported short-term reward (ephemeral space ecstasy)?
- Are companies like SpaceX banking on mega-profits from space tourism by inadequately trained civilians while largely minimizing the serious safety risks?
If so, that’s a big problem that should not be ignored until the next disaster.
What do you think?
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is part-1 of a 2-part series. Please share your valuable views in the comment section below, and stay tuned for more this week.