Friday, June 20, 2003

 Space tourists 

So whatever happened to the budding space tourism industry? I remember being told a few years ago that some company was already taking advance orders for tickets on a prototype space plane that was just a year or two away from being viable. And yet, there is no news or buzz about such a thing these days.

This doesn't surprise me in the least. Space tourism may someday actually become a real enterprise, but we're nowhere near that now. There is such an underappreciation for just how difficult and expensive space travel is, and the various successes of the (manned) space program make it seem to the casual observer that private industry is ready to fulfill the "demand" for passenger service to space or even just through it. But this notion reeks of the same vapid blue-sky optimism which asserts that scientific and technological progress will always occur at the same rapid pace infinitely into the future. This is not to say that new technologies won't arise or that nothing remains to be discovered. But I think the linear application of the idea of progress to something like commercial space flight is extremely naïve.

Analogies to the advent of commercial air flight are common, but misplaced. Space flight is more like a thrill ride for humans and not a necessity for traveling from A to B. Even Gertrude Stein would see the similarity between space and Oakland - "There's no there there." A thrill ride, and an expensive one at that.

So how do we create a place in space for people to go? That's where the mind-boggling expense and the years - nay, decades - required to colonize areas of space become significant. Wherever you go, there are none of the requirements for human existence. And that is an emphatic none. There's no food - you have to bring it all with you, or learn how to create your own mini-ecosystem from scratch to sustain it. There's no ready source of drinking water - if you want to imbibe that life-giving substance, you'll have to bring it all with you, recycle every drop you have, and/or mine it and convert into a drinkable form. And of course, there's nothing to breath. You have to bring all the air with you and somehow recycle it, or ensure that the mini-ecosystem you created to grow your food can also create the oxygen you so desperately crave but conveniently never think twice about as you spend your entire life here within the comfortable confines of planet Earth.

Any analogies between the future of regular travel into space (or to the moon or Mars) and travel to other continents are made wholly irrelevant by these considerations. Space isn't some especially far off desert island - space is cold lifeless UV-radiated vacuum, requiring far more resources, intelligence and technology to habitate than anything ever undertaken before in the history of nomadic humanity. It is certainly something that can be achieved technically, but with tremendous societal and economic demands that its strongest proponents seem to neglect in their rosy sales pitches. (For example, think of how many thousands of people have to work millions of man-hours just to support a one-week long flight for a crew of seven on the space shuttle. Now extrapolate that ten- or hundred-fold.) The aforementioned naïvété that believes we are already on the cusp of that migration is in total denial of reality. And each passing day where you never hear about the incubating space tourism industry is another affirmation of that reality.

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