31 March 1998
News - Other (None)
Federation of American Scientists giggles at NASA Space Tourism Report
F.A.S. spokesman shows little concern for return on taxpayers' space investment
by Patrick Collins
The Final Report of the joint study on General Public Space Travel and Tourism released March 25 by NASA and the Space Transportation Association (STA) concluded that "Our national space policy should be examined with an eye to toward actively encouraging the creation of a large general public space travel and tourism business." However, one of the problems which the Report specifically discusses is that the concept of "space tourism" is not taken seriously by many technical experts who might be expected to support it:

"This so-called giggle factor is especially prevalent among some experienced aerospace systems engineers unfamiliar with potential new capabilities that are inherent in recent technological advances, and the increased insistence of the Congress that public spending in space result in greater economic growth, especially in the human spaceflight area. And they may not recall the enormous strides made in commercial aviation over just a few decades. The general public is actually more accepting of the idea of public space travel than these engineers."

But this didn't prevent one of the "gigglers" rushing into print. The spokesman on space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, John Pike, dismissed the Report with the following words:
"The public would love to fly on the Starship Enterprise. The aerospace industry... don't know how to build it. It's as simple as that..." and "I don't think NASA should be in the business of providing vacation opportunities for rich people... because you're basically talking about all taxpayers paying for this but... only the very wealthy enjoying it."

The first of the Federation of American Scientists' comments is particularly ill-judged since the Report they are mocking carefully explains that market researchers Yesiawich, Peperdine & Brown and Yankelovich Partners asked a cross-section of the US public "Would you be interested in taking a two-week vacation in the Space Shuttle in the future?" Now, the US public have seen the crew living on board the space shuttle many times, and they certainly know that it's not very safe - yet more than one third of respondents still replied "Yes". There is no reason to suggest that respondents were imagining some unrealistic journey on a starship.

And concerning the question of feasibility, F.A.S. spokesman John Pike seems to be unaware of how easy it is to get to space. For example, rocket-planes flew at Mach 2 more than forty (yes, forty) years ago, and a modern Mach 3 rocket-plane such as "Ascender" capable of carrying passengers on sub-orbital space flights can be developed for less than $100 million (ie less than 1% of NASA's annual budget). And travel companies are already signing up customers for such suborbital space flights. But that's just using ancient technology. The Report describes how new technology is expected to bring down the cost of fully reusable vehicles traveling to and from orbit by two orders of magnitude - low enough to generate a large orbital tourism industry. So Pike's comment that the US aerospace industry "...don't know how to." is strangely inaccurate.

The Federation of American Scientists' second comment, that NASA shouldn't be "...in the business of providing vacation opportunities for rich people..." is also very unhelpful since there's no suggestion anywhere in the Report that NASA should do any such thing. To the contrary it proposes a number of constructive steps that NASA and other government departments should take to help the private sector create this new field of aerospace business - which NASA has systematically ignored for decades while using hundreds of $ billions of taxpayers' money.

NACA, which later became the aviation research part of NASA, does not perform "aviation activities", but it has carried out a wide range of aviation research that has helped the US air travel service industry to become world-leading. In this it is surely a much better model than the space research part of NASA, which itself performs "space activities" - but in 40 years has failed to create a commercial space travel industry at all.

Since the Apollo 11 flight in 1969, NASA has spent about $200 billion on crewed space activities. If this were normal business investment, in round figures we would expect to see a $200 billion/year US space travel industry employing several million people and generating profits of $20 billion/year. Sadly there is no such industry today: effectively all crewed space activities remain dependent on taxpayers' money; earn no economic return - and represent an enormous loss of potential US economic growth.

Furthermore, since NASA is statutorily charged with encouraging the commercialization of space, it's striking that the team of experts who contributed to the Report foresee that within a decade or so space tourism revenues could exceed $10 billion. This contrasts sharply with satellite launch activities which, though currently undergoing a "boom", are not expected to grow significantly in revenue above their present $3-4 billion per year - and may well fall as lower-cost launchers take over. Thus the Report's recommendation that the growth of a commercial space travel and tourism industry should be a national priority offers perhaps the only way in which taxpayers' enormous investment in NASA will contribute to economic growth.

Finally, concerning John Pike's sneer that space tourism will be for "...only the very wealthy", would the Federation of American Scientists prefer that air travel, which is now available to more or less the entire population, had never begun - because many of the earlier passengers were wealthy? And despite the fact that within about twenty years trips to orbit could be available for $20,000 - well within the reach of the middle classes at that time? Furthermore, the NASA/STA Report describes in some detail the potential of using lotteries to spread the opportunity to all US citizens (a plan already under development by private companies), and explains how the reduction in the cost of access to space arising with space tourism will greatly benefit all space activities, including NASA's.

Consequently, for the Federation of American Scientists to "giggle" at the NASA/STA Report in this way is not only misrepresentation, it also shows total lack of concern for taxpayers, either in getting economic value from their taxes - or for their very widespread wish to travel to space for themselves. But what taxpayers want is clearly of little concern to F.A.S. spokesman John Pike, whose opinions hark back to the cold war era of "big government" when scientists grew used to receiving government funding almost automatically, and didn't have to concern themselves with what taxpayers want. He and his colleagues would presumably be happy to see NASA continuing to spend $14,000 million of taxpayers' money every year, without making any effort to make space accessible to the general public.

The fact is that most Americans would like to take a trip to space, and this presumably also includes most American scientists - which raises the question of how representative John Pike's opinions really are? Perhaps the Federation of American Scientists would like to poll its members to find out? Space Future will be very happy to publicise the results.
Source: www.cnn.com/TECH/space/9803/25/space.tourism/

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Patrick Collins 31 March 1998
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