24 June 1998
Publications - Tourism (None)
Can tourism really drive space development?
Initiative to "colonize" space proposed as alternative
by Patrick Collins
Space Tourism was discussed in two places in the May 25 issue of Space News, both positive and negative views being expressed.

The Positive
Pete Aldridge, President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, supported the idea in a wide-ranging and bullish interview:

"By getting launch costs down by a factor 10, or hopefully 100, we are going to stimulate the space business like you can't believe. That is going to be a huge economic driver for such things as space tourism and solar power from satellites. Space tourism didn't pass the giggle factor for a while. How many people would go into space? But market surveys show that hundreds of thousands, if not a million, would sign up to fly."

Space Future readers will know that over the past few years Jay Penn and Chuck Lindley of the Aerospace Corporation have done excellent work on the vehicles needed for space tourism, for example their paper "RLV Design Optimization for Human Presence in Space" concerning redesigning Venture Star for passenger carrying.

The Negative
In contrast, L Bradford Jr, of Louisville, Kentucky warned against relying on space tourism to generate human expansion into space in a forthright letter entitled "Colonize space":

"...Tourism is in itself a closed loop and is a product of a completed infrastructure of frontier colonization and its developed commerce.

Never in history has commerce been a base for opening a frontier and expanding into it. Mass colonization or settlement accepts the extremely high risks, the certainties, of many deaths that go with expansion and development of an alien, harsh, raw frontier.

Mass tourism does not accept the certainties of many deaths. Few tourists will pay the high price for such high risks, regardless of any protestations to the contrary.

The tourist industry has not and will not expand humanity into space before some initial colonization of space takes place. It will not pay its own bills, much less underwrite mass expansion and broader and deeper presence in the space frontier.

Nothing short of colonizing the frontier, opening the outer and inner space frontiers, will pay for itself in increasing returns over decades, centuries and millennia."

These arguments are of great interest and deserve detailed discussion. In the interest of debate, the following are some thoughts on this subject from Space Future's viewpoint.

1) Tourism is a powerful engine of economic development. It is the main source of "export" revenue in places as varied as Las Vegas, Spain, the Maldives and Antarctica. It also plays a large role in mature and rich economies such as the USA and Europe. In a world of technologically advanced agriculture, manufacturing and transportation, tourism is probably the only feasible source of export income for many currently underdeveloped areas of the world.

2) Tourism, as part of the broader field of leisure industries, is already huge and is set to grow far larger still. With economic growth of some 2-3% /year, average incomes will double in about 20 years, quadruple in 40, and grow by 10 times by 2100 - and by 100 times by 2200! Thus, in the absence of a major catastrophe, the disposable income available for tourism is going to grow almost without limit. On top of this we know already that many millions of people would pay several months salary for space tourism services if they were acceptably safe.

3) While there are sure to be deaths in the commercial development of space, as there have been in the growth of aviation and the automobile industry, how many space tourists will really die? Noone knows, of course, and so the assumption that a person makes about this strongly influences their view on the feasibilty of space tourism.

Bradford considers space to be an "alien, harsh and raw frontier", and so he considers space tourism unrealistic. Space Future considers that building and operating accommodation in orbit is not as difficult as that. First, there's no need for new technology (though it may be useful). The US space station Skylab was operated successfully 25 years ago. There are flight-proven "Almaz" orbital stations for sale today in Russia. Either of these could be adequate for early phase orbital accommodation. Thus launch costs only need to be reduced in order for existing equipment to become commercial propositions as tourist accommodation.

Furthermore, unlike the surface of the Earth, which is subject to unpredictable and extreme weather fluctuations, low Earth orbit is a totally predictable environment, except for solar storms (for which there are conveniently several minutes warning, allowing people to take shelter).

From this viewpoint there is no need for something like a military-type outpost to "test the waters". They've already been extensively tested, and a growing number of ex-astronauts are saying "Come on in, the water's fine!"

The remaining dangers are the vehicles that are used, and orbital debris. The vehicles that will be used for tourism will be hundreds of times safer than existing launch vehicles. This is because, whether they take off vertically or horizontally, passenger launch-vehicles will be test-flown incrementally like aircraft, taking as many flights to get to orbit as are needed. This process is inherently safe; see "Pilot Procedures for Kankoh-Maru Operations".

Clearing up space debris as soon as possible, and preventing its re-growth, are highly desirable. The technology for this is available, and requires merely the will to implement - remembering that nearly all space debris was created by government organizations, which should therefore pay for its removal.

4) Bradford's proposal of colonization as a more promising means of space development than tourism depends to some extent on what he envisages. A government-funded project to build an orbiting structure in which some hundreds of government staff would live experimentally, for example, would suffer from several disadvantages.

First, it would involve far too few people. A few hundred, or even a few thousand people would be an extremely "elitist" project, like government space activities today. It would involve far too few for most taxpayers to have any sense of involvement. For this reason alone, taxpayers seem very unlikely to agree to pay for it. Why should we?

Second, it's no secret that government organisations are not good either at cost reduction or at innovation. (The high costs of the space industry are witness to this.) A government-funded "colony" based on the current international space station would, at the very least, be mind-bogglingly expensive.

Bradford may also be underestimating young peoples' motivation. Life in the rich countries has reached a level of comfort that leaves many peoples' need for challenge unsatisfied. Sports and drug-taking may provide ways of passing the time, but they're hardly foundations for a great society in the future. The Internet may provide an interesting "virtual frontier", but ultimately it's a means of communication - not a real frontier, with all the challenges and new experiences that offers. And without a real frontier there is a growing shortage of opportunities for meaningful exploration for lively-minded people. Explorers today who go into the jungle or to the poles are more likely to meet a TV camera crew than a dangerous animal!

Overall, Space Future considers that it is definitely premature to conclude that space tourism cannot generate the economic development we want to see in space - and therefore not try!

The space agencies are not trying: out of the $25 billion of taxpayers' money that they use every year, almost none (arguably 2% of NASA's budget; 0.2% elsewhere) is spent on trying to make space accessible to the general public who pay for them. This is based on the agencies' view that space tourism isn't possible, so it's better not to even try.

But you don't know what you can do unless you try.

Space Future remains convinced that space tourism is going to become a major new driver of economic activity in the post-cold-war world, as discussed further here.

Source: Space News, May 25-31

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Patrick Collins 24 June 1998
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