24 July 2001
News - Habitat (Good)
Spacewalking Tourists Get an Airlock
by Alan Breakstone
By Alan Breakstone

The Space Shuttle is not a machine; it is a force of Nature. I watched that force as it was harnessed to expand space tourism's first foothold above the atmosphere, International Space Station Alpha.

Alpha was the destination for the first paying space tourist, California millionaire Dennis Tito. Russian cosmonauts and NASA astronauts welcomed Tito's flight, despite the hostility aimed at the millionaire (and space tourism) by NASA's political leadership. And Alpha proved well able to survive its encounter with the smart, well-trained citizen adventurer.

As astronauts and cosmonauts expand the space station, it also becomes better suited to accommodate the increasing number of prospective space tourists lining up for training in Russia. Filmmaker James Cameron has expressed his desire to perform a spacewalk from Alpha, and, unlike Tito, Cameron's spacefaring ambitions have received tentative support from NASA administrator Dan Goldin.And so the STS-104 mission's task to attach an airlock to the orbiting outpost supports both the professional astronauts and the desire of Cameron and other civilians to try the ultimate space tourism experience: Extra-Vehicular Activity.

(I watched the STS-104 launch from a viewing site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in the early morning hours of July 12, 2001. Buying a ticket at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex proved surprisingly easy. You can purchase a viewing pass at the visitor center's ticket kiosks or online. It is a form of armchair space tourism that does not cost the currently requisite millions.)

Atlantis stood like a prima ballerina in the glare of searchlights, thick white clouds from LOX venting cloaking her as she prepared to dance. Five astronauts formed the crew of STS-104, which meant that four seats aboard the US$2 billion orbiter went empty. A month before, Buzz Aldrin had told the US Congress that those extra seats could be filled with paying tourists without compromising NASA's mission. In the closing minutes of the countdown, I was tempted to volunteer myself to fill one of those vacant seats, but I accidentally left $20 million in my other wallet.

After a week of hard work in orbit, including three difficult spacewalks, the STS-104 crew and its colleagues aboard Alpha successfully installed the Quest airlock to the space station. When James Cameron and other pioneering tourists visit the station, they will be able to join the astronauts and cosmonauts in viewing the earth and the stars while afloat outside of Alpha's new airlock. NASA's current political leaders might look down on space tourism, but it will be the tourists who will look down on them from on high.
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Alan Breakstone 24 July 2001
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