29 April 2008
- Tourism (Good)
Are Current Space Tourists Actually Tourists?
Tourists, astronauts, or something else?
by G B Leatherwood and Carol Pinchefsky

Right now, there are two types of people who go to space, astronauts and tourists. They're easily differentiated in one respect: tourists pay for their journey. But when you consider how hard these tourists have to work before merely setting foot on the International Space Station ( ISS), you realize the word “tourist” is an oversimplification of the process that these adventurers currently undergo.

For their seven- to fourteen-day stay on the ISS, the first five paying visitors ( Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, Anousheh Ansari, Greg Olsen, and Charles Simonyi) trained for over nine hundred hours at the Star City complex.

Ansari, bristling at the label “space tourist,” told Space Future, “I had to train for six months and [learn] every part of the system on the capsule, the rocket, the space station. I had to learn a new language, to interact with crew members, to do emergency practices. [I had] physical training. It took a lot of preparation. [I compare this to going] on expedition. You wouldn’t call someone who goes on an expedition a tourist, and that’s why I don’t like to be called a tourist: It undermines the effort that you have to put in.”

The current space tourists are more like professional astronauts than true tourists: the word “tourist” conjures images of a khaki-clad wanderer or at least someone sipping pina coladas on a beach. Although these tourists did indeed “get away from it all,” they had to learned Russian before their journey, and when there, they even conducted their own science experiments.

On the other hand, the selection and training process for astronauts spans months and even years for a trip to the ISS. One hundred fifty-eight astronauts from 15 countries have undergone this training [1]. And in respect to their choice of career, some astronauts have been training their entire lives. So the word “astronaut” does not necessarily apply to the former visitors of the ISS.

Perhaps they’re not tourists but rather “dedicated amateurs.” The word “tourist” better applies to people who visit space and experience weightlessness but will not have to train for the privilege. This type of tourism is on the horizon, so to speak. And the tourists who will go do not fit the current profile of dedicated multimillionaire.

Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, wrote in the Wired Science blog, “The group [of future space tourists] consists of people from their 20’s to their 80’s. They hail from Hong Kong, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Japan, South Africa and beyond. They work in finance, engineering, computers, medicine, art and space. There are couples, friends, thrill seekers, and visionaries. Many of them seem just like the guy next door, someone with a modest lifestyle who sees something they really want to invest their money.” [2]

People from their 20’s to their 80’s. Not exactly The Right Stuff.

In fact, recent tests by Virgin Galactic to assess the physical and mental requirements for their proposed passengers revealed that out of 80 people tested, only two were unable to take the forces of the centrifuge test, and three were asked to put off their flight. [3]

Over 2000 people have already plunked down the deposit for their $102,000 flight, which sounds like they are not only serious about going but completely confident that they will have an experience they cannot duplicate and will return, safe and sound to ground level, the images in their digital cameras ready to download for all to share.

Soon there will be a new kind of space traveler. Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipTwo is not only on the drawing board, but nearly ready to go, launched to the fringe of space by WhiteKnightTwo. For its maiden voyage, two of its passengers will be one of the prime sponsors of space tourism, Sir Richard Branson, and, we are told, his father.

So the next batch of tourists may actually be the first “real” tourists. And soon the tourists will outnumber the professionals and the dedicated amateurs, and we will take a few more steps over the border of the next frontier.


1. Statement of Michael F. O’Brien, Assistant Administrator for External Relations, National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Before the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Committee on Science and Technology U.S. House of Representatives. April 2, 2008. p. 4.

2. Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, Virgin Galactic Unveil Just the Beginning. Wired Science. January 23, 2008.

3. John Schwartz. Entrepreneur Unveils New Tourist Spacecraft. New York Times. January 23, 2008.
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G B Leatherwood 29 April 2008
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