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The successful flights of SpaceShipOne raised the public’s awareness of space tourism, but the term itself may carry connotations out of step of what commercial passenger spaceflights will be like in the near term. (credit: J. Foust)

Is it time to dump the t-word?

It’s a word that’s widely understood, but causes some people to cringe. Some see it as a word that effectively communicates a subject everyone knows (or thinks they know) something about. Others, though, see the word as inappropriate, and even vulgar. They would be just as happy never to see or hear the t-word again.

What is this word? Tourism, as in space tourism. (You were thinking of something else?)

Space tourism has come a long way in the last several years. Five years ago, the phrase was still subject to the “snicker factor”: say the word in a public setting, and someone sitting in the back was sure to unsuccessfully stifle a giggle. After all, to many space was serious stuff, a frontier best left to professional astronauts and cosmonauts; to them, the idea of ordinary (if rich) people paying to fly into space, even on suborbital jaunts that barely crossed the nebulous boundary of space, seemed absurd. If you were interested in commercializing space, they argued, it would be better to invest in communications satellites, like Iridium and Teledesic, or other unmanned ventures.

While the term “space tourism” has gained wide acceptance, there are some contrarians out there who don’t see “tourism” as the best word to describe spaceflight for a broader segment of the public.

Several circumstances have changed the reaction to the term “space tourism” in recent years. The flights of Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth to the International Space Station showed that ordinary (if rich) people were willing and able to undertake such flights without any significant interference to government programs—indeed, the revenue from their flights provided critical financial support to Russian space efforts. Commercial suborbital manned spaceflight has transitioned from possibility to reality thanks to the successful flights of SpaceShipOne, not to mention the ongoing efforts of the other Ansari X Prize competitors and other companies seeking to gain a foothold in a new industry. Many of these entrepreneurial ventures are backed by people like Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, who made their millions or billions elsewhere but who have long been fascinated by space and now have the means to turn their interest into a business. Moreover, the failure of other commercial ventures—notably the bankruptcy of Iridium and the collapse of Teledesic—has shown that if commercial space is to move beyond communications satellites in GEO, carrying humans into space may be the largest, if not only, market that exists for the foreseeable future.

As a result, the snicker factor has largely disappeared when it comes to space tourism. Mention space tourism today and you are far less likely to hear giggles than see nods of approval, or even have people ask where they can sign up for a trip to space. Even NASA, which had been actively opposed to Tito’s flight to the ISS, has all but endorsed the idea of private citizens flying into space, with current administrator Sean O’Keefe even attending one of SpaceShipOne’s X Prize flights earlier this year. If people still had questions about the acceptance of space tourism, they need only pick up last week’s issue of Time magazine, which put SpaceShipOne on the cover, anointing it the “coolest” invention of the year.

However, is “tourism” the best word to describe this new industry that has been opened up by SpaceShipOne and its ilk? The word has the advantage of being universally understood, and it does accurately convey, to some degree, what this industry is about. However, while the term “space tourism” has gained wide acceptance, there are some contrarians out there who don’t see “tourism” as the best word to describe spaceflight for a broader segment of the public. The term, they argue, implies an industry that is far more mature than public spaceflight is likely to be for at least the near future.

Fat guys with cameras

That argument can be seen, at least indirectly, in a recent article at the online publication Tech Central Station (TCS) titled “Is Space Tourism Ready for Takeoff? Probably Not”. In the article Alexander Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University, argues that spacecraft are today not reliable enough to support space tourism, and will not be for some time. Using an extrapolation of questionable legitimacy, he argues that vehicles that would suffer failures only once every 10,000 flights—a very high rate compared to commercial aviation today—will not emerge until late in the 22nd century. Even if such vehicles could be developed now or in the near future, that high a failure rate could be off-putting to most potential space travelers. “Richard Branson,” he concludes, referring to the Virgin Group founder who plans to invest up to $100 million to commercialize SpaceShipOne, “should know that SpaceShipOne, like the Space Shuttle before it, is not a spacebus and won't be for a long time.”

Within a matter of hours bloggers ripped apart Tabarrok’s analysis, and a day later TCS published a more formal rebuttal by Rand Simberg. Most of these reviews criticized Tabarrok’s extrapolation of reliability probability, making a strong case that it was unwise to compare SpaceShipOne and other suborbital reusable vehicles with expendable rockets and the space shuttle, as he did. Given the vastly different origins of SpaceShipOne, its emphasis on safe, reliable spaceflight, and the high flight rates foreseen by proponents of suborbital space tourism, critics argue, there’s every reason to believe that such spacecraft can reach reliabilities of 1-in-10,000 or better within years, rather than centuries.

“Yes, we might see 100 flights a year but that’s not space tourism—tourism is fat guys with cameras,” said Tabarrok.

However, most of these critics missed another aspect of Tabarrok’s essay: that “tourism” implied large numbers of people flying into space. In the essay he cites a claim reportedly made by Burt Rutan that 100,000 people a year might fly to space within the next 10-12 years. (A search failed to turn up a citation for those figures; only Space Adventures, noting a 2000 study performed by Harris Interactive, has claimed that 100,000 people a year would sign up for suborbital spaceflights at some unspecified future date. [Editor’s note: since the original publication of the article Professor Tabarrok directed our attention to the 60 Minutes piece on Rutan earlier this month where Rutan said, “I will predict that in 12 or 15 years, there will be tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people that fly, and see that black sky.”]) Regardless of the figure’s origin, it implies some loss of life even with reliabilities of 1-in-10,000, which leads Tabarrok to conclude that “few people will want to pay the price given these odds.”

Despite this dismissal of space tourism, Tabarrok still believes that there will still be some private space travelers. “Yes, I think there will be some adventure travel into space,” he wrote in an email to the author. However, he called Rutan’s 100,000-person estimate “unrealistic” and added that while “others are talking about space hotels and a breakthrough for humanity, I don’t see that we are close to that.” He described this disconnect between adventure travel and common tourism succinctly in an entry in his own blog: “Yes, we might see 100 flights a year but that’s not space tourism—tourism is fat guys with cameras.”

Interestingly, one person who might agree with Tabarrok’s last statement is one of the staunchest proponents of increased commercialization of space. “I hate the word tourist, and I always will,” Rick Tumlinson, a co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and a self-appointed spokesman of the “” movement, said in a talk during the Space Frontier Conference in October in Long Beach, California. “‘Tourist’ is somebody in a flowered shirt with three cameras around his neck.”

This perception of space tourism as being something akin to traveling to Europe or Disney World may have shaped a recent debate on legislation designed to support the nascent commercial spaceflight industry. During debate on the floor of the House regarding HR 5382, the revised version of HR 3752, some members expressed opposition to the bill because they felt that the legislation failed to properly protect the safety of paying passengers on commercial spacecraft. “It is one thing to say, here is someone who invented something or built something and they are going to try and fly it at their own risk here or here is a professional person who is going to try to fly something that was built by this person, fully knowing the risk; but it is another thing to begin to say paying passengers will fall under the same aegis in this bill,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), ranking member of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee. Proponents of the bill argued—successfully, as the 269-120 vote a day later demonstrated—that regulating passenger safety too early in the development of such spacecraft might strangle the industry “in its crib”, in the words of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). However, might the vision of space tourists as ordinary “fat guys with cameras” have influenced some of the 120 Congressmen who voted against the bill?

A lack of alternatives

If, as this anecdotal evidence suggests, “space tourism” conjures up notions of spaceflight that is far more commonplace and routine than can be expected for at least several years, if not longer, what might be a better term to describe people who pay to be passengers on commercial spacecraft? Some, like Tumlinson, have adopted the term “citizen explorers” in place of “space tourists”. However, despite several years of use by Tumlinson, Buzz Aldrin, and others, the term hasn’t caught on in general use: perhaps, ironically, because “citizen explorer” sounds like something concocted by a government program rather than the private sector.

The term “citizen explorer” hasn’t caught on in general use: perhaps, ironically, because it sounds like something concocted by a government program rather than the private sector.

Elsewhere, some have adopted the term “public space travel” as an alternative to space tourism. The term has the advantage that it encompasses more than tourism: public space travel can include people traveling into space for research or other business as well as tourists. The inclusion of “space travel” in the term helps remind people of the gee-whiz nature—and some of the risk—of such flights. However, like citizen explorer, public space travel (public space traveler?) hasn’t caught on—perhaps it’s too much of a mouthful for most people.

Maybe someone—a clever marketer working on an advertising campaign for an entrepreneurial space venture, or just a serendipitous turn of the word by a writer or blogger—will come up with a catchy alternative to “space tourism” that better captures what commercial passenger spaceflight will be like in the near term. Alternatively, definitions of “space tourism” may evolve over time to reflect something more like adventure travel and less like “fat guys with cameras”. Until then, advocates of this nascent industry will have to be careful of the perceptions that the term “space tourism” carries with some people.

Some wonder whether, by the time commercial passenger spaceflight becomes commonplace enough to warrant the term “space tourism”, there will still be that much interest in it. “Part of the allure of space travel is that it’s uncommon,” said Tabarrok. “People will take risks to do something uncommon, but I think that few people will risk a 1-in-10,000 chance of failure for doing something that many others have done. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, no one will want to go if everyone is doing it.”