The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Dennis Tito after landing
Dennis Tito (above) is widely considered the first space tourist, but is that a proper designation for someone risking his life on a new frontier? (credit: Space Adventures)

You can’t call them space tourists yet

A few years ago, when such an idea was still in the “giggle zone” someone coined the term “Space Tourism”. This catchall phrase may have been a good tool to paint a picture of a future when thousands of people would float between worlds in pampered comfort, trying to spot Des Moines from space while Velcro-slippered flight attendants feed them piña coladas and sell 3-D postcards of themselves floating above the Great Wall of China. Unfortunately, the term does not come close to describing those first few who are putting their lives and fortunes on the line today to experience the wonder of space flight.

Worse, it shows a lack of marketing savvy on the part of the space community, a lack of understanding of the real world outside our viewgraph-covered walls that is worthy of our space agency itself, and in fact may harm the very cause it was meant to help. Why?

Tourism is one of those odd things we all do, but none of us want to be labeled as being. Does it really help us sell the frontier to the public to kill off the romance and adventure so early in the game?

First, let me tell you I totally support the groups and individuals working under the tourism banner to get people into space. Their hearts are in exactly the right place: we need vast new markets to create a self-sustaining space economy. But now the long-awaited “space revolution” is beginning, and things change radically when you move from the abstract world of artists’ conceptions or paper presentations to the actual work of making them real—something NASA is about to discover with their own space station. Often, what may have worked when it was just us space cadets talking about our dreams and aspirations simply doesn’t cut it when things get serious. And the idea of flying paying passengers into space just got very real, I can tell you.

A few weeks ago I worked with a team at MirCorp and closed the deal with Dennis Tito to fly him aboard the Mir. As I sat there looking at him, the flesh and blood non-viewgraph human being who was about to drop more than ten million dollars to become the first person to ever buy their own ticket to space, I had to ask myself, “Is this man a tourist?” The answer came back instantly and resoundingly in my mind: “No”. In fact, the term is insulting. Think about it. Mr. Tito isn’t putting up millions of dollars, risking his very existence, career, and reputation to realize the dream of a lifetime just to wear the label “tourist.” First, Mr. Tito will not be purely a passive passenger aboard the station. Like shuttle passenger Senator John Glenn, he will be performing some basic experiments and if all goes well will be a guinea pig himself for setting standards for public space travel. Next, this so-called “tourist” will have to undergo weeks of intensive training to earn the privilege of risking his life. He will be poked and prodded by doctors and analyzed by psychologists, and then be strapped to the top of a large stack of explosives, where he will sit in a tiny capsule as it maneuvers to dock with the only inhabited outpost beyond the Earth. Once there he will be in an admittedly odorous and noisy metal can with several busy and sometimes gruff cosmonauts in one of the most dangerous environments encountered by humanity, where one small mistake can result in a horrible death, not just for himself, but for his hosts as well. Tourist?

Tourism is one of those odd things we all do, but none of us want to be labeled as being. The popular image of a tourist is a sunburned oaf in a Hawaiian shirt festooned with cameras who leaves a trail of candy bar wrappers and Orangina bottles behind as they tromp over some sacred monument and ask inane and culturally insulting questions. Is this the image we want for non-governmental visitors to space? Does it really help us sell the frontier to the public to kill off the romance and adventure so early in the game?

Even though they may be the hundredth person to do so, a person who risks their life to climb Everest is not called a tourist. So why do we denigrate those who will be, in a very real sense, pioneering the opening of space to the general public by hanging such a moniker on them?

Calling a civilian visitor to space a tourist also plays directly into the “Right Stuff” mythos our current failed space program wraps around itself. Think about it. According to this way of thinking, anyone who isn’t a NASA employee, cosmonaut, or aging politician with lots of strings is merely a “tourist.” Did anyone call Glenn a tourist? Yet, we feed this psychology by tossing the phrase around without thinking. How does this help us in our cause?

I do believe there will be “space tourists” someday soon. But we need to be clear that such a time isn’t now.

And here is another little tidbit, if I haven’t convinced you already. Even so-called terrestrial tourist destinations do not call their visitors tourists. Ever hear an ad for Las Vegas or New York City that uses the phrase “Come be a tourist?” Ever hear an ad for Princess Cruises that labels their passengers as tourists? No, even though they are selling only simulated adventure rides and make-believe worlds, they call the people who respond “guests”, not “tourists.” And this is the real tourism industry: they have crossed the millions of tickets sold line. In many cases you are safer at their destination than on the drive you took to get there. Their guests really are tourists. I know of no marketing campaign for any major destination on Earth that uses lines like “come to Jamaica and be a tourist.” Again, it may be what their visitors are, but it is not how they are sold the product.

Do not misunderstand me: I do believe there will be “space tourists” someday soon. At some point the risk will be reduced to a level that makes it safe to carry large groups of people into space. Within a few years space cruisers and orbital hotels will host hundreds, then thousands of people, who want nothing more than to orbit the Earth a couple of times, float out of their seats and experience microgravity, throw up, shoot that shot of home from above and go home to tell the tale to their neighbors. But we need to be clear that such a time isn’t now.

I am sure there ways to quantify when that transition point is reached based on such metrics as volume (when the nice lady says look out the left portal and more than ten people respond), safety (when you are statistically safer in the spaceship than on the freeway to the spaceport), and cost (when most of us reading this can actually dream of going into space ourselves by buying a ticket). We will certainly know it when we see it, but that time is not now, and we only hurt our cause by using the phrase prematurely.

To call such brave souls who are willing to support our dreams with their hard earned cash “tourists” is simply bad marketing. Although it may make good shop talk, we need to purge ourselves of the term, not tout it to the media, who in their mindless regurgitation of such things will hang it around the neck of anyone who dares to take the incredible risks involved.

It was with this in mind that for MirCorp I coined the term “Citizen Explorer” to describe non-employees who visit the station. It denotes an active participant and more honestly describes what they will be doing, as the first few folks to pay for this wild trip will indeed be exploring a whole new world of activities once reserved for a tiny cadre of elite of people who trained their whole life for the privilege. If the term is too ponderous then there are others that work well. For example, we might use the word “guest”; after all, space stations are basically orbiting buildings. Or perhaps to connote their motion as they orbit the Earth we might use the term “passenger.” This works especially well for those who might simply wish to take a suborbital ride to the frontier and back. In fact, all of these terms work fine, and do not carry the stigma of “tourist.”

Our frontier is real, and it is in crossing that edge that we become most alive—that is what will sell.

How many more people will be willing to fork out the millions needed in the near term to pay for their ride into space if the first few brave enough to take the risk are labeled thus? I wouldn’t. It’s almost funny: we have the real thing, yet we are making a mistake no marketing firm in the business of selling tickets to take joyrides would ever do. This is space we are talking about, not Yellowstone or Disneyland. Make a mistake in one of those places and you hurt your knee or get indigestion; make a mistake in space and you die. And someone will die in space soon enough—then what do we say? It is all a matter of predefining what we are talking about. No one worries that dozens of citizen explorers, adventurers, and extreme sports players die each year, but let one tourist get mauled by a bear and millions of dollars of business are lost. There is no comparison. It is the ultimate undersell and it will hurt us. We are getting close to opening the frontier folks. Let’s not blow it because we didn’t use our heads.

Let us play up the risk, the danger, the uniqueness of this incredible domain we are opening. Let us acknowledge that this is the edge of all we know, not pretend it is an extension of our living room couch like the Internet or a passive playground for playboys. Our frontier is real, and it is in crossing that edge that we become most alive—that is what will sell. Dennis Tito is paying over 10 million dollars to cross that edge, to truly live, not to be laughed at.

Is he a tourist? I think not.