(originally run May 11, 2001)
This is being written from the eastern coast of the U.S. A few days ago this author boarded a plane at the El Paso airport and, after changing planes once, arrived at another airport near Baltimore. In a few days hence he will board another plane at the same Baltimore airport for a return series of flights. Except for the obligatory safety lecture at the beginning of each flight, there was no special training involved; all that was necessary for this trip was a ticket.
The first powered airplane flights were conducted by Wilbur and Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in December 1903. Within a quarter-century passenger airflight service was being conducted, and a few years after that the Douglas Aircraft Company's DC-3 began operations and allowed this activity to become a profitable endeavor. Nowadays the aviation industry has progressed to the point that, except for the occasional vagaries of misplaced luggage or a tight timetable between connecting flights, it has become a commonplace and "routine" part of our regular lifestyle.
The first human spaceflights were conducted just over forty years ago, and the semi-reusable Space Shuttle system has been in operation for just over twenty years. Human space missions have now become somewhat "routine" by some perceptions; at the very least, such missions do not attract the attention that they did during the 1960s and 1970s.
Passenger spacecraft service, akin to that of the modern aviation industry, or even on a level akin to that of the 1920s and 1930s, does not exist today. It is not entirely correct to say that there have been no space passengers; flights by politicians and other "non-professional" astronauts have occasionally taken place ever since the mid-1980s. But the idea of carrying passengers who have paid for the ride, akin to the situation of commercial airline passengers, has been too "far out" for many people to contemplate.
Until now, that is. On this past April 28 a Soyuz rocket lifted off from the Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan, carrying a Soyuz space capsule that will act as an emergency return vehicle for the crew aboard the International Space Station. Among the three-person crew of the Soyuz was American businessman Dennis Tito, who had paid $20 million for, essentially, a "ticket" on this spaceflight. After the Soyuz had docked with the Space Station two days later, Tito spent six days aboard the station before returning to Earth with the Russian crew aboard a previously-launched Soyuz capsule this past Sunday, May 6.
Tito's visit to the Space Station has, not unexpectedly, generated considerable discussion and controversy among both the governments of the multinational Space Station consortium and the general public. It can certainly be argued, and probably legitimately so, that such a visit to a Space Station still under construction was premature. But some of the surrounding controversy has centered around the entire idea of paying passengers aboard a space flight, or, as it is sometimes phrased, "space tourism." Such discussions seem to argue that only professional, highly-trained astronauts should ever be allowed into space.
In such a context we perhaps need to remember the parallels with the development of commercial aviation. In the words of space engineer William Gaubatz (the program manager for the DC-X prototype single-stage-to-orbit vehicle which flew several successful test flights during the mid-1990s),"we don't have an aviation program; we have an aviation industry." This modern aviation industry is so much a part of our modern lives that it would be impossible to conduct the goings-on of our present-day civilization without it.
We should look forward to the day when the same could be said of the space industry. While it may not happen during our lifetimes -- although perhaps, one might like to think, within the lifetimes of the younger people who might be reading this -- we can look forward to a day when a passenger's flight aboard a space vehicle raises no more attention than a passenger's flight aboard an airplane does today.
There are, of course, many details to be resolved before we reach such a future. There remains the matter of destinations, i.e., orbiting space stations, the moon, and elsewhere. There is also the non-trivial matter of developing the vehicles equivalent to the aviation industry's DC-3 which can make commercial spaceflight viable and profitable. And we can certainly work toward making spaceflight tickets less expensive than $20 million. Examined in this context, then, Dennis Tito's space flight this past week becomes not just a rich man's joyride, but also a stimulus to help us reach a future where space is open to all of us, and thus more completely realize the full potential of human civilization.
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