Is Space Tourism the need of the hour? | Sunday Observer

Is Space Tourism the need of the hour?

1 August, 2021

“The best proof that there is intelligent life in outer space is the fact that it hasn’t come here.” – Arthur C. Clarke

Billionaire Richard Branson and five others flew to an altitude of 86.1 km (53.8 miles) in Virgin Galactic’s VSS-Unity on Sunday, July 11, 2021 and landed safely at the runway of Spaceport America in New Mexico, USA.

After landing, Branson said: “I have dreamt of this moment since I was a child, and honestly nothing could prepare you for the view of Earth from space.” Though he was not planning to fly particularly on this test flight, the announcement by the billionaire Jeff Bezos about his plans to fly on his company Blue Origin’s first passenger flight on July 20, 2021, prompted Branson to change his plans and fly on the 11th to become the first in the race of “billionaire space company founders to ride in his own spacecraft”.

Since NASA has declared that 50 miles above the surface of the earth qualifies as the “space” Branson and the group qualify as “astronauts” though they experienced zero gravity only for about five minutes before returning to earth.

Space trips

Of course, he was able to market the event in typical Branson style with a whole lot of glitz and glamor even advertising Range Rover Astronaut edition and Land Rover Defender even towing the space vehicle while he himself rode a bicycle to the launch site.Virgin Galactic is selling tickets for future space trips US$ 250,000 per person. Sources say that there are over 600 reservations and about 350 paid customers waiting in line to experience the trip in 2022. Though Branson took three of his employees with him in the trip, Bezos took his brother Mark, the aviator Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen from Netherlands, a paid passenger, making Ms. Funk the oldest and Mr. Daemen the youngest to go to space.

SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by the billionaire Elon Musk is the first privately owned company to commercialise the space travel already holding more than 60 percent of the global share of commercial launch contracts from NASA, US Air Force and several other Governments of different countries around the world to take their satellites into orbit, transporting supplies and even to do the crew exchanges for the International Space Station (ISS).

Since the ISS is flying at an altitude of 260 miles and the low Earth orbit (LEO) for satellites is in the altitude range from 100 miles to 1200 miles, making the trip there with a reusable rocket is a different ballgame from touching the lower bound of the space at an altitude of 50 miles. Therefore, SpaceX, teaming up with NASA and the Axiom Space, a company to introduce space tourism cofounded by a couple of ex-NASA employees, is planning to take their first two or three paid customers to space for one week’s stay in the ISS for just US$ 55 million per person.

The US Government agency for space exploration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is, of course, a willing business partner all the way in this process even funding SpaceX partially in its efforts of building the reusable rocket that can make the trip to ISS and back.

After terminating the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA had to pay Russia to take US astronauts to ISS and therefore, the Public Private Partnership with companies such as SpaceX proved to be a better alternative for them too. Axiom Space is planning to have their own space station “Axiom Station” starting in 2024 as an extension of the ISS and detaching itself to function on its own as a privately owned space station from 2028 making it the ultimate space vacation destination.

China, not being a partner in the ISS consortium made of the US, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, launched the first part of its own space station “Tiangong” in 2011 and the next in 2016 with plans to complete the station in 2022. They sent a crew of three astronauts last month for a three-month mission of setting up third module of the station into service so that they can host other international partners.

Joy rides

Most of the Western media covered the space trips of Branson and Bezos filling the airwaves, the web and the papers much more than they did the fires burning in North America and Siberia and historic floods in European countries and in India giving the impression that the most important events in the world were these joy rides by the billionaires.

Only a handful of news agencies mentioned about the Chinese space station and even fewer reports focused on the amount of damage to the environment of our planet through each of these trips to space. No private company, whether it is SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin, can enter the space travel business without the support of the NASA and/or other relevant state agencies of countries.

Taxpayers certainly should be concerned about the type of benefits they would be getting from all these space travel and colonisation of space. The world is still trying to recover from all types of different colonisation it has experienced so far, and a majority being victimised by economic colonisation even now.

Branson said that his intention is to make space accessible to all and seeing the Earth from the space without any boundaries can be a life changing experience. He said that he wants to turn the dream of space travel into a reality for his grandchildren and many more people in the future. What he probably didn’t realise is that China started building a separate space station since the ISS consortium, led by the US, refused to accept China as a partner in space exploration.

It is also unlikely that China will include the US in any of its collaborations with other space agencies. If one has to go to space to understand the gravity of fighting over boundaries and not seeing the Earth as the home for all life on the planet, then it most probably will take much more than five minutes of zero gravity to help such a person to develop his/her way of thinking any further. Besides, at the rate we are polluting the planet, there won’t be much time and resources left for his grandchildren and future generations to enjoy the benefits of his space trip, if at all there is any.

Another statement by some of these space companies is that all the advancements in science that they can bring through all the experiments they can perform under microgravity will help solve problems on Earth. Perhaps such advancement in science will then be able to conclude that gravity is the main cause of the problems such as wars, pandemics, deforestation, landslides, floods, hurricanes, poverty, hunger, disproportionate allocation and use of resources on Earth, tyranny of selfish politics, terrorism and violation of human rights among other things.

Before we start looking for answers in space, it might help to think a bit about what Jiddu Krishnamurti tried to convey when he said: “Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem.”

The writer has served in the Higher Education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka. He can be contacted at [email protected]