Space Transportation Fifty Years After The Moon Landing

The prospect of space tourism looms ahead, making our minds soar with dreams of flights into the heavens

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne
Writing from Montreal

All civilizations become either spacefaring or extinct. ~ CARL SAGAN, Pale Blue Dot

On 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 took to the heavens carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins. This was just 66 years after the Wright Brothers demonstrated that humans could use aerodynamic lift to fly heavier than air aircraft. While Collins was orbiting, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon for 21 hours creating history and demonstrating for the first time that humankind could have physical access to a celestial body. 50 years on, we are on the cusp of sending humans to Mars with the ultimate aim of colonizing it.

Space Tourism: Dream come true?
By any modern standards of human endeavor and research, space transportation stands preeminent in the wonderment it offers. What began as exploration of outer space in the nineteen fifties and sixties is now opening out as full-blown tourism in space. Added to this is the startling possibility of the existence of life in outer space which makes us not only think but wonder in amazement. Stephen Hawking – the preeminent theoretical physicist – has stated that in a universe with 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars, it is unlikely that life forms are present only on Earth.

Against this bewildering backdrop, we continue to use and explore outer space, take pictures, calculate trajectories of planets and determine who owns the moon and what the purpose of outer space exploration is. An added dimension would be the use of aerospace in terrestrial transportation where an aerospace plane will take off as an aircraft, go into orbit, enter the atmosphere using the Earth’s orbit into its destination, cutting the travel time significantly. It is said that by using this method, air travel time can be reduced drastically. For instance, a journey by air between Los Angeles and Sydney, which would now take 16 hours by conventional air travel, could take 2 hours or less. None of these technological feats would be possible without the advancement of information technology and computerized knowledge-sharing.

The prospect of space tourism looms ahead, making our minds soar with dreams of flights into the heavens. All this brings to bear the question as to how we should handle outer space given the dimensions envisioned. How would we handle space tourism?

Narrowly defined, the word “tourism “means travel for recreation or instruction, often in organized groups. The tourism industry primarily provides the tourist with travel to the destination and thereafter provides accommodation usually in a commercial establishment that provides lodging, food, and other services to the public. Therefore, tourism is essentially associated with the transport and hospitality industries, where the hotel business features as an important industry which caters to people traveling for business or pleasure. When these factors are translated into exigencies of a viable space tourism industry, many considerations emerge, particularly from an extra-terrestrial perspective. The main issues are whether a commercially viable and sufficiently evolved space transportation program could be a reality in the near future and whether the infrastructure needed for establishing accommodation for a sustained tourism industry in the inhospitable terrain of outer space could be put into place. Some have suggested that space tourism is indeed a realistic goal in the near future particularly if a space program were calculated to create permanent settlements. The residents of such outposts would have to “live off the land,” obtaining necessities such as oxygen and water from the harsh environment of outer space. For example, it has been suggested that on the Moon, pioneers could obtain oxygen by heating lunar soil. In 1998 the Lunar Prospector discovered evidence of significant deposits of ice—a valuable resource for settlers—mixed with soil at the lunar poles. It is also thought that on Mars, oxygen could be extracted from the atmosphere and water could come from buried deposits of ice.

Space tourism, which would have been merely a dream and a cinematographic fantasy at best is fast becoming neither a fantasy nor just a nickname for conventional manned space flights. It is now considered a viable economic activity based on public demand. Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth, both of whom traveled as tourists in space have already obviated any doubts regarding the immense possibilities of this activity. Space tourism is a term broadly applied to the concept of travel beyond Earth's atmosphere by paying customers. It can be defined to include not only the vehicles that take public passengers into space, but also from the perspective of the "destination" paradigm. As such, the industry can be envisioned to include earth-based attractions that simulate the space experience such as space theme parks, space training camps, virtual reality facilities, multimedia interactive games, and telerobotic moon rovers controlled from earth. Also included are parabolic flight, vertical suborbital flights, orbital flights lasting up to 3 days, or weeklong stays at a floating space hotel, including participatory educational, research and entertainment experiences as well as space sports competitions (i.e. space Olympics).

To see the unseen and know the unknown has been the genesis and heritage of human aspiration from early times, resulting in human migration and travel over centuries. The arcane desire to conquer the invincible is an endemic human trait. Space tourism has the added dimension of making space tourists ambassadors of planet Earth to other celestial territories while at the same time giving them the thrill of crossing the frontiers of the Earth’s atmosphere into uncharted territory that is outer space. It is believed that the sensation of weightlessness and the defeat of the force of gravity are the most alluring to the space tourist. Recent advancements in space technology have enabled the world community to develop safe, reliable and affordable transportation systems for space travel within the next decade or so. The National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan, in a market survey on space tourism, has revealed that the price of a return ticket to low Earth orbit should be reduced to between US $ 10,000 to US$ 20,000 per person. A market of one million passengers per year from the world’s two largest markets - North America and Europe - would, at US$ 10,000 per return ticket, yield revenues of US$ 10 billion a year. This would make space travel by the ordinary or “average” citizen of the world a common occurrence. It is reported that Enzo Paci, Chief Statistician of the World Tourism Organization, conducted a study in which he concluded that short pleasure voyages to outer space by tourists will become a reality in 2004 or 2005. However, in 2019, we are still waiting for a commercial product that would make this prognosis a reality although we are almost there.

Taken from a socio-legal perspective, space tourism brings to bear unique considerations, from the status of the space tourist to the conduct expected of such a person and the various liability regimes that might be required to address the “package deal” concerning the contract of carriage to outer space and amenities provided by the service provider. Additionally, real concerns of liability, insurance coverage and risk management would have to be allayed before a sustained space tourism programme takes to the heavens.

Amidst all its glamour and glitter, space transportation brings to bear two major considerations. The first is that the development of this mode of transportation should essentially be subject to good governance. The second is that any development of space transportation should not endanger and encroach upon the rights of sovereign States and their citizens.

Dr. Abeyratne, who is a former international civil servant, is the author of Frontiers of Aerospace Law and Space Security Law.


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