Tourists in Space
May 15, 2002
As a (vegetable) dyed-in-the (organically grown)-wool environmentalist, I'd ordinarily be opposed to the idea of sending tourists into space. Tourism on the ground is bad enough. Who needs Burmuda shorts on space suits?
Terrestrial tourism is accelerating the expansion of air travel and the construction of horribly bloated mutant cruise ships. Jets poison airport neighborhoods, pollute the skies, damage the ozone layer and accelerate global warming. Cruise ships burn tons of fossil fuels, belch particulates into the trade winds and burp chemical (and human) wastes into their wakes.
As a form of transportation, rockets are even worse. Rocket exhausts spew aluminum salts that taint the land and poison the water. They expel chemical gases that chew holes through the sky as they ascend. NASA studies have shown that rockets rip holes in the ozone layer that drift down-planet, expanding to cover (or, rather, "uncover") hundreds of millions of square miles.
Millionaire Dennis Tito, was the world's first space tourist. Soon you won't have to spend $20 million to experience the ultimate "I'm the King of the World" rush. Companies in the US and Japan have announced plans to fill the skies with thrill-seeking Yorppies (Young Orbiting Professionals). And I say, "Go for it!"
So why would an environmentalist endorse the egoistic jaunts of thrill-seeking upper-middleclass astro-wannabes? Because it offers (like nothing else on the immediate horizon) the best means to put the breaks on the Bush/Reagan/Clinton/Bush/Cheney plan to militarize space.
Where is the fledgling space-tour industry going to find customers willing to buy seats on a rocket-powered tourbus that's headed into a potential warzone?
The Pentagon, which wants to be the new master of space ("the Ultimate High Ground" in Pentagonese) is working day and night to fill space with a deadly constellation of space-based lasers, THAADs, THUDs and other gizmos that would constitute Star Wars II (SWII).
Given the Pentagon's plans for a waging costly space wars, spending time in Earth orbit is going to seem about as appealing as setting up a picnic lunch on a blanket on the 50 yard-line at the Astrodome and hoping a Superbowl playoff doesn't suddenly erupt while you're reaching for the nachos and potato salad.
Sure, watching the sun come up over Rangoon at 25,000 feet above sea level would be a real Kodak digital moment. But what do you want to bet some abandoned space hulk isn't going to drift by at just the wrong moment and louse up an otherwise perfect picture?
We've tuned near-space into a Sargasso Sea of top-secret surveillance satellites and high-tech rubbish. Near space is already cluttered with more than 8,000 orbiting satellites and tens of thousands of fragments of potentially lethal space debris - ranging from lost wrenches to frozen sacks of vintage cosmonaut urine whizzing around the planet at speeds up to 16,000 miles per hour.
Inviting tourists to go schlepping though a maelstrom like that would be like asking people to go clog-dancing through the minefields of northeastern Laos.
Space Tourism versus Star Wars. It's one of those rare and delicious conflictive moments when one profit-hungry pack of high-powered world-beaters finds itself eye-to-eye with an equally focused band of exploitationists. It's one of those "mutually exclusive" scenarios.
Both sides want the ball. Neither wants to yield any yardage. And there's billions of dollars in contracts and cost-overruns at stake. Think Firestone versus General Motors. Think Coke versus Pepsi. Think Boeing versus Airbus. Think Microsoft versus, well, everybody else.
Or, to get to the truth of it, think Lockheed-Martin, Aerojet, Boeing, Ratheon, TRW and Sparta Corp.
Maybe if these aerospace giants saw that they could make more money building rockets for space tours, they might opt out of the military-industrial loop entirely. Better a tourist explosion in space than terrorist explosions in space.
Space tourists could become the equivalent of those brave Witness for Peace heroes who travel to distant war zones to place their bodies on the line. (A line, alas, that usually features poor peasants on one side and US-equipped foreign armies on the other.)
Unfortunately, the quick demise of SWII is unlikely because of the peculiar economics of war-contracting. In the lucrative weapons biz, products are not built to last. They are built to fall apart -- suddenly and with devastating effect.
If you are a weapons maker, the way that you ensure your financial future is to do everything in your power to see that your products are deployed and destroyed as soon as possible -- so you can start work on the replacement orders. (Might this suggest why the military-industrial folks are so fond of the Pentagon's practice of staging "military exercises"?)
Of course, Star Wars II (like Star Wars I) may fail to get off the launch pad on its own merits. So far, the system has only hit a target twice in four tries. And this was in rigged tests where we've tried to shoot down our own targets that we've launched at ourselves. Even then, it turns out, that the Pentagon has been secretly outfitted the targets with homing beacons to help our not-so-clever "killer missiles" perform their mission.
On that day that happy day when the concept of SWII goes belly-up, then I will be happy to gear up an environmental campaign to halt the orbiting tourist trade.
For more information contact:
Gar Smith, Editor