Another billionaire made news this month for paying Russia millions to take him into space. Specifically, American Charles Simonyi — who helped develop Microsoft Word — paid $25 million for a 13-day ride in a Soyuz capsule with two cosmonauts, making him the fifth such space tourist.
Space tourism is rare enough that each flight still makes headlines, but that may soon change. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic plans the inaugural flight of its VSS Enterprise in about a year and plans to begin regular space flights, each with six passengers, in 2009. Another company, Constellation Services International, is preparing to take passengers on trips around the moon. Still others are planning a space hotel.
To many people, stories about space tourism may look like little more than frivolous fun for the superrich — not much different than a recent news item about a New York City restaurant that offers a $1,000 pizza to people with money to burn.
But space tourism stands to benefit more people than a few billionaires — and private space travel in general offers an opportunity to scrap our wasteful, obsolete government space program.
With space travel, as with many new products, the very rich are the early adopters who make it affordable for those of lesser means in the long run. For example, the first DVD players cost about $1,000. Today anyone can afford one, because many cost $50 or less — about 95 percent off their original price.
Yet space flight will likely remain very expensive for a long time. Even the first Virgin Galactic flights will cost $200,000 — less than 10 percent of what Simonyi paid for his flight. By comparison, consider that the proposed price of a Virgin Galactic flight is less than the cost of two new Hummer H1’s — and you see plenty of those being driven by people who may not be poor, but probably aren’t exactly members of the upper crust, either.
So, sure, space flights will be expensive, but they will become something that anyone who is driven to make the money can enjoy; a dream within the reach of virtually every American with the determination to achieve it.
Compare that with the common man’s prospects of going to space through NASA.
If you are one of the 100 or so applicants whom NASA selects as astronaut candidates every two years, you first have to undergo two years of rigorous training. Then you may or may not be selected to go on a shuttle mission — and since each of those missions has seven people on its crew, your chances are still slim to none. In any event, the recent revelations involving former astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak suggests that NASA’s methods for selecting those lucky few for space travel may not be the soundest.
With space tourism, it’s much simpler: you come up with the money (earning it however you see fit, rather than as a slave to NASA), and you get to go. No intense competition, no extreme stress, no diaper-clad emotional breakdowns involved.
As space tourism takes off, some wonder what the government’s role will be. In Russia, there are complaints that cosmonauts may be reduced to "space cabbies" as the government uses Soyuz capsules to make money from hauling freight like Mr. Simonyi. But whatever the cosmonauts may think, presumably, Russian citizens would rather their government earn its money that way than through taxes burdening their already-depressed economy.
NASA, meanwhile, pretends to be relevant. The space shuttle gets the public’s attention only when it narrowly avoids, or occasionally meets, disaster. One hears proposals for new projects such as a mission to Mars, or a permanent moon base — price tag: $10 billion per year — but no one at NASA or anywhere else seems clear on why we should even go or, more importantly, why taxpayers should be forced against their will to foot the bill.
Indeed, with private parties ready to take space travel into their own hands, now is an ideal time to reconsider whether government should be in the space business at all.
If space travel has benefits that outweigh its costs, presumably people like Charles Simonyi will voluntarily pay for them. If there are sufficient benefits from space that can be shared with people on Earth — discoveries to be made, or minerals to be mined, for example — space entrepreneurs like Richard Branson will put up the money to bring them back.
And if the benefits aren’t great enough to attract their money, why go? That is, why should we all be forced to pay for a few astronauts to experience the joys of space travel?
Space tourism is likely the beginning of an exciting future full of private ventures into space. It’s time now for government to step aside and let the productive sector of the economy make the dream of the final frontier possible for the rest of us.
This article first appeared in the Orange County Register.