Tourists in subs and in space are a good idea

By SpaceRef Editor
March 7, 2001
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This article originally appeared in the 6 March 2001 issue of USA Today. It is reprinted here with the permission of its author.

When an American submarine surfaced underneath a Japanese
fishing boat, killing nine people, citizens were shocked to hear that “tourists”
were at the submarine’s controls during vital maneuvers. Although the tourists
might have distracted the crew in the confined spaces of the vessel, the true
cause of the disaster may wind up being the crew’s inattention to basic safety
procedures, not anything the tourists did.

Can the same thing happen on the International Space Station
Alpha when space tourist/millionaire Dennis Tito flies there April 30 aboard
a Russian rocket – a seat bought and paid for out of his personal bank
account? U.S. and Russian space officials are haggling over those questions
now; their discussions last week failed to set any ground rules for Tito’s flight.

American and European critics of Tito’s flight berate the
Russian sale of space-tourist seats as an irresponsible misuse of the taxpayer-funded
space station and a denigration of its true purpose, which is science. Many
NASA officials argue that it’s “dangerous” to fly non-astronauts and “unfair”
to astronauts who have trained many years for their place in space. The Russians
– who have a decades-long tradition of flying dozens of foreign visitors
to their space stations – argue that the seat is theirs to sell. Besides,
commercialization of space and flying citizens to the New Frontier have been
long-term goals of the space program for nearly four decades.

And the Russians are right. The U.S. critics’ arguments
especially ring hollow since these same NASA officials criticizing Tito’s flight
today enthusiastically OK’d the shuttle flights of several dubious VIPs in recent
years – non-scientific, taxpayer-funded junkets by three members of Congress,
a Russian bureaucrat who couldn’t speak English proficiently and a Ukrainian
flag-waver. Furthermore, most of these U.S.-sponsored VIPs had far less expertise,
less aerospace education and less-intensive spaceflight training than Tito.
One member of Congress, then-senator Jake Garn, was so disabled by motion sickness,
the crew had to babysit him through almost the entire flight.

To their credit, the Russians have a great first tourist
on their hands. Tito is a highly educated American aerospace engineer who worked
for NASA’s own Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1960s. He calculated, plotted
and laid out complicated trajectories to Mars and Venus – that is, he drew
the roads NASA’s Mariner probes followed through the trackless void of outer
space. A tourist-induced disaster is highly unlikely in Tito’s case. Even better,
if commercialization and popularization of space are goals of the space program,
there’s hardly a better poster boy for it than Tito – a self-made millionaire
and highly respected investor who always dreamed of traveling over orbital pathways
– and earned his own money to get there. Think of what Tito’s enormous,
divergent background in both space and investment can bring to the stale NASA
space culture. And how unfair can it be to American astronauts to share quarters
with a man who dreamed such dreams and realized them – who got beyond the
governmental roadblocks and pioneered his own trajectory into space through
good old-fashioned hard work?

Future space tourists may not be as wonderfully qualified
as Tito. But the space culture is impossibly stagnant right now, made too homogenized
by decades of flying hundreds of government-employed astronauts and government-funded
scientists. Indeed, there’s an almost xenophobic attitude among NASA astronauts
toward flying anyone different, by education or background. It’s true they’ve
dedicated many years of training to fly in space. But so have Russian cosmonauts,
and they’ve learned that flying outsiders is no big deal. With the right mental
and physical-health criteria required and with enough hands-on training accomplished,
there really is no additional danger.

In fact, it would be useful for the Russians to teach all
of the international partners the best health protocols to require, the optimal
level of training for non-astronauts.

Perhaps, it would also be wise to candidly identify any
lingering potential dangers aboard the station: what delicate equipment might
be inadvertently damaged, what activities might need to be forbidden during
delicate scientific experiments, what emergency procedures must be learned.
Certainly, the partners should draw up an agreement that no tourists or VIPs
will ever perform vital and dangerous functions such as firing rockets or flying
the spacecraft. The fact that tourists were sitting at the controls of the submarine
during dynamic maneuvers for a “thrill” was the most shocking revelation to
come out of the recent submarine disaster and should be a cautionary tale for
the space station.

On the plus side, the space partners could draw up a list
of tasks future tourists might be willing and able to do, if trained: cooking,
photo documenting, serving as medical-test subjects – an extra set of hands
during busy times. When I was a journalist-in-space semifinalist, I offered
to deal with the fundamentals of all human existence: to cook all of the meals
and to clean the toilet every day. In fact, when NASA canceled the citizen-in-space
program, I was disappointed, knowing there was probably a Nobel Prize in physics
waiting for anyone who could create a chocolate èclair from scratch in weightlessness
or who could maintain a clean and sparkling zero-gravity toilet.

I don’t know whether Tito will make an èclair or clean
the toilet during his journey. But he’s bringing himself, with a head full of
business and investment knowledge most astronauts and NASA officials haven’t
a clue about. Space culture could be greatly enhanced right now by an infusion
of new ways of thinking from investors, industrialists, filmmakers, authors
and just plain folks.

The danger to the space station is not posed by the presence
of tourists, if common-sense protocols are followed and mandated training is
provided. The danger comes when common sense is overridden and safety procedures
are ignored by the commanders, the crew or the managers of the program.

In this respect, the recent submarine disaster might be
similar to the Challenger disaster 15 years ago: “a flawed decision-making process”
of the people responsible for safety of the vessels may be at the heart of both
disasters, not the unwitting passengers who just did as they were told.

SpaceRef staff editor.