The final frontier

The round trip ticket to space is everyone’s fantasy, as long as you have millions to spare, says Richard Quest.
The final frontier
By Staff writer
Sat 18 Nov 2006 04:00 PM

If you want to get Richard Quest’s attention, wait until he’s travelling somewhere and then talk to him.” So said a colleague who had (correctly) observed that there is something about the sense of motion that makes me feel so completely at ease. The further the trip or the more adventurous the journey, the more rested I appear to be. And yet, when it comes to space, I go all queasy. The thing is, I have a problem with those few tourists who have already been on the ultimate ‘trip of a lifetime’.

Fewer than five hundred people have ever ventured into space and of them only four people have been true “space tourists”. Dennis Tito became the first person to pay his own way when he blasted off on a Russian rocket for an eight-day stay at the International Space Station. Mr. Tito and those who followed him are fabulously wealthy and could afford the US$20m ticket demanded by the cash-strapped Russian space agency. Their trips were organised by a private organisation, Space Adventures, which sells space station vacations to wealthy people. The American space agency NASA huffed and grumbled about the safety aspects of selling off space, but eventually went along with the plan, although oddly preferred to call the tourists “space flight participants”.

Now you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to spot the problem with this high-end vacationing. With the price tag in the stratosphere and the fact that the Soyuz capsule can only take one tourist at a time, this is hardly space package tourism! The rest of us mere mortals are going to have to wait just a little bit longer - and even then we are not going to get the full space experience.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will take people just beyond the atmosphere where, for a few minutes, they will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the earth - but without going into orbit. They return to earth 20 minutes later and around US$200,000 poorer. So, Virgin Galactic is a space project for the merely very wealthy and not just the stinking rich. It will open up space to a lot more people, to those with obscenely generous bonuses from the world’s financial markets. One prospective passenger has even pledged two million air miles for his journey.

Virgin is not alone and there are at least three other projects tapping into research showing that a majority of people long to get up into space. Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame operates ‘Blue Origin’ from his vast ranch in southern Texas, while Singapore and Dubai are also hoping to get in on the act by building their own spaceports.

Indeed, there are so many projects and plans to commercialise the space business for tourism that the US authorities have now issued a raft of rules that will govern who will go and what they have to do to be safe.

So why am I unhappy at the likes of Mr. Tito going into space? It’s simple. I am jealous. They have the right to buy their way up into orbit, while the rest of us back on earth have to cram ourselves into economy on busses in the sky. I childishly believe that the reason the wealthy want to rocket out of the atmosphere is selfish, to be able to say ‘I have done this and you haven’t’. It’s all about experiential activities that are not so much keeping up with the neighbours, but more about blowing them out of the water. To be sure, I’d love to go to the space station and see earth in a whole new light. I’d love to experience proper weightlessness (I did it once in a helicopter that was doing parabolic gravity rolls – I lost my lunch!) but I just don’t have US$20m to spend on it.

Now comes the really tricky bit where my argument against the current crop of tourists starts to unravel on the nail of hypocrisy. I am an avowed capitalist and I believe in the power of the free market so I should, in theory, be in favour of those who can pay being allowed to do so. Proper space travel for the masses might not happen in my lifetime (I am after all, over 40!) If that is the case, then my chances of getting “up there” are starting to look rather shaky.

By now you are probably thinking I am a bit of a killjoy: If I can’t do it, no one should be able to. When flying started it was originally the purview of the wealthy. Any new idea is initially going to be reserved for the well-heeled. It is a harsh reality of economic life. I just don’t have to like it.

Join CNN's Richard Quest for “CNN Future Summit: World in Motion," an hour long debate from Singapore featuring Buzz Aldrin and Anousheh Ansari. “CNN Future Summit: World in Motion" debuts Thursday November 23 at 6pm Hong Kong time. For more information and replay times, log on to www.cnn.com/futuresummit.

Richard Quest presents ‘Business Traveller’ and ‘Quest’ on CNN.

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