Wally Funk was one the passengers in space on the “New Shepard’ flight on 20 July. Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origins gave the 82 year old an opportunity to fulfill her life’s mission and dream. Just a few days ago on July 11, Richard Branson on his company’s Unity space flight along with Indian origin aeronautical engineer Sirsha Bandla flew to space for a few hours and returned.
The era of space tourism has arrived and the competition is already fierce. This new travel destination had its first customer way back in 2001. US millionaire Dennis Tito arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) via a Russian Soyuz rocket, becoming the world’s first space tourist. Travel in space came at a huge sum and was repeated by a few individuals in the intervening time period.
However, space is now the new frontier for tourism on the planet. Presently, one of the most exciting space facilities in the world is a World War Two hangar in the Mojave Desert in California. In that facility, dreams and ambitions of space tourism are taking shape and being experimented upon. From the fabulously rich like Branson and Bezos to start-ups like Xcor – the race to attract people to visit space is serious and on track. Waitlists are already in existence for people who want to ride out into space in the flights being offered by Branson and Bezos. Even Elon Musk is on the wait list on Branson’s space flight!
Space tourism is a new frontier opening up; bringing with it both hope and fears. Outer space has traditionally been the arena of sovereign governments, but space tourism has ensured that private players are increasingly becoming important. Many see this as a boon, because it allows for funds to flow into this sector freely and also allows for hits and misses. Since they use tax payer money, National space missions often face unprecedented pressure for success.
Further, it is anticipated that research and development of new technologies for space travel will see a boost. There is already talk of ‘Hypersonic’ travel – where the sub orbital space could be used to reduce both flight time and distance. Currently space tourism is a preserve of the rich as the cost of tickets to have a short experience of being an astronaut is steep. However, as the technology moves ahead it is hoped that space tourism will become cheaper and more accessible.
The detractors of this trend point out the environmental costs of the space vehicles. There are studies which say that the black carbon or soot deposited in the stratosphere by the space vehicles would start increasing temperatures. There are also questions about the carbon emission per person in space travel. Issues regarding the need for regulation of outer space with the advent of non-sovereign players are also being discussed.
All astronauts who have crossed into space talk about the sense of wonder and respect at seeing the blue speck that is Earth, surrounded by dark nothingness. For most it changed their view of how they felt about our planet. Hopefully, future space travelers will gain a deeper appreciation for our planet and become proactive protectors of Earth on return.
For most of us that are watching this new destination emerge there are mixed feelings. Let us hope that space tourism helps the planet in ways we are unable to foresee; and increases the sense of urgency to protect this beautiful blue marble of the universe.
Published in Hindi in the Dainik Bhaskar on 21-7-2021