by Joanna Chin I Staff Writer
“Space: the final frontier” – so goes the opening declaration of yet another Star Trek episode I watched with my family as a child. I would curl into my dad’s orbit on the sofa, the dad who raised me and my siblings on a steady diet of sci-fi media. The gravity of star-scraping dreams pulled, pulled at my imagination.
I was not alone in my imaginings of space travel, and with the recent takeoff of once-captain of the Star Trek Enterprise William Shatner and more ventures planned by private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Atlantic, the potential of civilian space travel is far more easy to envision than in generations past.
The idea of widespread space tourism, however, remains the subject of heated debate, provoking questions: Is space truly the final frontier? Should it be? And who is it for?
The concept of a “frontier” is nothing new. It carries both grand idealizations of open, unexplored spaces as well as the baggage of settler colonialism and genocide in our histories, where the “frontier” was destined for the advancement of white people specifically. There is a human cost to exploration that is inextricable from injustices against marginalized peoples.
As our imaginations continually turn toward the possibilities of unfamiliar places and we see a rise in privatized efforts to send people to space, it is crucial that we consider the motivations behind these efforts and who may get left behind or excluded in the process.
A Brief History of Space Tourism
The history of space tourism has its roots in the competitive race to the moon in the 1960s between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union. Tourists flocked to NASA centers such as the Kennedy Space Center, eager to view the next rocket or shuttle launch, and these centers catered to visitors by providing entertainment, hotels, and other attractions.
The “Space Age” was framed as a collective national dream, a narrative of human advancement that intersected with conceptions of manifest destiny and free enterprise. Americans looked to the stars and sought to expand their reach.
In the past, space flight centered on initiatives by national governments eager to make their stake in the stars and partition the expanse for military and communication purposes.
The effort to send teacher Christa McAuliffe to space on the Challenger shuttle represented NASA exploring the possibility of non-astronaut space travel, but the tragic crash in 1986 put that ambition on a decades-long hiatus.
Since the last NASA space shuttle mission in 2011, the pursuit of human space travel has now been commandeered by private companies led by billionaire industrialists.
In 2001 entrepreneur Dennis Tito visited the International Space Station as the first tourist to pay for the opportunity. Since then, U.S.-based company Space Adventures has sent more than seven non-astronaut persons to space.
Elon Musk’s Space X project plans to send as many as 20 civilians into orbit in coming years. The pricing for future tickets for Virgin Atlantic suborbital launches is targeted at a minimum of $250,000 minimum, with other space crafts charging half a billion dollars for rides.
Making Space Tourism Liberating
Space may not be the final frontier, but we should be mindful of those who still see it as one to conquer at the expense of others. An equitable approach to space tourism would begin with the promotion of diverse voices across race and socioeconomic status in conversations around the topic.
- Who benefits from future efforts in space tourism?
- How can we diversify the leadership in terms of who is funding and providing access to space travel?
- How can we encourage and invest in people of color within STEM fields and simultaneously advocate for scientific research that intentionally targets issues of inequity on planet earth?
- How do we regulate space travel to ensure people of marginalized identities are not exploited through the process?
While these questions hint at creating accountability within space tourism, they fall short of the ultimate goal: liberation. But every endeavor starts somewhere, and a small step for a billionaire could be a giant leap for humankind.