A cabana on the sands of Aruba just doesn't do it for you anymore? Seen all there is to see up and down the Champs-Elysees? Tired of waiting in line to summit Everest? NASA's got a trip for you that's off the beaten path. Way off.
America's space agency has announced that, as early as next year, it will allow Joe and Jane Q. Public to fly to the International Space Station for a stay of up to 30 days. The rocket ride will be aboard spacecraft provided by billionaire innovator Elon Musk's SpaceX and Chicago's aviation giant, Boeing.
You'll need more than moxie if you want to hurtle through space. NASA will charge about $35,000 per night to cover accommodation costs, including food, air (yes, air — it's not free up there), storage and communication. The space agency isn't necessarily morphing into the Hilton of the cosmos; it will rely on private companies to make arrangements with space tourists.
And that's just the price for your stay in the sky. Because rockets don't come cheap, the much-bigger-ticket item will be your travel to and from the station. NASA estimates the cost — not the same as the fare — at $50 million per traveler. It'll be up to SpaceX and Boeing to set fares that cover these costs, make arrangements and ensure that newbies to space travel meet NASA's medical standards.
So, at least for now, citizen spacemen and women are likely to be billionaires. That's fine if they want to spend their piles of cash on space travel, but NASA's decision raises a larger question. Do we really want to see the space station become a space chalet?
No, but that's really not what NASA's aiming for.
For 18 years, the space station has been a remarkable conduit for scientific advancement, tackling everything from tissue engineering and regenerative medicine to the behavior of microbes in space. That shouldn't change. NASA's mission has been, and always should be, science.
However, the agency sees allowing commercial enterprise a foot into the door of the space station as a steppingstone toward the day when space has its own economy, when commercial space stations hover over Earth like dragonflies. In addition to its space tourism venture, NASA is also planning on adding to the station a module that's privately owned and operated. "In the long-term, NASA's goal is to become one of many customers purchasing services from independent, commercial and free-flying habitable destinations in low-Earth orbit," the agency states in a statement on its website.
The commercialization of space isn't new. Pizza Hut put its logo on a Russian rocket in 1999. SpaceX has been dispatching cargo missions to the space station since 2012. Other examples abound. But given the expense to government — and taxpayers — that comes with space travel, movement toward a much heavier reliance on commercial enterprise is a natural transition — and sound policy.
So, if you've got the wherewithal, sometime soon you may want to rethink your vacation plans. But remember, one carry-on only.
Chicago Tribune (TNS)