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Mass Space Travel: Real Possibility or Ridiculous Pipe Dream?

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The MoonThe technological advancements that culminated in the first moon landing of 1969 naturally led to great optimism that mass space travel was not far behind.

It wasn’t unreasonable to think that in just a few short years the average suburban American family would own a flying car and would be able to take weekend trips to the moon in their own personal spacecraft.

After all, it was the era of The Jetsons, The Twilight Zone, and innumerable other science-fiction shows that reflected the optimistic, futuristic mindset prevalent in late 1960s America.

But 40 years later mass space travel still hasn’t happened. Except for a few very rich or very lucky individuals, astronauts are the only ones making regular space flights, while the rest of us still drive our pickup trucks and sedans on aging, crowded freeways and take weekend trips to dirty beaches.

Not only has technology has not led to mass “moon tourism,” but it hasn’t even solved some of our most basic urban and environmental problems like traffic and pollution.

Learn more about space tourism with Space Travel Today.

So why has the space tourism phenomenon not “taken off,” as it were?

Virgin Galactic SpaceportWell, there are many reasons. First and most importantly, it’s expensive. Very, very expensive. For example, engineers estimate that it costs three times as much to make a craft go supersonic compared to subsonic.

Which means the potential return on investment that could be derived from a fleet of spacecraft ferrying people into orbit and beyond would be extremely poor unless the price was extremely high, which would exclude the great majority of humanity from participating. Sure the odd billionaire has tagged along with a space mission, and the X-Prize team is trying to stimulate the development of viable lower-cost craft, but the likelihood of each American having a rocket-powered personal spacecraft in their garage is still pretty low.

And the current state of economy has made the cost of space exploration, and by extension space travel, politically incorrect. NASA has been severely criticized over the past two decades for pouring millions into a space shuttle program that most people can’t see the real value of—outside of the “gee whiz” factor. Shuttles orbit the earth, ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, and conduct scientific experiments whose value is hard to connect to real life back on terra firma.

JupiterIn fact, historians remind us that the main factor driving the US to be the first country to land a module on the moon was the Cold War. We were so anxious to beat the “evil Russian empire” to outer space and show both our moral and technological superiority, that we pushed ourselves without thinking of the long-term necessity of the project. Is it right to do something so grand just to say “we did it,” like the hundreds who climb Mt. Everest every year?

Second, it’s dangerous. The doomed Challenger mission of 1986, on which the first civilian was allowed to come along (schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe), was a real wake-up call to Americans who had previously assumed that a space shuttle could never simply fall out of the sky.

The Concorde is a good example of both of the above drawbacks. The plane represented the pinnacle of aerospace technology, packaged for the benefit of mass air travel. But tickets were very pricey and it never really made money—in fact it was heavily subsidized by the British and French governments throughout the 27 years it operated. Then the spectacularly horrifying crash of July 25, 2000 brought safety issues to the forefront and put the nail in its coffin.

Learn more about the Concorde with Peter’s special Black Box Mystery: The Crash of the Concorde.

Earth view from spaceAnd lastly, even if it were possible, moon travel would have limited appeal. Sure you’d have bragging rights and you’d get to have an other-worldly experience few others will ever have, but the fact is, there’s no “there” there.

As far as tourist destinations go, the moon has little to offer: no hotels, no restaurants, no running water, not even any atmosphere. And Mars is just as bad; poisonous gases in the air, wildly swinging temperatures, and it would take months to even get there.

So at the moment space tourism seems to be focused on so-called “sub-orbital” craft which would allow rich folks to orbit the earth for a few hours for a hefty fee. Companies like Virgin Galactic have already begun taking reservations and claim to have hundreds of customers ready to shell out $200,000 or more when an appropriately safe, reliable and cost-effective craft is developed.

But there’s still hope that the average Joe can make it into space, at least on Virgin Galactic: if you’re a member of Virgin’s frequent-flier program, you can take the trip for free – provided that you have 2 million miles in your account.

By Karen Elowitt for

Related links: Foresight Institute, The Guardian (UK), Space Travel Today