Point/ Counterpoint: Space Tourism

Russian Space Agency officers carry U.S. Space tourist Charles Simonyi shortly after his landing in the Russian Souyz TMA-9 space capsule Saturday. Simonyi is one of a few billionaires who have traveled to space. Sergei Ilnitsky, AP

AP

Russian Space Agency officers carry U.S. Space tourist Charles Simonyi shortly after his landing in the Russian Souyz TMA-9 space capsule Saturday. Simonyi is one of a few billionaires who have traveled to space. Sergei Ilnitsky, AP

Sujay Kumar: Money can be better spent

Imagine how amazing it would be if we took the afternoon off to explore the solar system. We’d take a tour of Earth’s orbit and grab an intergalactic bite to eat at Mars or maybe Uranus.

For some, the dream of space tourism is more like a very expensive reality. At more than $25 million for a round-trip ticket, a trip to space is a serious black hole to most wallets. While this price will decrease in the not so near future, it limits space travel to a rich cadet class made up of investment managers, CEOs, and computer software executives. Tickets for trips with The Russian Space Agency are booked until 2009.

While it’s great that space tourism is renewing interest in the retro-field of space travel, it’s unfortunately only generating enough interest to fill a 20-second TV spot or a page 5 news story.

Sure millionaire crew members probably have many terrestrial philanthropic missions, but it still doesn’t justify the cash spent on vacationing to the moon. The $25 million price stub will have little impact on federal space programs that are worth billions, but it can make a huge impact on an earthly cause.

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    In the last six years, five people have plunged into the world of space tourism, a few of them conducting in-flight experiments in fields such as AIDS and genome research. That being said, trips are still self-funded pleasure voyages, like a trip to Disneyland without the fanny-pack and Mickey Mouse ears.

    Remember Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin? Almost 40 years ago, they captured the imagination and hearts of our nation and the world as superheroes traveling in space. That last sentence has enough astro-cheesiness that it deserves to be in the movie “Apollo 13,” but it’s true. Space missions were more than just forays into some vast black playground. They were celebrated, monumental, and deliberate expeditions in the name of science and country.

    Lance Bass is probably the most famous astronaut, err, space tourist in America today. You may remember him from ‘N Sync or his starring role in the film “On the Line.” Astronomy-loving, Star Wars-quoting teeny bopper girls went wild when Lance was in the news for his quest to land a space mission. Sugary thoughts of Lance singing the hit song “Bye Bye Bye” on a Lunarpalooza concert rocketed out of the little girls’ hearts.

    Nobody seemed to stay tuned to the Boy Band legend’s quest long enough to notice that Lance didn’t even make into to space, as he failed to come up with the enough money to finance his dream. A few weeks ago, Charles Simonyi, who helped develop Microsoft Word, became the fifth space tourist. His voyage barely made a blip on the radar.

    When a two-way ticket is $19.95 or people generate a genuine interest, space tourism may finally takeoff. In the future we may have commercial space flights, space hotels, and a Travel Channel correspondent on Mars. For now, there’s plenty for us to explore here on earth.

    Lally Gartel: Don’t judge the adventurous

    Space tourism, as it is affectionately called by many, is a patently 21st century phenomenon.

    From Virgin CEO Richard Branson, one of the most vocal commercial proponents of selling trips to space, to the outlandish billionaires of the world whose finances have made space tourism a potentially lucrative business, people seem to be fascinated with the concept of taking some time off and orbiting our fair planet.

    This is one among many things in this consumer-driven culture of ours that could be seen as a complete waste of time.

    But frankly, as long as the markets operate as they do and no one is getting hurt, going on vacation to space is kind of a cool idea.

    I’m not just saying that because my home country, Russia, is making millions off the self-indulgence of a few whimsical billionaires. In fact, I think space tourism is a pretty interesting, healthy, and lucrative way for governments to make money while satiating the needs and wants of a few to be in zero gravity and to eat flavored paste out of tubes. Frankly, there are worse things to be spending one’s money on.

    In fact, many of the recent patrons of these space tours are often active philanthropists, donating money to charities or simply starting their own. Charles Simonyi, an employee of Microsoft and one of the more high profile billionaires to travel to space, has started several charities to support the arts as well as science. Anousha Ansari, a female multi-millionaire from Iran, sits on the board of the Make-A-Wish foundation and actively supports social entrepreneurship.

    Many of those interested in space tourism are clearly extremely wealthy, and though I sincerely believe in charity and the redistribution of wealth, I cannot say that I am in a position to judge how people should spend their money, especially if they are otherwise charitable.

    At the end of the day, Simonyi or another billionaire spending millions on a trip to space is not much different than me spending four dollars on a beer.

    I could spend that money in ways that would make my parents happy, or save it, or use it for some constructive purpose that everyone can agree is constructive, but frankly the spice of life is doing what we want with the time and money we’ve earned.

    I can agree with many that going to space does not sound immediately appealing or productive.

    But many also think that watching reality television isn’t productive, and I do that constantly, and continue to pay for cable so I can continue.

    All of us have dreams, obsessions, and habits. As long as their fulfillment or enjoyment doesn’t harm others I can see no reason to judge space tourists.