Science

Is space tourism insultingly obscene?

Jared Isaacman comunica con la Tierra durante su viaje espacial el pasado 17 de septiembre.
Jared Isaacman communicates with Earth during his space travel the last 17 September. HANDOUT / AFP

The flight that four space tourists made a few days ago, commanded by the millionaire Jared Isaacman – this is a real tourist flight, especially compared to the “flea jumps” of Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson – has once again brought to the fore the legitimacy of such adventures. If not from a legal point of view (everyone has the right to spend their money as they please), yes from an ethical perspective.

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  • The millionaire Jared Isaacman travels into space with three friends, in a ship piloted by him

These days the opinions of detractors of this type of activity have multiplied. The most frequent, those that cry out for the waste of those funds that could help alleviate other more urgent needs. It is a recurring argument since the first space flights and, especially, of the expeditions to the Moon. Why such a waste of funds outside of Earth, with so many needs on our planet.

All those opinions, very respectable, they ignore an undeniable fact. Not a dollar of the 63 million that is said to have invested Isaacman on his journey has stayed in space. As it did not stay on the Moon, half a century ago. All that money has been invested on Earth, in assembling teams of technicians and specialists who have made it possible, in factories that have built rockets and capsules (which, by the way, are also recovered), in universities that have provided the theoretical bases of the trips and in thousands and thousands of professionals, of greater or lesser qualification, who have taken part in this adventure. The space industry stimulates and absorbs huge amounts of talent.

On one occasion, someone is said to have asked the aeronautical engineer Wernher von Braun: “What good is going to the Moon going to do us?” “I don’t know about you, sir, but it allows me to live quite well,” he replied. If we ignore the irony of the answer, the argument was very valid: 400. 0000 people – very many, first-rate technicians – intervened in the Apollo program. Such a concentration of knowledge should be considered an intangible part of the national treasure of any country and perhaps it is what differentiates the leading countries from those that prefer to tow.

But is space tourism an obscenely outlandish activity? Perhaps it would be worth taking a look back and trying to draw lessons from history.

In the years 20, after the first world war, dozens of young licensed pilots and without employment, they found a livelihood in the “flying circuses” that toured the American Midwest (and also several European countries). They scratched five dollars from here and there offering baptisms of the air to locals who had never seen an airplane. And they also came up with riskier numbers: crashing their device into a barn, playing tennis on the wings, hanging from a trapeze or going from one plane to another in mid-flight. Risky circus numbers with no other significance than entertaining -and frightening- the respectable.

Before crossing the Atlantic alone and becoming a legend, Charles Lindbergh had been one of those globetrotting pilots

The flying circuses disappeared when the federal government issued very strict regulations to guarantee the safety of flights. By then, that trend had evolved into airmail services; then short-haul passenger transport lines. And also achievements that seemed impossible. Before crossing the Atlantic alone and becoming a legend, Charles Lindbergh had been one of those globetrotting pilots.

In the late 1920s, the advent of metal-body airplanes with seating for a dozen passengers made air travel a potentially profitable venture. The first airlines appeared, at first in private hands, but some would be financed and absorbed by the states themselves. Pan Am gained relevance by offering connections between the United States and South America; others such as Imperial Airways established the longest route linking London with Brisbane via Delhi and Bangkok. Although at the beginning the clients were mainly administrative personnel from the colonies, in a few years, the number of passengers transported was counted not in hundreds but in hundreds of thousands.

Always leave the Earth it will be expensive. But it is difficult to imagine what its future development may be

Space tourism will probably never reach such popularity. Leaving Earth will always be expensive. But it is difficult to imagine what its future development may be. Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars and thus turn man into a multiplanetary species; a dream still very distant. More feasible seems an evolution of the special capsules to adapt them to long-haul trips. The antipodes would thus be 45 minutes of flight. Of course, it wouldn’t be a cheap ticket either, but does anyone remember what a transatlantic trip cost on the Pan Am Clippers of the 1930s, with dinner served on china and silverware? Let’s compare it with the price of the same trip today on a low-cost airline (although, it is true that the current economy class does not usually include three-course dinners on board and dessert)

Meanwhile, the debate is centered on what tax treatment should be applied to millionaires infatuated with taking a walk in space. Should they be taxed almost confiscatory, as befits such eccentricities? The first intention is yes; but many voices are against it: it is a mistake to put difficulties in the development of an industry now in its infancy, but one that can change the world. There will be time for it when –and if- taking a rocket to Australia becomes as common as using the airlift.

Rafael Clemente is an industrial engineer and was the founder and first Director of the Barcelona Science Museum (current CosmoCaixa). He is the author of ‘A small step to man ‘(Dome Books).

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