Space Tourism: Face Time with Earth
What's the view like from the edge of space? Here is what SpaceShipOne pilot, Brian Binnie, has in his photo album. He snapped this shot last year on an X Prize run high above the Mojave Spaceport and looking out beyond the southern California coast.
Credit: Brian Binnie.

Ask anybody that has blasted off Earth and shot into space...the view out the window is tremendous.

Given the promise of privately built spaceships routinely skyrocketing from spaceports around the globe, rubbernecking customers will be afforded exceptional looks at Mother Earth and deep space.

For some, it's flat out thrill. There's also the magic of microgravity as keepsake moments. And handheld photographs taken out windows can freeze-frame your personal space trek for later show-and-tell parties.

But by all accounts, face time with Earth from space is a bonding experience.

Author Frank White coined it the "Overview Effect" in his 1987 book, The Overview Effect - Space Exploration and Human Evolution. The book's pages capture the comments from space travelers about how viewing Earth from space affected perceptions of themselves, their planet of origin, and their own place in space and time.

In love with our world

The scenery from Earth orbit stirs up many thoughts, observed space traveler, Tom Jones, a veteran shuttle flyer and spacewalker, as well as author of the acclaimed book, Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir (Smithsonian Books - Collins, February 2006).

"On nearly every one of my 52 days in orbit, my most enjoyable time was spent viewing and photographing Earth from space," Jones told SPACE.com. Trained as a planetary scientist, he was most interested in the varied geologic provinces of the globe.

"But it was impossible not to be struck by the sheer beauty of the scene laid out before me. The delicate appearance of the atmosphere, its clouds and storms, and the incredible palette of colors exhibited by the landscape and vegetation made me vividly aware of Earth's interrelated complexity, in a way that is impossible to gain by mere classroom study," Jones explained.

Jones said that he launched spaceward prepared to study the planet...and returned truly in love with our world.

"My overwhelming sense was of Earth's uniqueness as a harbor for life. As a resident of this world, it's impossible not to see it now as a place both graced and threatened by mankind," Jones said. "Becoming a space traveler nearly inescapably makes one an advocate for careful stewardship of our environment."

Universal demand for windows

The role of space ecotourism as a marketing theme has not gone unnoticed by spaceline operators.

"We as a species couldn't survive on this planet now without space," said Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic - the Sir Richard Branson group that's busy selling seats on passenger-carrying suborbital SpaceShipTwo rocket planes.

Look for a fleet of these spaceships to roll out the hangar doors at Scaled Composites of Mojave, California. The work is led by aerospace designer, Burt Rutan, and his team. First toted to high altitude for release by a huge carrier plane, a SpaceShipTwo will transport paying passengers - at $200,000 a seat - up to the edge of space and back down to terra firma.

"Space is absolutely crucial to the survival of humankind given the level of population we have got," Whitehorn told SPACE.com. From monitoring Earth's weather and crop production to gauging climate change and helping to move goods and services around the globe - satellites have proven of colossal value, he added.

"We wouldn't know about issues of the planet's safety if it wasn't for space," Whitehorn suggested. "From our point of view, the ecotourism fits well with suborbital space tourism flights. Many of the people who want to fly with us are very environmentally conscious."

Whitehorn said there is a universal demand by customers for windows. "Being able to see the Earth from a viewing port is absolutely crucial."

And in true "keep the customer satisfied" fashion, SpaceShipTwo designs will have loads of windows, even in the floor of the spacecraft, Whitehorn said. "You can view forwards, backwards and outwards in every direction."

Environmentally friendly: air-launch

The ecotourism theme also plays well when considering the role of air-launched spaceships - for both suborbital and eventual orbital trips.

"Not only have you got an economic breakthrough in launch costs, but also we have to look at the environmental constraints that will be put upon the space industry, long-term," Whitehorn said. Given the projected launch rates of people and payloads, he added, ground-based rocketry and the effluents spewed into the air by those liftoffs - especially by solid fuel motors - will likely not be environmentally and politically acceptable within a generation, he predicted.

Air-launched spaceships are "environmental breakthrough technology," said Stephen Attenborough, head of Astronaut Relations for Virgin Galactic. "It's environmentally thousands of times cleaner than any other system in the past," he told SPACE.com.

Attenborough said that the tempo of the environmental debate can be enhanced by flying passengers into space.

"In reading the accounts of astronauts, it's evidently a life-changing experience," Attenborough said. "They do come back with very firm views about the environment, the fragility of the atmosphere, our place in space, and ways of better managing the planet."

The technology of SpaceShipTwo and its derivates, Attenborough noted, "may well be the key to actually exploiting space for the benefit of mankind...to a far greater degree than we've been able to do in the past, but without destroying the planet in the meantime."