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Expert Voices

Private astronauts are not 'space tourists' (op-ed)

The Inspiration4 crew are pictured inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on Sept. 12, 2021, during a dress rehearsal for their Sept. 15 launch. From left: Chris Sembroski, Sian Proctor, Jared Isaacman and Hayley Arceneaux.
(Image credit: SpaceX)

Today (Sept. 15) the Inspiration4 mission will launch into space. On board the custom-built, privately operated SpaceX Dragon capsule will be an all-civilian crew of culturally and socially blended people on a mission funded by a billionaire, designed to raise awareness and support for St. Jude Children's Hospital. Without a doubt, they are going to have the peak experience of their lives.

None of them will be tourists.

They will also not be government employees. They are an entrepreneur-philanthropist, a former Marine who served in Iraq, a nurse's assistant and cancer survivor, and an educator.

They will be human beings who, via their own enterprise, creativity and dogged determination, stretching in some cases back into their childhood — and frankly in some cases a bit of the luck of the draw — will find themselves sitting in those comfortable-looking seats, wearing those very cool looking spacesuits and flying on top of one of the most spectacular engineering feats of humanity: SpaceX's reusable Falcon 9 rocket

Related: Inspiration4: When to watch and what to know
Live updates: SpaceX's Inspiration4 private all-civilian orbital mission 

Again, they will not be tourists. Call them "citizen explorers," "private Astronauts" — call them anything else, but do not demean their amazing and incredible journey into the heavens by slapping the ridiculously overused term "tourist" on them. 

That is, of course, unless you are also willing to use the word to describe every other person who has strapped themselves on top of a controlled bomb to fly to a place that could kill you in exquisitely awful ways to achieve whatever goals they may have had, be it reflection in what it means to be a human being or re-election in the case of those elected officials who did so on taxpayers' dime.

After all, while the incredible dedication, bravery and overall excellence that imbues every astronaut, cosmonaut and taikonaut are impeccable global symbols of human aspiration and inspiration, those space travelers are government employees. And when pressed, every one of them, in their truly outstanding and inspiring way, will say they are "just doing their job." And a hell of a job it is. But it is still just a job. 

Sure, they focused their entire lives on being the best they can be, achieving excellence in all they do. Yet, they will be the first to tell you they are just people — very, very lucky people. People who have set standards for themselves and been able to hew to their own discipline and goal setting in ways that almost none of us can achieve for even a week, let alone a lifetime. Indeed, they do have what Tom Wolfe called "the right stuff," and every one of them I have ever met radiates that "stuff" like a contagious virus of excellence and humanity.

Government astronauts or private astronauts, these people have earned their seats and will earn their astronaut wings. They will earn them in the work they do, as they carry out dozens of experiments submitted by universities and researchers, just like NASA astronauts do, but also by the achievements it took them to get there. 

Everyone gets to where they are in life by a different route. Jet pilot, genius, engineer or educator — it is not where you come from that counts, but who you become and where you go. Be it by way of the Air Force Academy, making the cut at the Corps, staring at computer screen and coding into the night, saving a child's life as a medical professional, or inspiring their minds as an educator, you don't get to the top of a rocket by being mediocre. You earn it. You turn yourself into a vision-creating, vision-questing, vision-realizing machine. You give up the comfort of your couch, you put down your video games, you walk out the door, and you take on the world so you can take your turn riding above that world — so you can perhaps come back to that world changed, and know You Did This Thing.

As they have lifted themselves into position to be lifted by a rocket into the skies, let us not lower them by sticking them with a label that not even Disneyland calls its own guests. You do not spend a ton of money, train as hard as any professional, and risk your life to achieve your peak human experience — just to be given the same name as a guy in a Hawaiian shirt, leaving a trail of Orangina bottles and urinating on a monument. Is a mountain climber a tourist? How about those diving the deepest oceans? No. Training, skills and danger to self add up to such a life-changing and life testing activity as being much more than sitting in the back of a safari bus and throwing snacks at animals in the Serengeti park a couple of counties over. 

Why bring down what is obviously and clearly something that should lift us up? Sure, someone bought the ride. Someone buys every ride into space for anyone who goes. Just because it is someone who is putting their own money into making it happen makes it no less worthy than a flight paid for with our collective tax dollars. 

Bill Nelson, STS 61-C payload specialist, prepares to enjoy a freshly peeled grapefruit on board the Space Shuttle Columbia, on Jan. 15, 1986.

Bill Nelson, STS 61-C payload specialist, prepares to enjoy a freshly peeled grapefruit on board the Space Shuttle Columbia, on Jan. 15, 1986. (Image credit: NASA)

After all, NASA awarded then Senator and now NASA Administrator Bill Nelson astronaut wings for being a passenger in the space shuttle in 1986. Think about it. Someone else (taxpayers) paid for his flight. He made no meaningful contribution to the flight — although he wore some sensors and did a few basic things so the agency could claim he was doing some science. Yet, there he was, proudly being pinned by the agency that needed his votes to stay funded. It seems the title is clearly in the eyes of the beholden.

I've dealt with this issue before. I signed up the first private astronaut, Dennis Tito. After our Mircorp company took over the Russian Mir space station as the world's first commercial space facility, we needed to figure out how to pay the bills. It occurred to us someone might want to buy a ticket to space. I spoke to Tito and to film director Jim Cameron. Tito got the ride. But when we lost Mir after our tiny private sector project lost to the multi-billion dollar International Space Station juggernaut, he switched to a flight aboard the ISS. Our team of Americans and our Russian partners worked hard to help him do so. He went to Russia and trained for weeks. He got the same training as any cosmonaut, climbed into a terrifyingly tiny Soyuz space capsule, and spent several days in space. Was he a tourist? No. Together we testified in Congress to make the point, and I even wrote an op-ed about it. Nor were the others who bought their own rides and followed him to the station. 

One of the key points I made then and will make again now is that by calling anyone who isn't a government employee flying to space a tourist, we are trivializing an important handoff from the Cold War gov-centric space programs of the past to the human-centric, democratized opening of the Frontier we must have if we are to survive as a species. Why do I care? Why is it important? After all, it's just a word. But it's not. Any communications expert will tell you, words matter. They have outcomes. 

For example, since the flights of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic carrying paying customers into space, there has been at least one bill introduced in Congress to tax the carbon footprint of rockets. I get it. We should make sure we limit and rectify any environmental costs of such flights. I am known as one of the greenest people in the space field. My EarthLight Foundation's goal is to save the Earth and go the next step to expand life to places — other worlds — that are now dead. But by allowing a label with such negative connotations as "tourist" to stick, we make it far easier for those who might not yet have awakened to the possibility of opening space to slow us down — just when it is most urgent that we do so.

Think of it like this. People like myself believe that by opening the Frontier of space, we may expand our economy and take the pressure off of this embattled and wonderful world by accessing the energy and resources of space. We believe humanity needs something literally higher than ourselves to dream about and unite behind. We believe that going out there is why we exist down here. It is the next logical step for humanity. And it is happening just in time, as have almost destroyed ourselves and the place that created us. We believe if we can do this, if we can open this frontier, we can perhaps use what we learn there to save the Earth. We have worked our entire lives to lift the eyes and minds of new generations upwards, inspire them to dream, and then turn their eyes downwards to see and experience the precious and delicate cradle from which we arise.

To make this happen, to enable the economic forces of scale and competition that can bring costs down and allow the minds of our next generations to go up, we have to find ways to pay for it. Right now, it's taxpayers and a few visionary billionaires. Eventually, it will be the profits and potential of new products, energy sources and things we haven't even dreamed of yet. I know for a fact the ultimate goal of almost everyone in this field is to get to a point where a regular kid from any economic or cultural background can someday buy a ticket, pack up their belongings and head out to an ever-expanding human frontier and build a new life. But to get there, someone has to pay. And so, if some rich folks, or those running a sweepstake, or a grant recipient, or anyone else can ante up to kick start the Frontier, we will take the money.

The Soyuz 2 crewmembers — American businessman Dennis Tito (left) and Russian cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin — pose for a photo in the Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station, in 2001.

The Soyuz 2 crewmembers — American businessman Dennis Tito (left) and Russian cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin — pose for a photo in the Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station, in 2001. (Image credit: NASA)

Let's be clear, the money spent by people flying into space is not spent in space. It is going into the accounts of countless engineers, scientists, space manufacturing workers, tech investors and facility staff who are all dedicated to building something amazing. Those spending the money are doing something transformative. They are trying to experience the peak of their humanity, to gaze back at the MotherWorld below and experience what my friend Frank White calls the "overview effect" — a spiritual transformation of their relationship to humanity and the Earth — something we need a lot more of.  That same money is helping transform our space i ndustry and help assure that humanity might actually survive and thrive, even as we drown our world in plastic bottles and suffocate it in the gases of our own greed. 

Sure, the space programs on which all of this is built have been funded by taxpayers, be they American, Russian and those others whose nations have contributed to the space station. I would argue those funds have been some of the best investments ever made. Now we are building on that investment to take the next giant leaps. 

As I have stated here before, this isn't a giveaway to the rich. Read their biographies, listen to their words and follow their deeds when it comes to space. The billionaires who have helped get us to this point by developing the technology didn't do so to make money. They made their money to enable this breakout to begin. Love or hate the way they have operated here on Earth, what they are doing for us and this planet will someday be seen as pivotal.

Calling these people "tourists" makes it too is easy for the media and those with misdirected social and environmental agendas to try and label this as something trivial. It is not. What we are witnessing is the beginning of the most significant human transformation of all time. It is about so much more than a few rich folks flying to the edge of the sky. This is about the very survival of the species. Each ticket sold, each flight paid for by any means gets us one tiny step closer to building a space economy. This new space economy will someday enable us to throw open the gates of the universe to everyone. They are helping prime the pump for us to go out there, so we can help those down here, including saving our precious MotherWorld — even as they inspire us by showing her to us from their window on tomorrow.

No, these folks are not tourists. They are astronauts. As sure as any government employee who strapped into a spacesuit ever was. They are there to do a job. A mission we need accomplished right now more than ever. It's right there in the name. Inspiration.

Editor's note: This op-ed has been updated and shortened for length and clarity.

Rick Tumlinson is the founder of SpaceFund, a venture capital firm investing in space startups. He also founded the Space Frontier Foundation, Earthlight Foundation, the Space Cowboy Ball, and was a founding board member of the X Prize Foundation

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