Orbital Passenger Trips (Space Shuttle)
Benefits and Precedents
For the near future, NASA's Space Shuttle offers the only U.S.-based transportation for passengers to low earth orbit. (The recent activity regarding a privatization of the Russian Mir space station by Amsterdam-based Mir Corporation is not considered here, because it does not require any changes in U.S. policy, other than possibly reducing pressure on the Russians by NASA and the State Department to deorbit the Mir space station.) Since the long-duration exposure to the space environment necessary to resolve some of the medical issues can only be achieved in orbit, this makes it a unique U.S. asset for answering such questions. However, there are many practical, economic and legal and political issues associated with its use for non-NASA personnel.
There are existing precedents for flying civilians on the Shuttle. In addition to Christa McAuliffe (enlisted as part of the "Teacher in Space" program), U.S. Senator Jake Garn, and U.S. Congressman Bill Nelson (the latter two of whom ostensibly flew under the auspices of "Congressional oversight"), Charlie Walker is perhaps the most applicable example of flying a civilian in space for research purposes, as previously mentioned.
Mr. Walker was an employee of McDonnell Douglas, and doing research on techniques for developing new products in a weightless environment. At that time, NASA had a policy of encouraging commercial research on the Shuttle, and allowing companies wishing to do such research to fly their own researchers as payload specialists. The company-designated individual would go through training similar to that of other (NASA) payload specialists, and would then fly on the Shuttle to perform his experiment. Charlie Walker did this three times, establishing a fairly firm precedent that has not been obviated by any explicit policy changes since those flights. Senator Glenn also trained and flew more recently as a "research subject," though the science performed on his mission was apparently never peer reviewed.
From a medical standpoint, the Shuttle is a benign ride (relative to early US and current Russian launchers). It sustains, by design, a maximum of three gravities during both ascent and entry—an acceleration that is acceptable (albeit discomfiting) for anyone in reasonably good health. Once on orbit, it is also relatively comfortable, with a toilet (albeit one with many operational limitations), and ample room for both weightless activity and sleep, though Skylab, the first U.S. space station, was unsurpassed in this regard by either the Russian systems, or even the currently planned International Space Station (ISS).
It is appealing to think that we will gain some new medical knowledge by flying non-astronauts for short-duration (a few days) missions. However, it is probably unrealistic, partly because we will fly far too few people to get any kind of useful statistical sampling. Also, it's unlikely that NASA would risk flying anyone who is not in good health, so any data derived from a member of the general public will be comparable to the large data base of the existing astronaut corps. Finally, someone who is possibly paying large sums of money for a once-in-a-lifetime experience may not necessarily be tolerant of intrusive medical tests and procedures (though they might be persuaded).
Rather than medical knowledge, the primary benefits of flying non-traditional astronauts on the Space Shuttle will be in terms of altering public perception, learning about crew interactions with passengers (as opposed to fellow crewmembers) who haven't trained with them extensively, and establishing and solidifying legal precedents for flying civilians on NASA vehicles.
The first benefit will make it easier both for people to think about this as a realistic possibility for themselves and as a business. The former will aid in performing more realistic market research, by providing a more valid mental framework for people to express their space tourism interests, and the latter will ease some of the current skepticism among the investment community that is currently inhibiting raising the capital necessary to develop new low-cost space transportation systems. It is important to get both potential customers and investors thinking about space as not so much about "the Right Stuff" as about "the Green Stuff." Demonstrating that someone can actually go into space without months of training, or being a superman or superwoman, will go a good distance toward starting to change the public view of space travel in a favorable way.
Understanding interrelationships between crew and passengers, and the legal basis for accommodating the general public on government-owned/controlled space vehicles and facilities will provide planning guidance, and ease the path to eventually having commercial passenger activity on the International Space Station, whether in the government-maintained portions themselves, or in privately-funded additional modules, as have been proposed by some commercial entities.
Despite the benefits discussed above, as was pointed out previously in the section on political issues, there are practical considerations that will inhibit the use of the Shuttle by non-NASA personnel. A Space Shuttle Orbiter is a very expensive, complex, and difficult-to-replace piece of machinery, and NASA appropriately feels a great deal of responsibility to the taxpayer to ensure that it be operated in as safe a manner as possible, while also maximizing planned science returns and other mission objectives for each flight. Accordingly, great care has to be taken that anyone riding in it both have at least a basic understanding of the function of all Shuttle systems and the mission objectives, and sufficient maturity to not interfere with critical controls and switches, or get in the way. This will prevent any costly, or even disastrous, mishaps.
Given the extensive screening through which NASA puts their astronaut candidates (and literal horror stories from other providers of potentially-hazardous adventures to rich clientele, e.g., Mt. Everest guides), the agency will have legitimate concerns that a civilian getting a ride simply based on ability to pay will not be a safe passenger, either to himself, or the crew, vehicle, and mission as a whole. In light of the public reaction to the Challenger disaster, albeit fourteen years in the past, the Public Affairs Office will strenuously object to putting another citizen in the Shuttle and risking another public-relations nightmare.
NASA will have another problem in giving up seats to non-astronauts. The current astronaut corps has many members who have never flown, and given the slowdown in flight rate and ISS construction over the past few years, diminishing prospects of ever doing so. It would be difficult for NASA management to explain to them why, after the rigorous selection and training process that they have undergone, some of their seats will be sold to civilians in lieu of flying them.
Particularly, most of the planned Shuttle flights for the next few years are scheduled to be dedicated to assembly and resupply of the ISS (though some on Capitol Hill are starting to urge NASA to schedule some non-ISS related missions, anticipating further ISS program delays). Given the criticality of these missions to a taxpayer-funded program that has cost tens of billions of dollars, the agency will be particularly sensitive to any risk incurred on an assembly mission by carrying an untrained civilian, as well as the opportunity cost and risk implied by taking along someone who cannot help with the primary mission.
On the other hand, such a mission would be of even greater value to a potential space tourist, since in addition to seeing the view of earth from space, it would represent an opportunity to see a very impressive and large structure floating in space. Watching the crew work on it, with robotic arms and via extravehicular activity, would engender the same fascination that causes people to stop and look through fences to watch terrestrial construction, except on a much grander and high-tech scale. From a marketing standpoint, and customer value, an ISS assembly flight, or even a docking flight, would be able to charge a hefty premium over one that simply went into earth orbit, particularly at a lower inclination, where the passenger would not see as much of the earth passing below over the course of the mission.
There are two general means by which the limited Shuttle seats available to could be allocated to the general public. First would be by simply doing an auction, with the proceeds going either directly to NASA or into the general fund. The former would almost certainly require legislation. The other would be by having some non-government entity, either profit or non-profit, purchase some seats from the agency, and then allowing them to distribute the seats via auction, lottery, contest, or some other means.
If the latter, each of the potential methods of distribution have their advantages and drawbacks, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to go into them in detail. All of them would entail a public policy debate, and the outcome would hinge on factors such as the perception of it being a taxpayer-subsidized joy ride for the wealthy, versus a desire to democratize it, versus a means of generating more revenue for the program, and the amount of commercialization that is deemed to be acceptable for a Space Shuttle mission, and its impact on some's perceptions of our national prestige. This is a debate that is both inevitable and necessary to move on to the next stages of the development of space tourism.
In all cases it is inevitable that there would have to be some minimum criteria for the traveler, at least in terms of physical and mental health, per the concerns discussed above. Obviously, such critieria should be much less stringent than those used to select NASA astronauts, with a large fraction of the populace able to meet them. NASA's flexibility on this issue will be indicative of their seriousness in helping develop this new space market.
Also, while some minimal level of training will be required, it neither need be, nor can it be as rigorous or lengthy as that currently provided to NASA astronaut candidates and mission assignees. It need not be because the passenger will have few, if any, mission responsibilities, other than to stay out of the way and to know enough of the basics to know what not to touch, and what to do in an emergency. It cannot be, because, at least for the auction route, the type of people who can afford such an experience generally will not have months of free time available to devote to such training. One of the reasons that the popular singer/songwriter John Denver did not go into space with the Russians was not because he could not afford the price, but because he was unwilling to learn Russian and spend six months training in Russia (in fairly spartan accommodations). Clearly, while a Space Shuttle passenger will require more than the standard two-minute airline drill about how to fasten seatbelts and use the oxygen system, months should not be required to learn the basics of how to be a safe space passenger--an intense week should be sufficient.
In terms of price, based on both Shuttle costs, the historical prices charged by the Russians, and the prices being talked about by MirCorp for a visit to the Russian station, a fee of at least ten million dollars, and up to perhaps five times that, would be appropriate, and likely to find buyers, given the uniqueness of the experience. It should be noted, however, that as this paper is being finalized in early June of 2000, a few trillion dollars of wealth has evaporated from the U.S. stock markets in the past few weeks (particularly among the technical stocks, some of whose holders might be more likely to be interested in such an experience), so many who a couple of months ago would have been feeling wealthy enough to pay such a sum may no longer do so. On the other hand, there will be few enough seats for sale in the near term, so that the demand will continue to exceed the supply for some time, even at very high prices.