Lost in Space

Space tourism will kill our own planet

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 13th November 1999.

A few years before he died, Bruce Chatwin recalled a conversation with a Moslem hermit in a North African desert. “There is a people called the Mericans?” the hermit asked him. “There is.” “They say they have visited the Moon.” “They have.” “They are blasphemers.”

The hermit had a point. As the earth staggers under its load, the world’s richest nations have spent tens of billions of dollars and deployed some of the finest scientific minds in discovering not how to save it, but how to get off it. This extraordinary planet, this place in which, perhaps uniquely, the freak conditions required to sustain life are all present, is seen by the pioneers of space travel merely as a stepping stone to other worlds. As the rich and powerful fantasise about escaping, their incentive to invest in protecting our own planet dwindles.

The warped dreams of the armchair astronauts may now be a little more attainable. The Artemis Project, which describes itself as “a private venture to establish a permanent, self-supporting community on the Moon” promises that, within the foreseeable future, it will be shuttling tourists between the Earth and its satellite.

This scheme’s backers may be living on another planet, but less ambitious space tourism ventures are beginning to look feasible. The notion of orbiting the earth for fun, once the domain of sad techno-fantasists, is now the province of sad techno-realists. A consortium of millionaires called the X Prize Foundation has offered a $10 million reward to the first company to build a passenger craft capable of flying in orbit 100 kilometres from the earth, using only private money. It won’t be long before someone claims it.

Zegrahm Expeditions, based in Seattle, has been taking deposits for a “spaceplane” venture which, it maintains, will be launched on December 1st 2001. Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon with Neil Armstrong and is now the spokesperson for a speculative space tourism company, claims that “by October 2000 we should be sending up a journalist who can tell people in a professional way what it’s like to go into space. Then every six months or so, Nasa should make space available, a seat on the shuttle for regular people to go into orbit.”

His company, he suggests, will ferry people out to “space hotels”. Already, a Japanese firm called Shimizu Corporation has published plans for a sort of interplanetary Butlins, where tourists will be able to play space sports and gaze on our workaday planet with pity. An organisation called Space Future foresees three stages of space tourism: the “pioneering phase” during which a small number of passengers will pay astronomical fees to be the first to enjoy an out-of-this-world holiday; a “mature phase”, catering for hundreds of thousands of tourists every year; and a “mass phase”, during which ticket prices will drop to the cost of a sea cruise and millions of people will be able to travel. “Ultimately,” the organisation claims, space is “the future of the human race – or did you think there was somewhere else to go?”

Well, we certainly won’t be able to stay here if these enterprises get their way. None of these companies envisage Apollo-type launches for their spacecraft, in which a disposable rocket sits on top of a great tower of fuel, but the shuttles they are designing will still require a formidable quantity of hydrocarbons to get into orbit. Everything the tourists need – the materials to build the hotels and the air, food, water and fuel required to keep their guests alive – will have to be lifted into orbit. If the space tourism industry is not to be jeopardised by flying debris, then all the waste they produce will have to be brought back down.

It is hard to think of a better designed project for maximum environmental destruction. If the industry takes off as some of its boosters would like us to believe, it will rapidly become the world’s primary source of carbon dioxide emissions. In our quest to populate the barren interplanetary wastes, we threaten to lay waste to the only life-sustaining planet astronomers have been able to detect.

Doubtless space tourism agencies will seek to make us feel inadequate and dull if we choose to stay behind. They will broker the dissatisfaction that holiday companies trade in today when trying to persuade people to visit India or the United States. We will go, as we go on inter-continental journeys, in the hope of finding something that we have never defined in the course of a quest we have never examined. And, as ever, the thing we are looking for will be inside us all along.