Revisiting the “space tourist” term

In this week’s issue of The Space Review, Rick Tumlinson writes about why visitors to the ISS like Anousheh Ansari should not be called “tourists”. The catch here is that this essay was actually written back in 2000, right after Dennis Tito signed with MirCorp to fly as the first passenger to pay his way to the Mir space station. (MirCorp? Mir? Yes, this is a little old.) While the essay is a bit dated, the key arguments here still hold up: this is still a cutting-edge and dangerous venture, so we shouldn’t call ISS visitors tourists any more than we call those who climb Everest tourists. Moreover, even terrestrial tourist destinations like Las Vegas and New York don’t advertise for “tourists”, so why should we use the label for visitors to space?

This analysis may hold up for orbital tourists, but it does raise the question whether the “tourist” appellation might be more appropriate for suborbital commercial passengers. The higher safety factors, lower costs, and greater anticipated demand for such services may well meet Tumlinson’s criteria in his essay about when the tourist label is appropriate. “We will certainly know it when we see it,” he writes, “but that time is not now, and we only hurt our cause by using the phrase prematurely.”

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