Another take on the “space tourist” debate

There has been a lot of discussion about whether commercial passengers like Anousheh Ansari should be called “space tourists” or some other title. In an extensive analysis in this week’s issue of The Space Review, Michael Turner argues that it doesn’t really matter. Calling upon varying expertise in everything from language to marketing, he notes that’s its really not possible to come up with the “perfect” term to replace “space tourism”, and that even it was, it’s unlikely that the public would adopt it. He does, though, make a suggestion of his own for an alternative term: “space travel”. “Yes, Space Travel seems overly broad—after all, travel includes business travel,” he concludes. “It will probably be a while, if ever, before high-performance sales reps and merger consultants are plying coastal urban concentrations via suborbital hops. But does that really matter? Categories will emerge, and be given names.”

5 comments to Another take on the “space tourist” debate

  • The space tourism industry must be doing really, really well if all we’ve got to discuss is what to call their customers. I say, let’s worry about that after there are a lot of tourists to call whatever it is we finally decide to call them.

    — Donald

  • Pretty much my take on it, Donald. Nevertheless, both certain promoters of recreational space travel and those few who have partaken of it so far dislike the term “space tourism”, and I believe in large part because they feel they need to imbue the whole endeavor with some greater symbolism. More than it should really have? I don’t know.

    I’m inclined to weight the opinions of the travelers themselves somewhat more, I admit, because for them, it certainly had greater symbolism, AND greater reality. After all, these are very successful people who took time out from their busy lives and trained hard under the Russians–their time in orbit was a fraction of the total span of the experience.

    What it meant to them personally might be tinged somewhat with ego. How it effects perceptions of them as notable figures to be portrayed as “mere” tourists is probably a sensitive point with them. But they did work hard for the privilege, and the privilege itself entailed more hard work and not-insignificant risk.

    There’s something going on here that’s independent of wealth. If somebody works a couple years at wilderness supply shops and some construction jobs, at low wages, to save up enough for a 5-person expedition to ascend some peak in the Karakoram Himalaya, you wouldn’t call that person an “alpine tourist” upon their return. Of course, you wouldn’t call them an “explorer” or a “researcher” either. But that’s something like my point: we already have terms like “mountaineer” and “climber” (and some established, if rather inaccurate public perceptions of them), but it’s too early to know what the right terms will be for various kinds of self-financed space travelers.

    There are also sensitive issues of political legitimacy coming into play here, but I get into those as well in the essay.

  • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Michael.

    But that’s something like my point: we already have terms like “mountaineer” and “climber”

    How about “spacer”, which has a long tradition in the pages of science fiction. (I suppose some won’t like it for that reason, but it fits well with the existing terms.)

    — Donald

  • Chance

    How about Ouranosnaut? I think Ouranos means “starry heavens”. Nobody else seems to have taken it yet.

  • It’s just too hard to predict. I doubt that anything with a “-naut” suffix is likely to last, though. We don’t have “aeronauts” now, do we? We call them pilots (and the previous use, for waterway navigation, is now qualified, e.g., “riverboat pilot”.) Possibly because any “-naut” role was taken by someone else: a navigator (back in the days before auto-pilot anyway.) Also, this is recreation in which the experiencer is anything but self-propelled or in a steering role. What they get called may end up having more to do with what they actually do in space, rather than how they go there and return.

    It’ll be something weird, perhaps originally insulting but “reclaimed” by the enthusiasts (when they get their sense of humor back.) For example, for as long as they are the target of gibes that they aren’t really contributing anything significant scientifically on ISS, they might be called “spare wheels”. They might clubbily start referring to each other as “wheelers”. Decades later, when there are far more of them, those who don’t know the history of the term might speculate — “Because they ‘wheel’ across the sky?”

    Or perhaps it will be some derogatory Russian term (which for all we know, is already being used, sotto voce, by trainers at Star City.) Look up “ski”, “spelunking”, “BASE jumper” for etymology. And you’ll give up trying to predict.

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