The promise that space travel will one day become as cheap, as safe, and as mind-numbingly tedious as air travel will inspire millions of youngsters to dedicate their lives to science and engineering, SpaceShipOne Master and Commander Burt Rutan apparently believes.
Today's young lack the inspiration of heroic figures like Yuri Gagarin, Alan Sheppard, Chuck Yeager, and others who flew rickety junkers to the outer edge of acceptable risk and came back to talk about it, Rutan suggested during a Washington press conference last week.
After ridiculing NASA's appalling cowardice in creating "an environment in which we right now don't have the courage to go back to [repair] the Hubble telescope," and noting that NASA's profound risk-aversion has actually made leaving the atmosphere more dangerous than it used to be, Rutan suggested that gutsy entrepreneurs like himself can revive a dormant sense of hero worship among children and so lead them to productive careers in aerospace engineering.
NASA is destined to be sidestepped by commercial outfits, because it is not doing anything fun or inspiring, and it kills too many people. "The public is not excited about spending billions for a space station that gets only a tiny amount of science and isn't built as a staging area to go somewhere and explore," he said. "I don't think the American taxpayer is excited about any orbital or moon work that doesn't involve being about to fly us."
Not only will space tourism satisfy some tremendous, pent-up demand for novel holiday activity, it will bring about an exploration Renaissance.
"I think the big thing we need to do is to inspire our present generation of kids, because, if we don't, what are we going to expect in the future?" Rutan asked rhetorically. "The folks that were inspired by the invention and quick development of the airplane turned out to be - every darn one of them turned out to be on my list of the top ten mentors and heroes."
"I was inspired by the opening up of the jet age and the missile age," he added. "But we have to have something to inspire our kids now, and we have to do it by taking risks and we have to do that by moving there," he explained.
However, space travel must first become safe enough, and dull enough, for mass public consumption, he explained. Rutan echoed his previous testimony before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics back in April, when he noted that so long as space travel remains as expensive and dangerous as, say, climbing Mount Everest, likely consumers of such services will remain in the range of 300 to 500 per year.
Nevertheless, Rutan sees a mass payoff for all humanity if space flight can be made safe, fun, and predictable, like a Disney cruise. He reckons that something like 100,000 eager consumers per year can be expected to line up for relatively cheap flights above the atmosphere within twelve years' time, so long as the industry shapes itself as he imagines.
Of course, suggesting that mass space tourism could possibly inspire the next generation of Alan Sheppards is to suggest that Carnival cruises have been inspiring the next generation of Jacques Cousteaus. It's a preposterous claim. But Rutan seems intelligent enough to discern the glaring differences between, say, Ferdinand Magellan on the one hand, and a pleasantly-drunk tourist wandering about in what amounts to a floating Vegas hotel, to whom the sea is the single least noticeable feature in his vicinity, on the other.
So if we rule out dullness, Rutan's proposition can only be explained as a deliberate hustle, playing on techno-utopian fantasies. He needs to attract capital, and he's also likely seeking legislation that will, at least, keep NASA out of his way, to do what he intends to do - which is to enact his own ambitions inspired by his own heroes. And since claiming the X prize, he's automatically been granted access to the audience that he needs to translate his scheme into action.
If he does turn space travel into the next Disney cruise, so be it. He's certainly chosen the ideal partner in stunt-master Richard Branson, a man who clearly knows how to make a pretty penny off tourism, entertainment, and manufactured fun. But he's got to drop the heroism hustle: a trip on Virgin Galactic is hardly going to become a badge of honor. And no amount of marketing rhetoric will make it otherwise. Flying Concorde between New York and Paris did not make us Chuck Yeager - after all, he had to disdain the drinks cart to stay alive up there. ®