The ups and downs of today’s space tourist industry

Posted: Oct 01, 2006 12:00 AM
The ups and downs of today’s space tourist industry

When isn't a 20-million-dollar-paying client "always right"? When the seller is the government.

Anousheh Ansari is on the ground again, and yet I'm afraid I'm still thinking as much about the lift-off scandal as her triumphant return to Earth.

You see, on September 18, Anousheh Ansari became one of that select breed, the paid-in-full space tourist, launched to take a working vacation on the International Space Station.

It was a life-long dream for Mrs. Ansari, and a watershed moment for women in space . . . and for Iranians. Ansari has lived in the U.S. all her adult life, but had wanted to make a gesture towards the liberalizers in the land where she was born. So she designed a special badge to put on her suit. It featured the visual theme of a past, pre-revolutionary flag of Iran.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government pointedly asked Mrs. Ansari not to affix this design to her suit. (Jeez, she pays $20 million and gets a cashier with attitude.) The Russians, who run the space tourism program using their Soyuz rockets, relayed that message clearly, or so I gather from competing accounts.

And yes, this particular space tourist got a lot of coverage. Because she's a woman. Because she and her husband were successful in business, having sold their software company for half a billion. And because she was born Iranian. Indeed, Iran's newspapers covered the launch, even though Anousheh is not exactly the cloth-covered ideal preferred by Iran's current rulers.

Iranian editorials took the opportunity of this Iranian flag issue as an excuse to rile up anti-American feeling. Sad.

What's not sad is the new cosmonaut, though. She's all smiles. She's trained hard. And no, her commitment to space travel is not fly-by-night. She, her husband Hamid, and brother-in-law Amir, had financially supported the X Prize, awarded two years ago to Burt Rutan's Spaceship One for proving the feasibility of a private, re-usable spacecraft.

And for further tech credit, she became the Internet's first blogger from outer space. She blogged on the X Prize site, which became something of an immediate hit. (See, bloggers, what it takes to get to the top of the Internet hit parade?)

Her mere presence as a successful Iranian-born businesswoman in space had the potential to relieve West-East tensions. But, predictably, American and Russian muckety-mucks nixed her best gesture.

This is not uncommon for governments. Remember how upset the State Department was when President Reagan challenged Soviet leader Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin wall? Government bureaucracies in the diplomatic arena prefer to remain silent on most issues. They don't like rocking the boat. They certainly don't want "amateurs" doing it.

That's why they tried to prevent Reagan from making a decent, civilized challenge that helped reshape the world. And that's why they contrived to keep the "international" flavor of the International Space Station program within the bounds of the professionalism previously established by state-funded protocol specialists.

And yet, while reading Mrs. Ansari's blog, and viewing her comments from space on YouTube, I got the feeling that she offered a far savvier approach to international relations. We've got to drag Iranians, kicking up their heels and screaming for joy, into the modern world. She had the potential to do that, inspire Iranian men and women that great things can be accomplished. With freedom.

But, of course, there's that fly in the ointment. Not freedom, exactly: government. Protocol specialists determine what can happen on the International Space Station. That's what you get when you have governments involved in the tourist industry.

What would have happened had this been a private outfit?

"Thank you Ms. Ansari. Yup, your check has cleared, and you've been cleared for take-off. Oh, and about your insignia. That's fine. Great. But we'll give you a rebate if you'll also wear this other insignia. Yes, it's the Warner Brothers' frog. Warner Brothers would like to help sponsor your flight upside. They just beat out Disney. Oh, how much is the rebate? Well, let me see . . ."

One reason I write so often about technology these days is that it's such a brighter subject than SOP: Same-Old-Politics. In technology, there may be standards, but things are ever changing . . . and at a faster pace than in politics. That's good. But space technology is still too dominated by governments, and I look forward to progress that will make governments in space less relevant, less seemingly necessary. I won't go so far as a friend of mine, who used to shout out as his motto "governments are for gravity wells," but I do hope to see more private business and less government involvement in space.

So thanks, Mrs. Ansari, not only for being an inspiration, and an early entrant into the space tourist industry. Thanks also for your past support of the X Prize, a project that helped spur the private space tourist industry, now in gestation, if not exactly infancy. Yet.

We're happy to have you back safely on Earth.