It’s Per­sonal

Früher sehnte man sich nach einer Reise zum Mond, heute träumt man von einem Flug in den Wel­traum. Doch bevor man nach den Ster­nen greift, sollte man erst Ord­nung auf dem eige­nen Plan­eten schaf­fen.

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Elis­a­beth Rib­bans on space tourism

In late 1969, just months af­ter the first moon land­ing, my mum took me to visit the school I would be start­ing at when I reached my fifth birthday the fol­low­ing year. I left spell­bound: not because of this brave new world of class­rooms, teach­ers or even a swim­ming pool, but because of the “space ex­pe­ri­ence” that chil­dren had cre­ated in one of the cor­ri­dors. I couldn’t be­lieve that kids not much older than me had made such a mag­i­cal replica of that cir­cle in the sky. It was only a clever use of card­board and paint, but it was enough to make me want two things very much: to go to school and to go to the moon.

The first am­bi­tion was a cer­tainty, but there’s never been a real chance I’d achieve the sec­ond one. Now, though, a child with big dreams might ex­pect to take a trip be­yond earth’s at­mos­phere. A num­ber of com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Sir Richard Bran­son’s Vir­gin Galac­tic, Elon Musk’s Spacex and Blue Ori­gin, owned by Amazon’s Jeff Be­zos, have an­nounced plans to take tourists into space, per­haps as soon as 2019.

Prices are suit­ably astro­nom­i­cal, but ac­cord­ing to my sums*, in 1939, a re­turn ticket for a first transat­lantic pas­sen­ger flight cost nearly nine months’ salary for the av­er­age Amer­i­can. Now that it’s pos­si­ble to go from the US to the UK and back for as lit­tle as $390, less than a week’s av­er­age pay, surely space travel won’t al­ways be just for the su­per-rich.

Yet, now that this day is al­most here, I won­der if I’ve been right to wish for the stars all these years. It is claimed that space tourism will change our view of the world lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively; in­spire a new gen­er­a­tion of engi­neers; cre­ate jobs; boost the econ­omy (mar­ket re­search firm Tech­navio es­ti­mates space tourism will be worth al­most $35 bil­lion by 2021); in­crease sci­en­tific knowl­edge and drive tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion.

Nev­er­the­less, warn­ings are being made of the po­ten­tial dan­gers to the ozone layer and earth’s cli­mate from a rushed in­crease in rocket emis­sions. Ear­lier this year, a re­port by sci­en­tists at the Aero­space Cor­po­ra­tion, a US non-profit, called for fur­ther re­search be­fore we reach a tip­ping point.

We’ve al­ready filled the air with green­house gases and the streets with pol­lu­tion; we’ve filled the seas with deadly plas­tics and half the pop­u­la­tion with too much food. The idea of cir­cling the moon for fun or mov­ing to Mars because we’ve ex­hausted this planet seems in­creas­ingly dis­taste­ful.

Space travel should be a treat and, as any five-yearold knows, treats must be earned. When we’ve ti­died up down here, then maybe the count­down for up there can be­gin.

*1939: air­line ticket = $675 (New York to Southamp­ton re­turn with Panam), against a me­dian US salary of $956 (fig­ure for 1940) 2018: $390 (Birm­ing­ham to New York re­turn with Primer­aair), against a $31,100 me­dian US salary (fig­ure for 2016) Source: United States Cen­sus Bureau (www.cen­sus.gov)

ELIS­A­BETH RIB­BANS is a Bri­tish jour­nal­ist and edi­to­rial con­sul­tant. She is also a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of TheGuardian in Lon­don.

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