Space tourism may be taking off, but critics not taken with its aims

A handful of billionaire-backed ventures are proving that space tourism could be a part of our future, but some critics say those resources would be better directed toward solving the problems we face on Earth today.

“We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live,” as Prince William put it this week, summing up a less-than-laudatory attitude among critics watching the tourism-minded space race of our times unfold.

Since the summer, space tourism companies have taken passengers on brief journeys above the Earth and garnered a lot of attention for doing so — in part because of the people they took with them.

Rivals ride rockets in same month

Billionaire Jeff Bezos went to space in July, along with three other passengers, on a Blue Origin spacecraft. The company sent four more people to space this past Wednesday — including William Shatner, best known for playing Star Trek‘s Capt. James Kirk.

“What you have given me is the most profound experience,” Shatner told Bezos after his ride to space.

And yet for all the coverage that Bezos has received, he wasn’t even the first billionaire to go to space this year — Richard Branson got there first, on a Virgin Galactic flight that carried six passengers, nine days before his Blue Origin competitors.

“The whole thing, it was just magical,” Branson said after the flight.

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity is seen descending after reaching the edge of space on July 11, 2011. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

What about the planet?

But not everyone is applauding. Ryan Katz-Rosene, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies, said these recent space tourism efforts and the competition to claim achievement from them are “completely tone-deaf to the realities of the sustainability challenges” the planet is facing.

“I don’t think we should be spending so much focus and effort and attention and money into private space travel,” he said.

Yet Philip Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida, says this kind of space tourism could end up driving support for the problems at home. Astronauts and the like often say the experience of seeing the Earth from above left them with a renewed appreciation for environmentalism.

Metzger predicts that having more people see the Earth from above will drive a greater marshalling of “resources and talents towards protecting the Earth.”

WATCH | When Shatner really went to space: 

The science behind William Shatner’s space trip

Host of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks Bob McDonald talks to Andrew Chang about what William Shatner experienced during his brief space trip. 2:32

Possible benefits

Chris Hadfield, the retired Canadian astronaut, sees what Prince William and like-minded critics are getting at — acknowledging there’s some justification for their concerns about the problems on Earth.

But he said the push to explore is what inspires the discovery of new ideas and new technologies — including some of the satellite tools we now use to measure and observe the parts of our planet and the problems it faces.

“That technology doesn’t just instantaneously appear,” said Hadfield. “You have to inspire people, they have to develop it.”

As for the future of a broader world of space travel, Hadfield said “it opens up so much opportunity and I think that’s the part that’s worth focusing on.”

Chris Hadfield is shown after landing back on Earth, via a Soyuz space capsule, in central Kazakhstan in May 2013. (Mikhail Metzel/Reuters)

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