The new space age, and the space tourism industry in particular, needs a P. T. Barnum.

That's what John Carter McKnight says, and I can't disagree.

It was a good week for space tourism, because in addition to Mr. McKnight's appropriate essay (which I wish I'd written myself) about the need for true space hucksterism, the Europeans have finally weighed in on the subject. Wired magazine has an excellent piece on the subject, that references several relevant market research reports.

Here's the money quote: "'Space tourism is a natural progression, because mankind is curious, Beer says. 'It's a really wonderful development. Mankind needs this, and we owe it to mankind.'"

Indeed.

There is one problem with the piece, though.

The advantage of staying within this area of "inner space"--35 kilometers high, compared to commercial jets that travel at an altitude of around seven kilometers, and outer space at 90 to 100 kilometers--is that airspace remains under national air traffic control, just like commercial jet flights.

Actually, two problems. First, I don't know where the 35-kilometer number came from. The X-Prize stipulates 100 kilometers to get out of the atmosphere and into space. And the regulatory situation for suborbital flights like this remains uncertain, as described in my interview this week with Jeff Greason, head of XCOR Aerospace.

Second, as the Greason interview indicates, the notion of "airspace" for such flights remains unclear. We don't really know where the separation between "inner space" and "outer space" lies, or which part of the federal government has jurisdiction over it, even when defined. Until we do, it's going to be very difficult to raise investment funds to build this vital new industry, because investors loathe uncertainty.

It's critical that the Federal Aviation Administration quickly get its act together and define the "rules of the road," or that the Department of Transportation reverse the Clinton policy of giving the FAA jurisdiction over this matter, and give it its own office under the Department of Transportation, as it was prior to the 1990s.

So, ignoring the regulatory issues, is NASA the hope for low-cost launch and space tourism? Nope, not to judge by either history, or the opinion of the Space Frontier Foundation. I find little in the linked press release to disagree with.

The X-33 program was, as were all NASA programs to reduce the cost and improve the reliability of space launch over the past three decades, a disaster. There is little indication that the agency has learned from its past mistakes, and it would be foolish to authorize funds until some evidence to the contrary is forthcoming. It would indeed be foolish to allow it to embark on yet another doomed space-transportation program.

As they point out, NASA's problem is not vehicle design per se (though that's a problem as well, because their concepts always seem to emphasize technology over low cost), but supersizing to replicate the capabilities of the flawed shuttle program when the true goal is to ostensibly have the most cost-effective ride to orbit. Another problem is that they tend to neck down too quickly to a preferred design and contractor, prematurely eliminating the benefits of competition. I'll probably post a future column on lessons learned from the X-33 program, but to be brief, "don't expect innovation from someone who benefits handsomely from the status quo."

Finally, in current space events, today's scheduled shuttle launch will carry, for the first time, an Israeli astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon. Israel has long had their own launch capability, but they are constrained by their geography to only launch into retrograde orbits (that is, east to west orbits, against the earth's rotation), and they don't have a manned launch capability. So in many ways, this is a significant milestone for them. It's a poignant one as well.

Col. Ramon's mother is a survivor of Auschwitz, and many of his other relatives died there. In commemoration of all of the victims of that grim chapter of the last century, he's going to take some space art along with him. It's a haunting picture, a moonscape, prescient of the pictures that the Apollo astronauts would take with cameras a couple decades later. It was drawn by a 14-year old boy, Petr Ginz, who died in the camp, never to see man walk on the moon, or even launch a satellite. It's a tribute to the unquenchable imagination of a child, who could escape the unimaginable horror of daily existence with dreams of other, perhaps happier worlds.

And of course, as a reminder of the current times, as the article points out, some who are unhappy with Israel's present actions in the Middle East (and perhaps unhappy with the very existence of Israel as a state, or who even may regret that Hitler didn't finish the job), are unhappy with NASA's decision (made several years ago) to take an Israeli into space. While no specific threats have been received, security for the launch remains high. Sadly, the demons in humanity that finally did quench young Petr's dreams of space, permanently, continue to follow us into the 21st Century.

Letters

Some took issue last week with my contention that Apollo didn't contribute to the microelectronics revolution. I will take their point that it probably was one of the spurs to miniaturization, but the Pentagon's missile program was a major one as well, and of course, we can't replay history to know if the latter would have been sufficient to bring us today's information age on the same schedule. My larger point remains, that spinoff is a lousy justification for (or against) a manned space program. We need to justify it on its own merits.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

Respond to the Writer