Pierce ThorneOn...Pierce Thorne on Life • Ansari

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So ends the first episode of Rich Tourists in Space. Ms. Ansari, self-described Space Participant has plopped back down to Terra Firma after an eleven-day stint in the vacuum of space.

Okay, so props to Ms. Ansari for tossing that huge chunk of change into the hat for the X Prize. And if you're going to send some supernumerary into space, at least it's not some fat balding white guy. But it just doesn't seem right. If anybody doesn't know the name Ansari yet, they soon will. Count on a massive media blitz: late night talk shows, radio interviews, book deals, maybe even a movie deal. It's just inevitable.

Not because they did something really useful, but because somebody plops down $20 million dollars to be a tourist. Twenty four hours earlier, Heidi Stefanyshyn-Piper was on the ISS. She didn't pay twenty million dollars to be up there, but she did pay her dues. And while she was there, she did real work thank-you-very-much, even doing a couple of EVAs ("Space walks" to you and me) putting the ISS together.

But how many people do—or are going to—know the name Stefanyshyn-Piper (never mind pronounce it... hint: it rhymes with "definition".) "Not very many", is my guess.


End of an Era

It used to be, you had to be good to get up in space. I mean, you had to be the best at whatever skill you contributed to the mission, because that little bit of foam you planted your tush onto at takeoff was expensive. Millions of pounds of rocket fuel (not to mention hundreds of thousands of hours of clever, brilliant engineering) went into flinging a few hundred pounds of payload up into space. There was simply wasn't room for second best anything, let alone dead weight.

And that was always a comfort to me, knowing full well I'd never make it up there. That was Okay. While the religious nutcakes pranced along the primrose path to rapturous self-immolation down here on earth, the best that humanity had to offer would hopefully be a long way off to other worlds. At least out of reach of the doomsday dogmatics.

But maybe not anymore. The price for mediocrity in space is $20 million.

Naming Rights. Right.

Somehow, Ms. Ansari feels the term "Space Tourist" is too pedestrian for her lofty sojourn, so having spent $20 million to visit the ISS, she naturally feels a bit of status elevation is in order. Not content to be a tourist, she self-describes herself as a "participant."

Following that line of reasoning, my wife and I were "participants" and not "tourists" at a recent "cultural event" in Thailand. I mean, they hauled a number of us up on stage to teach us some cultural dances. We were participating —never mind how contrived the circumstances.

Or maybe we were just "tourists" after all. We didn't cough up the $20 million to buy the naming rights. Money talks. The rest of us walk.

Downward Trajectory

Here's what really has me worried.

Okay, so going to space becomes a fad. Space tourism really (ahem) takes off. Everybody is going up on an extended vomit-comet ride. The space program, now dependent on tourism dollars, thrives for a while.

And then the novelty wears off. Been there, done that. There's only so far the Ordinary Joe is willing to go before all that inky blackness starts to look the same. Bo-o-o-o-r-ing.

So the bottom falls out of the space excursion industry. Funding dries up. Then no more space exploration. No United Federation of Planets. Just a new man-made ring of beer cans orbiting around the equator and a jaded bunch of thrill-junkies looking for the latest extreme sport somewhere here on earth ("cuz it ain't up there in space!")

I guess the one saving grace is that no matter how hard they try, Harley riders won't be able to make a sound up there sputtering by in their Heaven-Hogs... (and maybe we can convince them that a space suit isn't necessary up there... to be really free, all you need is your leather chaps and a skull-cap helmet.)

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