The Contested Future of Space Tourism


Speaker: Mark Johnson

Date: 23 April 2014
Start Time: 7 pm
End Time: 8:30 pm

Venue: 27/29 South Lambeth Road, Vauxhall, London, SW8 1SZ

The space industry is currently developing a number of models for a potential future space tourism business, the most visible being that of Virgin Galactic. As well as the term space “space tourism”, “personal spaceflight” and “citizen space exploration” have also been suggested as alternative rubrics, each of which evokes a different form of this future. Irrespective of terminology, this trend denotes space travel for recreational or leisure purposes, rather than scientific, exploratory, communication or military purposes, and is currently the domain of a number of start-up companies as well as several space agencies, either through direct or indirect funding and support. Given the difficulties facing the development of any space technology, the potential feasibility and realism of space tourism has been widely questioned both within the space sector and in public discourse, and this talk will examine the ways in which the space industry has worked to legitimize the concept of space tourism.

Based on the author’s own ongoing PhD research, this talk will firstly explore perceptions of the feasibility of future space tourism from those inside the space sector, and explore some of the ways in which the potential of space tourism is understood. This includes comparisons to prior forms of travel – particularly rail and aviation – and how these ideas are used to try and demonstrate the future potential of space travel based on the evolution of previous forms of transportation. It will also examine the reflections of space industry employees on the potential changes to living regular space travel or space tourism may bring, and the potential perceived implications for mobility and global space travel. It will secondly explore not just what technological developments may be required for regular space tourism, but also how distant or proximate these developments are perceived as being, as well as examining the understanding of more abstract concepts like “technology” and “progress” from those within the space sector, and how these feed into perspectives on space travel futures. It will conclude by summarizing the current status of space tourism, the ways in which it is presented, and the impacts these forms of presentation may have on its future development.

Mark Johnson is in the third and final year of his doctorate in the Science & Technology Studies Unit at the University of York, and has been studying the internal workings of the UK space industry. The original research topic was to examine the ways in which obstacles to space programs – that they are high risk, very expensive, have long time-scales, etc – are negotiated by the space sector, but the study has since broadened to include several other areas, one of which is the future of space tourism. Having completed much of the research he is now aiming to disseminate his findings to the space community as well as to academia. He also has a book chapter coming out early next year examining these societal benefits that space science brings, and intends to continue publishing the findings of his work on the space sector over the next several years.

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