Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Not since Sputnik set off a national crisis of confidence has the United States been so thoroughly bested by its erstwhile global rival. While NASA makes un-American noises about keeping the sanctity of government research facilities untainted by commercial exploitation, the Russians have leapt ahead in the real space race, the one to carry consumers to the stars.

In selling Dennis A. Tito a full-fare ticket to the International Space Station, the Russians have gone from pre-capitalism to the bleeding edge of the post-capitalist economy in a single leap. Who would believe it? When the Russians first launched Mir in 1986, the world thought it a rather quixotic lab experiment, another example of those entrepreneurially challenged Commies’ fondness for pure science.

The Yankees, meantime, were devoting their ingenuity to developing something practical—like the shuttle, the merchant fleet of space commerce to come.

Fifteen years later, there’s no space commerce to speak of, while Mir is revealed as the genesis of a blockbuster business concept. The Russians’ space station wasn’t just the first orbital lab, it was the first orbital hotel, the prototype for the ultimate adventure-travel destination. Unfortunately, by the time Mir’s true value had dawned on the producers of Destination Mir, an NBC-bound reality show that planned to offer contestants a grand-prize ride on the Russian space station, it was only fit for ocean dumping.

But the notion of space tourism was so inevitable—NASA itself claimed as much in a 1997 report—that nothing could stop it once the cash-strapped Russian space program met the persistent Californian with $20 million to burn on rocket fuel.

In an economy increasingly driven by entertainment, one can say that everything in history happens three times: first as tragedy, then as farce and finally as a tourist destination. The most unlikely places—small farms, abandoned steel mills, pockets of Appalachian poverty—have all been reborn with admission fees, visitor centers or gift shops. And derelict urban waterfronts and manufacturing neighborhoods, having outlived their economic usefulness, are resurrected as tony loft districts and consumer playlands of chichi shops and restaurants.

Outer space, which once did duty as a symbolic Cold War battlefield, is experiencing a similar recycling. Septuagenarian John Glenn, who first went into space as a national hero, returned decades later as a sightseer. Why should Tito waste his personal fortune buying a Senate seat when it’s easier to pay for a space trip outright?

In a sense, Tito is reversing Glenn’s trajectory. He went into space as a tourist, but returns as a different sort of hero: the Yuri Gagarin of a projected billion-dollar luxury travel niche. Thanks to him, trips to space are becoming available to others with the right stuff: gobs of money.

As future space tourists sink into their deluxe, personal video-system-equipped sleeper seats, they’ll have reason to ponder the bravery of Tito, who paid so dearly for his joyride and still had to bring his own CD player.

For the sake of our national honor, it’s reassuring to know there are American companies hard at work on the next generation of space transit. (Worldwide, 19 private enterprises are currently competing for the $10 million prize for creating the first tourist-ready, reusable launch vehicle.) Bigelow Aerospace, a division of Budget Suites of America, is pouring $500 million into a vehicle that will orbit the moon—so much “sexier” than orbiting Earth, according to CEO Robert Bigelow.

Hilton Hotels has expressed a vague interest in a space hotel, while Space Island Group plans a rotating hostelry made of recycled space-shuttle fuel tanks. Of course, their customers won’t dine on freeze-dried chipped beef and Tang. These entrepreneurs promise a full cruise ship experience, complete with spa, casino and a Vegas-style lounge singer crooning “Fly Me to the Moon.”

For now, however, there are only two outfits that can get you beyond the wild blue yonder: the American and Russian governments. And the latter, which has already said it plans to sell more visits to the ISS, is way ahead in the battle for space tourism market share.

True, for $12,595 the American outfit Space Adventures can arrange a Chuck Yeager experience that takes customers to the edge of the atmosphere. But you’ll have to go to Russia and climb aboard a MiG-25 to do it. While NASA asks “Why?” the Russians say, “Why not?” At this rate, they will bury us. Houston, do you read me?