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Review: Realizing Tomorrow

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Realizing Tomorrow: The Path to Private Spaceflight
by Chris Dubbs and Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom
Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2011
hardcover, 344 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-8032-1610-5

Ten years ago last month, Dennis Tito flew into orbit on a Soyuz spacecraft, making him what’s generally considered as the first space tourist. While some may quibble with the definition (or even the use of the term “tourist” to describe paying customers flying to the ISS), that flight was a landmark event in the evolution of private human spaceflight. Prior to the flight commercial human space travel was treated skeptically, or worse: many advocates of such ventures talked of the “snicker factor” when the concept was brought up in meetings and at conferences. Since Tito’s flight, and other milestones such as the successful suborbital flights of SpaceShipOne in 2004, commercial human spaceflight has become downright respectable, with millions spent on orbital flights or for tickets and deposits for upcoming suborbital flights. It’s also become, in effect, part of US national space policy: NASA is relying on the demand from tourism and other private applications to make viable plans to develop commercial systems for transporting crews to the ISS.

Early commercial efforts didn’t get off the ground—figuratively or literally—but they were the ancestors of the “NewSpace” companies that today are making similar plans for suborbital and orbital human spaceflight.

In Realizing Tomorrow, Chris Dubbs and Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom chronicle the ups and downs of private human spaceflight over the last several decades. Their examination stretches back to the 1970s, with the surge of interest in space colonies generated by the work of Gerard O’Neill and popularized by a new movement of post-Apollo space advocates looking for the next big thing after the Moon landings that would give them the opportunity to go to (and live and work in) space. The interest in space colonies fizzled out after a few years—and would have been doomed to failure in any respect given that the original plans were based on overly optimistic assumptions of the flight rate and cost of the space shuttle—but the desire for ordinary people to go to space lived on.

Realizing Tomorrow recounts the efforts by both the public and private sectors to expand human spaceflight beyond the limited cadre of professional astronauts. In the 1980s NASA made several steps in that direction, with payload specialists from both industry and other countries (Charlie Walker, one of those industry payload specialists, contributed the foreword to the book), as well as the Teacher in Space project, with follow-on efforts to fly journalists and artists in the works when the Challenge tragedy brought them to a halt. There were also several, albeit little-remembered, efforts in the private sector during this time, like Project Space Voyages, from Seattle adventure tourism company Society Expeditions, and the Volksrocket by Robert Truax, which would have had just enough room for one person to fly on a brief suborbital flight. These efforts didn’t get off the ground—figuratively or literally—but they were the ancestors of the “NewSpace” companies that today are making similar plans for suborbital and orbital human spaceflight.

The book later covers some more recent and familiar ventures: development of the DC-X in the early 1990s, the surge of RLV companies like Rotary Rocket and Pioneer Rocketplane in the latter half of the 1990s, MirCorp and Space Adventures at the turn of the century, SpaceShipOne and the X PRIZE in the early 2000s, and more recent developments by SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace. While these might be more familiar to the likely reader, there are still plenty of behind-the-scenes details and other insights, thanks to interviews the authors conducted with many of the key people involved in those projects. Sometimes those details overlap from one chapter to another, and people or events mentioned in one chapter are reintroduced in a later chapter; a minor oversight.

Dubbs and Paat-Dahlstrom end Realizing Tomorrow on an optimistic note, foreseeing a potentially bright future for private human spaceflight, be it for tourism, research, or other applications. Citing proposals like Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable habitats and SpaceX’s Dragon crewed spacecraft, “it doesn’t take any great stretch of the imagination to conjure visions of communities living and working in space.” That sounds a lot like the vision Gerard O’Neill first expressed nearly a half-century ago, if not necessarily as grandiose as he originally imagined. There are still many challenges ahead for private human spaceflight—technical, financial, and potentially even regulatory—and no guarantee of success, but one thing is certain: unlike previous decades, today’s effort are not cause for much snickering.