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Ansari, Tyurin, Lopez-Alegria
Anousheh Ansari (left) poses with Mikhail Tyurin and Michael Lopez-Alegria outside their Soyuz spacecraft. Should Ansari be considered the first female space tourist, or even a space tourist at all? (credit: RSC Energia)

Another matter of nomenclature

Shortly after midnight Eastern time today, a Soyuz rocket carrying its eponymous spacecraft lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. On board the Soyuz were two members of the Expedition 14 crew, Michael Lopez-Alegria and Mikhail Tyurin, heading to the International Space Station to begin their six-month stint on the station. Sitting in the third seat was a paying passenger, Anousheh Ansari, widely billed in the media as the first female space tourist.

Unless, of course, she’s the second female space tourist. Or not a space tourist at all.

How’s that? By most accounts, there have been four space tourists to date: Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, Greg Olsen, and now, Anousheh Ansari. However, given the rather fuzzy definition of the term “space tourist”, other people who flew before Tito might qualify as tourists. Moreover, some of the people who have flown aren’t fond of the term itself. Imprecise terminology? Controversy? Debates regarding the number who qualify? For those who remember last month’s debate about Pluto and the definition of “planet”, it’s like déjà vu.

Imprecise terminology? Controversy? Debates regarding the number who qualify? For those who remember last month’s debate about Pluto and the definition of “planet”, it’s like déjà vu.

First of all is the question of whether Ansari is truly the first female space tourist. Some people believe that designation should instead go to Helen Sharman, a Briton who flew to the Mir space station in 1991. Sharman was not a professional astronaut but instead selected from a pool of over 13,000 applicants for an effort called Project Juno, a joint venture between the Soviet space program and a consortium of British companies. (That consortium, which was to pay for her flight, had problems coming up with the money, so the Soviets had to cover her costs.) Sharman spent a little over a week on Mir, performing life sciences and other experiments as well as talking with British schoolchilden via amateur radio.

Compare that to Ansari’s flight. She will spend about ten days in space, including a week on the ISS. She has agreed to participate in (or, more accurately, be the subject of) several experiments for ESA during her stay on the station. She plans to communicate with students and the public on Earth throughout her mission, including blogging from space; her official web site identifies her as a “Space Ambassador”, a title perhaps more nebulous than space tourist but one that seems to describe with some accuracy her plans while in orbit.

To first order, the only major difference between Ansari’s and Sharman’s flights is that Ansari paid for the trip with her own money, while Sharman did not. Is that enough difference to call Ansari, but not Sharman, a space tourist? That distinction would be dubious on Earth: if someone wins an all expenses-paid vacation to a resort, does that disqualify him or her from being a tourist? Hardly. Moreover, most people on vacation, regardless of who is paying, don’t take time to perform experiments or call schools back home to let them know what it’s like to be on the beach or in the mountains.

That’s a conclusion that neither Ansari nor Sharman is likely to argue with. Sharman has stayed out of the media spotlight in recent years, and reportedly has lost interest in space issues. When asked last week how Sharman would feel being called the first female space tourist, British space historian Rex Hall responded, “I think she would not enjoy that title.” Ansari, meanwhile, describes herself on her web site as the “First Female Private Space Explorer” in addition to the “space ambassador” title mentioned above. She actively dislikes the title of space tourist, as she explained last week in an interview with

In a way I take offense when they call me a tourist because it brings that image of someone with a camera around their neck and a ticket in their hand walking to the airport to go on a trip somewhere and coming back to show their pictures. But I think spaceflight is much more than that.
I’ve been training for it for six months. I think if it is to be compared to an experiment or an experience on Earth it probably is closer to expeditions like people who go to Antarctica or people who climb Mount Everest. I mean that requires a lot more preparation, thinking, and studying or appreciation of the environment. So I would probably compare it more to an expedition than I would to a touristy trip to another city.

Ansari’s attitude isn’t unique: two of her predecessors on commercial trips to ISS, Greg Olsen and Mark Shuttleworth, also shunned the space tourist appellation, noting that they performed experiments while on the ISS and/or talked with people, children in particular, during their stays on the station. (Dennis Tito, on the other hand, seemed more content to spend his time taking pictures out the window and listening to music, at least according to some accounts; his activities were perhaps the closest yet to a true “tourist”.)

So if the term is that inaccurate and inadequate, why does its use persist? One reason is that people haven’t come up with an alternative suitable to the general public. People have tried variations like “private space explorer” or “citizen explorer”, and NASA uses the term “spaceflight participant”, but those terms have yet to catch on with wider audiences (see “Is it time to dump the t-word?”, The Space Review, November 30, 2004).

In time, perhaps, the term will become antiquated as the diversity of reasons for which people pay to fly into space grows far beyond what can be reasonably captured under the phrase “tourism”.

A deeper issue, though, is the public’s perception of human spaceflight in general. Since the beginning of the Space Age nearly a half-century ago space has been perceived as the realm of a small number of handpicked government employees: test pilots initially, and gradually later expanding to include scientists, doctors, and other professionals. All those selected to become astronauts or cosmonauts had to overcome great odds, given the number of people interested in and qualified for such jobs. This was, after all, serious business.

Compare that to a private citizen who buys his or her way into space by paying for a ticket on a Soyuz. Regardless of the reasons for the flight—be it for conducting research or simply looking out the window—one can see how the public, used to the old model of government space travelers, might take that person a little less seriously. Call them space tourists, and the name sticks.

Certainly in the years to come, many people will be flying in space for purposes that would be best described as tourism. Many—although not all—people who will be making commercial suborbital spaceflights starting in the next few years will be doing so for the thrill of the flight itself and the ability to say that they’ve been in space, however briefly. Some orbital travelers will doubtless be interested primarily in the space experience, rather than for research or educational purposes, particularly as alternate vehicles and orbital destinations take shape. However, these people will be joined by others who are flying for reasons other than to just experience weightlessness and enjoy the view of the Earth. Should we lump them all together and call them tourists?

For the time being, the answer appears to be yes, for better or worse. In time, perhaps, the term will become antiquated as the diversity of reasons for which people pay to fly into space grows far beyond what can be reasonably captured under the phrase “tourism”, just as the term “planet” has become a bit antiquated given the diversity of objects found in our solar system (see “Demote Pluto, or demote ‘planet’?”, The Space Review, August 28, 2006). Perhaps then “space tourist” will fade from use and be replaced by an alternative. Maybe something as simple as “passenger”.