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Olsen, Ansari, Enomoto
Greg Olsen, Anousheh Ansari, and Daisuke Enomoto: is it right to call them “space tourists”? Or does the debate regarding proper terminology really matter? (credit: Space Adventures)

When politics, semantics, and reality collide: the “space tourism” debate

The departure and return of Anousheh Ansari, the most recent paying passenger to go to orbit, seems to have re-stoked an old debate: are we correct in thinking of paying to go to space as “tourism”? Ansari herself begs to differ, preferring the term “private space explorer”. Dennis Tito preferred “independent researcher.” I would like to suggest that while nobody who debates this question is in control of what people will eventually call it, it doesn’t matter anyway.

I make some of my living as a Japanese-to-English translator. I am intimately, and professionally, concerned with meanings. I won’t dismiss any argument out of hand with the rebuttal, “you’re just arguing semantics.” When a semantic issue raises its hydra heads in debate, I’m usually all ears regarding the equivocations issuing from the mouths of the monster.

I’m also a former software engineer. I have seen projects turn turbulent over misunderstandings about terminology. Translators only pursue meanings, but software engineers often create them. If you doubt this, imagine what meanings the word “browser” would invoke in the minds of most of us 20 years ago, not to mention “mouse”.

I would like to suggest that while nobody who debates this question is in control of what people will eventually call it, it doesn’t matter anyway.

As for my credentials in the travel and tourism industry, they are fairly sound: I earn a second income by co-managing a quaint little Japanese guesthouse in the heart of Tokyo, plying a busy trade in non-Japanese visitors. Admittedly, this might bias me. Perhaps I have deluded myself that catering to tourists is a livelihood with honor. However, I often think there is more honor in it than I could find in software engineering. Software is a field in which as much as 80% of all effort comes to nothing, after long and wearying travails. Worse, even when “successful”, the result often leaves almost everybody unhappy (except perhaps some sales rep who has already banked his commission and who is long down the road from the ensuing debacle, perhaps in some other company’s sales force.) In co-managing this small inn, I like to think we’re in the business of quickly making people a little happier, for a short while, then sending them off with fond and indelible memories. And what’s wrong with that?

Some might argue that what to call what we now hesitantly and ambivalently call “space tourism” is really a question for marketing professionals. There’s something to that, though, though I think this rejoinder neglects a critical dimension—politics, and particularly the political legitimacy of space programs, upon which any burgeoning space travel market will depend for some time to come. However, I think there’s also no substitute for knowing one’s market: a marketing professional brought in from outside will always start lower on the learning curve than the operator of a going concern.

I have some credentials in the area of marketing as well, though I admit the portfolio is much slimmer in this case. The family-owned inn I operate is thriving while similar inns are dying in Tokyo. It was virtually dead when I arrived on the scene. How is that we now thrive while other ryokans wither? Because of three de facto standard communications technologies, and two words. The three technologies are (1) the roman character writing system for English, (2) the rather more recent technology for composing and publishing websites, and (3) web search engines, hot on the heels of that last. The two critical words are “Tokyo” and “ryokan” (neither of which are rendered accurately in roman characters, by the way). Those two words define a small niche travel and tourism market for which there is healthy demand. Non-Japanese tourists find us because they want to find something like what we offer, and, by way of even such imperfect technological standards, they can. I didn’t need a marketing professional to tell me how I needed to reach that market. I just needed knowledge of my business, access to technology, and a healthy disregard for perfectionism.

Search engines, perfect? We all know they aren’t. Web site technology is also far from perfect. How about writing systems? There are a couple of more phonetically accurate, pedagogically “standard” ways to render “Tokyo” and “ryokan” in roman characters, but I might be committing business suicide if I were to pedantically adhere to them. I would be far better off adding new web pages to our site, consisting of translations of the basic content into other languages in which the native Japanese pronunciations of these two words are even more savagely butchered. Is “private space explorer” a “more perfect” way to say “space tourist”? Perhaps. But is it any way to reach the interested public? I think not.

The perfect is the enemy of the good, not least because perfection is seldom possible and often not worth the bother (or even counterproductive) even when it is possible. Since a commercial space travel industry of any kind appears to be just barely possible, insistence on perfection anywhere that it doesn’t matter should be looked upon as a source of risk.

To repeat: the questions before us are:

  • is there some perfect way to say what we mean by “space tourism”?
  • is it possible to get a more accurate term widely adopted?
  • does it matter anyway?

My answers are: probably not, probably not, and probably not.

No perfect way

Encounters with the unprecedented are hardly unprecedented, and they can leave us at a loss for words. The famous bulletin board joke, falsely attributed to Petronius Arbiter, has it that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, with usually disappointing results. This applies equally well to how we attempt to reorganize and formulate our thoughts, and how we express our thoughts, when faced with new situations. Space travel is still a new situation. Commercial space travel is a very new situation.

Since a commercial space travel industry of any kind appears to be just barely possible, insistence on perfection anywhere that it doesn’t matter should be looked upon as a source of risk.

Let’s take the term “space” itself. We used to say “outer space”. More recently, in context, “space” itself suffices. This is linguistic economy at work. When we say, “I’m interested in space”, unless we’re an abstract artist or an academic philosopher, the “outer” part is understood. Literalism is useless here. Physics tells us that 99%+ of what we consider solid matter is empty space, but what matters to human beings is perception. “Space” meaning “outer space” in context (even if it bedevils users of search engines) is a case of a fairly good accommodation of the language to a new aspect of reality.

However, matters get worse from here. What do you call a person who is sent into space as part of a government program? “Astronaut”? Yet the Russians had already coined a perfectly serviceable word, “cosmonaut”. It has the virtue of being more precise as well—after all, “astronauts” don’t navigate inside stars, and the chance that they will ever navigate even among the stars seems rather small at this point. “Cosmo-” is a Greek root word meaning space. “Cosmonaut” means navigator of, or traveler in, space. The Russians got it right the first time.

We went with “astronaut” instead because we needed to be different. Terminological accuracy took a back seat to another priority: We were Americans, catching up with Russians. To call our space travelers “cosmonauts” might have tinged the launch of any such “American cosmonaut” with some sense of joining, when what we were doing was competing. With the nonsensical “astronaut”, we were buying into rivalry, not community. This neologistic illogic continues, with the recent Chinese launch of a “taikonaut”, marrying a Chinese root to a Greek one. As long as space programs are sources of national prestige in a global arena seen as competitive, the temptation to add some distinction will be there. The “astro” prefix has momentum—we’ve recently seen the term “astrosociology” join the language. And, perhaps, some would say I’m engaged here in nothing but a sterile exercise in “astrosemantics.”

Space is historically unprecedented along almost any dimension you can name. Organizing our thoughts on the matter requires organizing the terms we use, of course. We won’t always get it right, even if we eventually know what we mean. (“Space station”? Wouldn’t a geostationary satellite be a better candidate for that term than the ISS? Alas, too late for “manned satellite”.) However, outside of engineering, science, law, and industrial standards, terminological perfection doesn’t matter much. What matters is the sale, and marketing is culture-bound. “Frontier” helps sell space to Americans, but in other cultures there’s no word with the same denotation carrying connotations nearly as positive. Space travel as a growing recreation category is not, however, a question of selling of a frontier existence, a mode of living is not quite as romantic or ennobling as Americans like to believe. Recreational space travel will see more paying customers because it is more universal in its appeal. “Private space trailblazer” might be perfect for some Americans, but I don’t think it’s going to cut it in Japan.

Language and democracy

Let’s say somehow that we do come up with some perfect way to say what we think we mean in this case—both accurate and (we might suppose) universally appealing in translation. We’re space people, we’re the experts, so people have to listen to us, right?


Languages are democracies, and sometimes you end up grumbling that democracies get what the people in them deserve. There is the story of a Western anthropologist who was asked by members of an Amazonian tribe how his own society was ruled. He started described democracy in glowing terms, as one in which each individual had an ultimate say in matters at the ballot box. The interpreter duly conveyed this seemingly auspicious introduction to democracy to other tribal members assembled. Everybody scowled, and somebody said something and spit on the ground. “What did he say?” asked the anthropologist. “He said your rule is: biggest tribe always wins.” A tribal consensus emerged: democracy is bad. End of story, and ironically, a story of democracy in action.

Of course, what we really mean when we extol democracy is something like, “One (adult non-criminal) citizen, one vote, for a legislative representative, government executive, or perhaps a ballot proposition, with constitutional protections of minorities against the majority, checks and balances, in which powers not granted to federal bodies are granted to provincial governments which are themselves democracies, etc. etc.” But that’s a very complex, uphill sales job, as the authors of The Federalist Papers discovered. So be it: we call it democracy, most of us feel good about it, and we know (or think we know) what it means.

I would argue for the term “space tourism”, at least for the time being. If the “tourism” part turns out to be a sales objection, clever people will come up with a way to say it that doesn’t impede sales.

Another case in point is the word “they” as an emerging third-person singular. I trace this usage back to the need for a quick, fluid substitute for “he or she”, in a language community—American English—under siege by forces of feminist political correctness. Whatever the flaws in the ideological premises, the upshot is undeniably interesting—and unexpected. Grammarians and language pundits decry singular “they”, and it still gives me pause in formal writing. However, I use it, as do lots of other people, and if somebody takes exception to that, well, they can take a hike as far as I’m concerned. The speech community has voted, in its way, and the results are in: “they” can be singular, in informal speech and writing.

This democratic nature of language is never more in evidence than in marketing. It’s true that mis-marketing a product with the wrong terms can doom a particular offering, and perhaps dampen demand for similar products for a while. Imagine if “yogurt” had been translated as “Sour Milk Gel”, with taglines like “teeming with bacteria” rather than peppier ones we see now (my favorite being “with active yogurt cultures.”) However, if a product has unrealized potential for demand, a popular semantic disaster in product introduction is not irretrievable. Marketing itself is a competitive market, and some bright marketer paired with some bright advertising writer will find a way to sell the thing, by using more palatable (if less accurate) language. And so I would argue for the term “space tourism”, at least for the time being. If the “tourism” part turns out to be a sales objection, clever people will come up with a way to say it that doesn’t impede sales.

The tenuous public-private sector relationship

Why are we at this present impasse? Why are some so nervous and concerned about the T-word? I believe that several non-market forces are at work. It’s not all about sales into a free market. In fact, we’re still quite far from that situation. Except for a few (and arguably insignificant) exceptions, all successful “NewSpace” is successful in part because government agencies in democracies are the primary customers, now or in the near future.

The space travel market is nation-state oligopsony. There is more at stake than the earnings of rich customers and the investments of adventurous financiers. There are taxes, too, about which everyone feels ambivalent. A close look at completed projects of Scaled Composites, for example, reveals that they built their unparalleled base of expertise in part on government aerospace projects. Even as Elon Musk talks about eventually putting up human passengers, SpaceX lobbies for a piece of the American government unmanned launch market. Space Adventures puts paying customers up and brings them back using booster and capsule technology developed by the Soviet Union, and onto a platform, ISS, constructed entirely with tax monies. Indeed, NASA had to be persuaded that hosting Dennis Tito on ISS would not afflict NASA with any issues of legitimacy in public spending. That threat still hovers in the wings, however. Anousheh Ansari flew last month because Daisuke Enomoto suddenly couldn’t. We’re told that this first Japanese “space tourist” lost his seat because of hitherto unsuspected health issues—“exclusively medical reasons”. However, he also built his fortune in a company, Livedoor, which is now under investigation by the Japanese government, which has itself invested in ISS. We don’t really know what sort of politicking might have been going on behind the scenes in the decision to scrub Daisuke. Some object to “tourism” because it lacks the gravitas we associate with microgravity. More serious concerns would loom, however, if it is ever discovered that an unscrupulous “space tourist” had been effectively subsidized for a very expensive funride with some component of public money covering costs, directly or indirectly. It would be seen as giving taxes to robbers, and it won’t be pretty when it happens.

In closing, I’d like to make a proposal somewhat at odds with my conclusions. Even though I don’t think our present debate will result in any better terminology than good marketers could arrive at more empirically, and even though I don’t think I or anybody else can control the outcome, I’d like to propose terminology.

Let’s just call it Space Travel.

Yes, Space Travel seems overly broad—after all, travel includes business travel. It will probably be a while, if ever, before high-performance sales reps and merger consultants are plying coastal urban concentrations via suborbital hops. But does that really matter?

Of course, it’s not really travel in some sense. But so what? A space station isn’t stationary, and astronauts don’t go to the stars, much less inside them. Words are what we make of them, collectively. In almost the same breath, NewSpace enthusiasts might decry the ISS and shuttle as “going nowhere, in circles”, but say of the budding commercial space travel industry that we are “finally going somewhere”, even when speaking of suborbital flights that are no more destination-oriented than roller coaster rides, bungee jumping, or parachuting. We accept without blinking, or even noticing, that “going” has just been used in two different senses.

Sure, Space Travel used to be a government oligopoly, and is likely to remain so (for the orbital sense, anyway). Of course, Space Travelers have almost always been on missions from governments, and most of them will continue to be for some time to come. But this was true of Columbus, Drake, and Magellan in the early days of navigating the world’s oceans from Europe. Pleasure cruises across the oceans happened anyway.

Yes, Space Travel seems overly broad—after all, travel includes business travel. It will probably be a while, if ever, before high-performance sales reps and merger consultants are plying coastal urban concentrations via suborbital hops. But does that really matter? Categories will emerge, and be given names. Perhaps when we see a new first—an orbital visitor making the first commercial return visit, and announcing, upon return, that he or she plans yet a third visit the following summer—we’ll have to revise the terminology again. We might see some more specific words eventually, as specific as “skier” or “mountaineer”. They might not be the most dignified terms, but that won’t necessarily be a strike against them—I know people who might be described as “professional Googlers”—and who could have foreseen that people would eventually regard as a prized skill an activity with origins literally in baby-talk? “Travel” might provoke ambivalence: some of us might say, in the same day, “I’d really like to take time off and travel,” but also “I had to quit that job—there was too much travel.” “Space Travel” is a bit colorless, perhaps. But so is the term “the hospitality industry”, and I’m no less proud to be a member of that industry because of the term. For now, “Space Travel” might do—if only for the purpose of ending a debate that’s likely to distract us from getting somewhere.