Today, the United States are celebrating the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight: three tours of the globe in less than five hours. To mark the occasion, Craig Russell of Space Operations Inc., would have liked to see the mission replayed, but relying on private means only, this time. We get his point, because times have changed since Mercury Atlas 6: power concentrates elsewhere, the resources needed to send men in orbit are no longer in the hands of Nation-States. The conquest of space is no longer a political issue; it is about business. Uunless we look at it differently, that is to say, unless we admit that politics themselves have another owner. A growing private sector is about to own the transportation infrastructure into the margins of our World. Nation-States are its future customers. Google Lunar X Prize promises $ 30 million to the first team capable of sending a robot to the moon without public funding.
100 km above the ground is the Kármán line, where the atmosphere becomes so thin that it no longer provides the required lift for aircraft. Beyond it begins the field of astronautics and orbital flight. From this altitude on, territories and their borders lose their relevance, too: we leave the airspace and enter a “pure space”, even less legislated as the ocean waters. The French philosophers’, Emmanuel Levinas’ fascination for orbital flight, at that time, leads mainly to this: to the possibility of conceiving a space devoid of the cracks of history, and of the logics of separation and deep-rootedness that Europe has barely paid for, such a heavy toll, in the first half of its century. “What matters perhaps above all,” he writes, “is having been able to leave the place. For one hour, one man existed outside of any horizon – everything was sky around him, or rather, everything was geometric space. A man existed in the absolute homogeneous space. “
Levinas was not talking about John Glenn, though, but about Yuri Gagarin, and his Vostok 1, whose April 12th 1961 path around the Earth from Baikonur to Engels still leaves a narcissistic scar in the American sky. We do not celebrate the first orbital flight of humanity, today, but only the U.S. one. Gagarin, the Soviet saint, and his eyes filled with infinite solicitude, is still hanging in the corner of the cosmic izba, tucked in his spacesuit like in the gilding of an othodox icon.
The future of space travel, however, commits neither the Cold War, nor metaphysics. Russian Soyuz shuttles welcome American space tourists, providing what the language of economics now calls a “service”: to fall out of the atmosphere at 4g, to hover in weightlessness for a while and to glide to the ground, then, leaving behind the wastes of the dream. In the documentary Space Tourists (2009), the camera of the Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei accompanies Anousheh Ansari on board the International Space Station, where she stayed for 20 million dollars. Down by the cosmodrome, Kazakh scrap dealers roam the steppes in search for spare parts fallen off during the takeoff phases. They cook lamb soup in a piece of rocket. Larger pieces are used for shelter for the night. Here and there, you see a garden or a roof, ravaged by the fallout of cosmic exploration. As writes the journalist Nick Rodick, “forty years on from Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for man’, we are still waiting for the ‘giant leap for mankind’.”
Ansari was neither the first woman in space, nor its first tourist. Other contenders – the first non-governmental astronaut, the first teacher in space, the first journalist in orbit… – punctuate the titles of the media since the 1980s, until the arrival of the first official “tourist”: the multimillionaire Denis Tito. “Official” only, though, because who is a tourist if not as anyone who moves away from his daily territory, into an elsewhere, devoid of any logic of necessity or obligation? As such, there is tourism, already, in Gagarin’s feat.
Tourism, in all its forms, is a way of escaping the space-time grid of everyday life. Can masses rushed through airport security locks still be considered as such, by the way? They don’t escape anywhere. The holidays themselves are carefully beaconed, by the soft jingle of travel guides, by family demands, by the need to confirm, back to the office, that you’ve been away from all this. Orbital tourism, in this sense, seems the only way into a real elsewhere. For how long, though? UK carrier Virgin Gallactic has already sold over 500 tickets at $200000 aboard its SpaceShipTwo. So watch out: the planet itself is about to become a landscape, the perfect background for a group picture! Its sighting may remain reserved to the privileged, of course, as the Jungfraujoch railway in its infancy, but this is just the beginning, right? Subsequently, as with all progress, any woman or man will be able to explore the outer reaches of sublunar space. In this respect, bold commentators are almost as touching as the poet Mayakovsky in his Flying Proletarian in 1925. Hearing them, we almost forget that one thing: that good old wood, beneath us, our Carboniferous legacy – wood in the form of oil that we need to burn, still and always, to go anywhere.
Image: screenshot from Space Toutrists, a documentary film by Christian Frei.
Oberg james, 2012, “Private Spaceflight: Up, Up, and Away. This year, commercial spaceflight will really take off” in IEEE Spectrum, January 2012.
Roddick Nick, 2009, Sell-Out on the Final Frontier.
Joan Johnson-Freese, Brian Weede, 2012, “Application of Ostrom’s Principles for Sustainable Governance of Common-Pool Resources to Near-Earth Orbit” in Global Policy, Volume 3, Issue 1, pages 72–81, February 2012.