On New Year’s Day 2001, the first crew of the International Space Station spent a quiet day in orbit. The commander, U.S. Navy Captain William Shepherd, decided to honor a naval New Year’s tradition, in which the person at the helm recites a poem. Shepherd had written something for the occasion, which included the following, recorded in the ship’s log:
Though star trackers mark Altair and Vega / Same as mariners eyed long ago / We are still as wayfinders of knowledge / Seeking new things that mankind shall know.
The station had been under construction, in orbit, for four years at that point, but Expedition 1 marked the beginning of continuous human habitation.
Today the space station’s “wayfinders of knowledge” are still steering an orbiting laboratory for experiments in biology and materials science. But just as explorers of the sea did their job to blaze a path for merchants, the ISS could soon play host to wayfinders of a different sort, whose voyages will be enabled by a whole lot of cash. About $58 million, according to NASA, which announced last week that it would allow private citizens to fly to the only other realm where humans have lived.
NASA will charge about $35,000 a night per passenger to sleep on board the ISS and use its amenities, starting as soon as next year. The station can accommodate two paying visitors for up to a month, but people won’t be able to just show up. Visitors will sign contracts with SpaceX, Boeing, or other companies to pay for the rocket ride, fees, and other costs. That means these trips will remain the purview of the very rich and very powerful for a very long time to come. That makes space tourism unsustainable, and to a certain mind, depressingly out of reach. Once, astronauts chosen for their courage, verve, intelligence, and vigor embodied the mystique of space. Now the right stuff will come with a price tag. The stars may be an everlasting connection to our ancestors, but the prize of soaring among them will be reserved for the wealthy.