Should civilians participate in manned space missions

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Should civilians participate in manned space missions?

Viewpoint: Yes, the spirit of space exploration as an effort for all humanity demands broad participation by astronauts, scientists, and civilians alike.

Viewpoint: No, space exploration—currently in its infancy—is an inappropriate pursuit for civilians unused to, or unfit for, the rigors and risks that it poses.

Exploration is as old as mankind. Our earliest ancestors explored out of necessity, whether as hunter-gatherers looking for food, for ample space to live, or simply out of curiosity. Settlement of Earth went quite slowly. If early humans evolved in Africa 2 million years ago, it took their descendents 1.99 million to find North America, since evidence of early human activities in what is now the United States only dates back some 12,000 years. Rapid mass transportation in the form of trains, cars, and aircraft had to wait until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—barely a heartbeat in the long human chronicle.

A defining aspect of almost all of this exploration was that everybody did it. Early hunter-gatherer clans moved as units. Entire families boarded sailing ships in England to head to the New World. In the developing United States, expansion was in large measure an individual process, as settlers headed westward in small groups.

The exploration of space began in October 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which means "explorer." Human presence in space has so far been a very technical one, limited to astronauts and engineers highly trained for the missions they undertake. In the years since the first U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts first orbited Earth, space flight has gradually become a more familiar concept. The first flight of the space shuttle in 1981 was met with enormous fanfare and ongoing news coverage; while today many of us are not even aware a shuttle flight has been launched until we see it mentioned in a sidebar in the paper. With the advent of reusable spacecraft, and with the development of the International Space Station ( ISS ), a regular human presence in space, the idea of opening the exploration of space to the rest of humanity presents itself. Perhaps because exploration is such an ingrained, universal, human experience, sending civilians to space seems an inevitable and appropriate development.

The first, and much publicized, foray into civilian exploration of space ended in unspeakable disaster on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 72 seconds into its flight. "Teacher in Space" Christa McAuliffe died, along with the six other crewmembers, and a vigorous debate about the wisdom of sending civilians into orbit ensued.

Proponents of civilian exploration of space support their position with two major arguments. The first is practical: Space exploration is expensive, and a regular revenue stream from paying civilian astronauts could initiate a "space tourism" industry, and thus provide a boost for sponsoring agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The second is philosophical: the innate curiosity humans have about their environment and their universe is reason enough to participate. Pushing the unknown bolsters the spirit, the proponents argue, and is an essential pursuit for all mankind.

Opponents of civilian space travel point out that space exploration is still a very new pursuit, and is fraught with all the dangers of any infant technology. Indeed, the space shuttle is by all rights an extraordinarily dangerous machine. Various estimates of the failure rate of the shuttle have been made, and they hover around the 1 in 100 mark. If commercial aircraft operated with such a failure rate, there would be over 300 crashes every day—something that would certainly raise eyebrows.

Opponents also are skeptical of "space tourism" as a truly lucrative business. They argue that only the wealthy could afford such an expensive "ticket," and in any event the absolute number of civilians that could be taken on orbital joyrides with the world's present fleet of spacecraft is quite small.

Both sides have telling points. If the allure of exploration is as strong as history implies, perhaps there are many who would hand over several months of salary for the thrill of a space shuttle ride, and the awesome look at the Sun climbing over the curving blue limb of Earth far below. Increased accessibility to space travel and exploration through a well-developed "civilians in space" program could provide a groundswell of interest and support—which of course is vital in the United States, where most of the available dollars for ventures in space come ultimately from the taxpayers. However, the political and public relations fallout from civilian fatalities could have just the opposite effect, and it is certainly true that space travel is not only dangerous but notoriously technical.

This last point is at the center of the present issue, and pervades the two essays that follow. The debate ultimately hinges not on the issue that space exploration is dangerous, but that it is still a pursuit that requires genuine expertise. Setting forth across the Atlantic on the Mayflower may indeed have been dangerous for a family of nonsailors, but it was not particularly technical. Anyone can walk up the gangplank onto a ship. Travel in a spacecraft, however, is still limited to very small crews and requires a significant breadth of expertise and acclimatization. If the entire crew of the Mayflower had died en route to America, the "civilians" would have at least had a chance for survival; in the space shuttle, a stranded civilian would have simply no chance at all. To what extent, therefore, is it sensible to open technical exploration to anyone? Whether that exploration is flying into orbit, climbing Mount Everest, traveling in a bathyscaphe to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, is it prudent to open it to anyone with a deep enough wallet? It seems there must be a dividing line between exploration and foolishness, and the essays below examine where that line lies.


Viewpoint: Yes, the spirit of space exploration as an effort for all humanity demands broad participation by astronauts, scientists, and civilians alike.

Children are often asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Since the beginning of the manned space program and especially after Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon on July 20, 1969, many children have answered, "An astronaut." However, unlike other replies, such as scientist, fireman, nurse, doctor, lawyer, pilot, and so on, not one in a million children have been able to pursue the dream of going into space.

While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) offered the promise of civilians traveling into space beginning in the mid 1980s with their civilian space program, this offer was summarily rescinded when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986 shortly after its launch from Cape Canaveral. The tragedy resulted in the death of its entire crew, including civilian schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. Since then, the ban on allowing civilians on manned space flights has remained intact for over 15 years, despite significant improvements in safety and numerous successful space shuttle flights.

Although risks are inherent to space travel, people take risks almost everyday of their lives, from the Monday-through-Friday throng of workers traveling to and from work in their cars, to those rugged individualists who decide they want to climb Mt. Everest. Taking risks is the right of any individual in a free society and should not be limited to a few chosen government employees.

Unlike standard aviation, which grew out of both government and private enterprise and included numerous civilians taking what were considered significant risks at the time, space flight has remained the purview of government-controlled organizations and employees. As a result, despite landing on the Moon and the creation of the International Space Station ( ISS ), progress in space flight and exploration have remained relatively minimal when compared with the rapidity with which other technological innovations have advanced in the hands of civilians and private enterprise. For example, routine airplane transportation was in place only three decades after the Wright brothers made their historic flight in 1903. Now more than 1.5 million Americans fly around the country and the world everyday, and the airline industry has played a vital role in the country's economy and in the lives of almost all Americans.

Admittedly, allowing civilians to participate in space missions must begin on a small scale, but it could be introduced immediately by allowing civilians to fly on the space shuttle to the ISS. Although the shuttle can carry up to eight people, the average crew is five, including the commander, the pilot, and three mission specialists. In addition to McAuliffe, NASA has already set precedent by allowing civilians to fly on missions, including payload specialists from technology companies that want to perform tests in space, Senator Jake Garn in 1985, Congressman Bill Nelson in 1986, and ex-astronaut Senator John Glenn in 1998.

Efforts by the United States to send humans into space were partly a response to the former Soviet Union's taking the lead in the "space race" when it achieved the first manned space flight with the 1961 launch into Earth's orbit of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the Vostok 1 space capsule. Russia, the primary component of the former Soviet Union, has once again "outdone" the United States, allowing entrepreneur and former aerospace engineer Dennis Tito to pay a reportedly $20 million to fly on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the orbiting International Space Station, where he spent six days in April 2001. NASA vehemently objected to the trip, arguing that Tito's lack of training represented a safety risk, that he would be a distraction and need "babysitting," and that it was especially inappropriate while the assembly of the Space Station was still going on. Despite these objections, Russia asserted its right to bring aboard any "cargo" it desired. Tito made the flight, and so far it appears that his presence had little or no impact on mission operations.

Former astronaut and Apollo 11 moon walker Buzz Aldrin is in favor of such paying customers. Testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Aldrin said, "Ticket-buying passengers can be the solution to the problem of high space costs that plague government and private space efforts alike." And there are wealthy people ready to put down a substantial amount of money to take a space trip. Before Tito, Toyohiro Akiyama, who worked for the Tokyo Broadcasting System, paid $11 million to spend a week on the Russian MIR space station, and film director Cameron Crow has also expressed interest in paying up to $20 million for the chance to go into space.

Safety and Qualifications for Civilian Space Passengers

Since the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA has funneled more than $5 billion into upgrading the space shuttle and improving its safety. Furthermore, the numerous manned flights since the early 1960s have shown that short-term space travel presents no significant physiological problems, and common minor effects such as motion sickness can be easily treated with standard medications. Nevertheless, most civilians should be in good enough physical shape to withstand the G-force pressures during liftoff and landing. G-force is the inertial stress a body experiences during rapid acceleration, and experiments indicate that G-forces in the 10 to 20 g range could cause internal organs to move, resulting in injury and potentially death beyond 20 g s. Despite Hollywood movie depictions of the rigors of G-forces during launch, astronauts experience a maximum of about 3 g s, causing the body to feel heavier, and making legs and arms more difficult to move. Most normal health people can easily stand the G-force experienced during launch. At age 77, John Glenn experienced no adverse effects during his 1998 space shuttle flight. At the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida, civilian tourists can take a spin in the G-Force Trainer and experience 4 g s.

Nevertheless, NASA has long expressed concerns over safety and other issues associated with civilians participating in manned missions. Some estimates indicate that the risk of disaster during a space shuttle takeoff and flight is 1 in 100, and NASA believes this is an unacceptable risk for civilians. Still, if someone is willing to take that risk and sign a waiver relieving NASA and the U.S. government from responsibility should a disaster occur, why should that person be denied the opportunity based on risk alone? It is important to remember that this is merely an estimated risk; no loss of life has occurred in the United States space program since the Challenger disaster. Furthermore, in a speech before a 1999 Space Frontier Foundation Conference, a NASA administrator said that NASA's goal was to have launch vehicles with a reliability of greater than 0.999, with that reliability continuing to increase to 0.999999 over two to three decades.

Of course, civilians on NASA space flights will require more education and training than the typical airline passenger receives during a two-to-five-minute educational lecture with video about safety procedures. Training for functioning in weightlessness would be required, and preflight training for emergencies would be necessary. Simulator training would also be included, not only to provide experience for the in-flight dynamics but also to provide an opportunity for potential passengers who found the experience extremely uncomfortable and negative to change their minds. Dr. Harvey Wichman, professor of psychology, and director of the Aerospace Psychology Laboratory at Claremont McKenna College in California, points out that an unruly or troublesome passenger cannot be taken off a space flight. However, he notes that his laboratory has shown that two hours of pretraining before a 48-hour civilian space-flight simulation dramatically reduces negative interpersonal reactions. A screening and training program for civilian space flight has already been made available through the Orbital Flight Pre-Qualification Program, which is developed by a private company interested in space tourism in cooperation with Russian agencies responsible for cosmonaut training.

Actually, NASA has already answered the question as to whether or not civilians should be allowed on space flights by reinstating its Space-flight Participant Program in 2002 to provide opportunities for the general public to ride on the space shuttle and stay in the ISS. Furthermore, a two year study conducted by NASA and the Space Transportation Association (STA) concluded that more should be done to expand the space-tourism business and to create an in-space travel and tourism business. As the only system in the United States for transporting people to and from space, the space shuttle can serve as a gateway to new industries and businesses, including commercial space travel. In turn, commercial space travel can have a significant impact on the U.S. and global economies, creating new technologies, new jobs, and new opportunities. Potential "space businesses" include utilizing space solar power for energy, mining Helium-3 on the Moon, and processing materials in micro-gravity. But these are efforts that can only be done with private capital. Allowing civilians, such as the leaders of businesses interested in started space projects, to participate in manned space flights can only help these private sector initiatives get off the ground.

Tourism may end up being the biggest space industry of all and could become a part of the overall commercial and civil space program. It would also add significantly to the gross revenues of more than $400 billion per year that are part of the travel and tourism business in the United States alone. NASA and STA reported that space tourism and travel by the general public could be a $10 billion to $20 billion business in just a few decades. In the near term, the money paid by wealthy civilians to journey into space could be used to help offset the approximately $14 billion a year that taxpayers currently pay for the government-run space program and to increase the overall space-exploration budget, which had declined to approximately $14.2 billion in 2001 from $16.8 billion in 1991.

Several surveys conducted in the United States, Japan, Great Britain, and elsewhere have shown that the public is keenly interested in the possibility of space travel. In 1993, the National Aerospace Laboratory (NAL) conducted a survey of 3,030 Japanese people and found that 70% under age 60 and over 80% of those under age 40 would like to visit space. Approximately 70% responded that they would pay up to three months of their salaries to do so. In the United States, a 1995 NAL survey of 1,020 households found that 60% of the people wanted to take a space vacation, with 45.6% saying they would allocate three months of their salaries for a chance to go, 18.2% were willing to pay 6 months worth of salary, and 10.6% would be willing to pay a year's salary. Despite gaps between consumer intentions and actions, the study concluded that space tourism could be a multibillion dollar business. What about the risks and possible law suits if something goes wrong? Just as with other "adventure travel" programs, insurance and liability waiver forms that specify customers travel at their own risk could be employed.

Good for the Psyche and the Soul

Allowing civilian participation in space missions would not just provide a boost for the overall economy, but also for one of the driving forces in most cultures, that is, the need to explore new horizons. However, as Rick N. Tumlinson, president of the Space Frontier Foundation, put it during his 1995 testimony to the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, "We are a nation of pioneers with no new frontier."

What's so special about going into space? When asked what was the best thing about space travel, Byron Lichtenberg, a space shuttle pay-load specialist who is not a career astronaut, replied, "For me the best parts about being an astronaut are the incredible opportunity to fly in space, to be an explorer, to see Earth from space and to be involved in an effort to be able to get the general public into space and off our planet. So many things today are commonplace that many people do not get passionate about anything. We have become more and more a country of spectators not participants."

Allowing people from the general public to participate in manned space flights is the first step to opening up a new frontier, a frontier not only for business and economic development but also a frontier of hope, opportunities, and dreams. It will be the first step to a universe without limits. In the final analysis, it is not a question of whether civilians should be allowed on manned space flights, it is a question of when. Given a chance, civilians will show that they, too, have the "right stuff."


Viewpoint: No, space exploration—currently in its infancy—is an inappropriate pursuit for civilians unused to, or unfit for, the rigors and risks that it poses.

"One small step for man; one giant leap for rich people." It doesn't quite have the same ring as astronaut Neil Armstrong's original statement, "One small step for man, one giant step for mankind," made when he took the first steps onto the Moon in 1969, does it? However, with wealthy thrill-seekers such as entrepreneur and former aerospace engineer Dennis Tito being allowed to join the Soyuz 2 mission to the International Space Station ( ISS ), such a statement could become surprisingly commonplace. The Russian Space Agency has already accepted money for allowing civilians on Mir. Other millionaires, including Titanic director James Cameron and South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, have tried to buy tickets up to the ISS. Although the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Canadian, European, and Japanese Space Agencies stated that Tito's visit was a one-time exception, the lure of multimillion-dollar investments from thrill-seekers will undoubtedly inspire future "exceptions" to be made.

Proponents of civilians entering space say this money could help promote and expand the various space programs. However, does the simple fact that someone possesses a great deal of money provide him or her with the right to buy his or her way into every situation? Does it seem reasonable to replace specialized scientists conducting valuable research with unskilled tourists whose only qualification is that they have a lot of money to throw around? The simple answer to all these questions is simple: absolutely not.

There are three sound reasons why we should neither encourage space tourism nor allow the trend of millionaires hitching rides into space to continue: 1) space flight requires specialized skills and dedicated training; 2) untrained civilians can become a distraction on space missions; and 3) there are grave risks involved.

Specialization and Training

Flying into space is not like taking an trip on an airplane; entering space is a working trip in every sense of the word. Each mission has specific goals and requirements for successful competition. Should a person lack skills, they can greatly interfere with the mission and risk its success. Manned space flights, therefore, require crewmembers who are skilled professionals, trained not only in their scientific or specialized fields, but also to handle the rigors of space. Should they lack this training, they could not only endanger the mission, but themselves and the people around them. For this reason, NASA and other space agencies have created meticulous training programs for all potential candidates. Allowing an unskilled tourist to skip this process is exceedingly dangerous, as well as unfair to those who undergo the training.

From the time of the first U.S. manned space flight, astronauts have undergone arduous training programs and been required to adhere to specific requirements. In recent years, those requirements have become even more specialized. Astronauts are no longer simply pilots, but scientists as well. In addition, there are health considerations related to microgravity and other environmental issues. In a profession where one mistake can result in a catastrophic lose of life and the destruction of billions of dollars of research and equipment, there can be no "second best." An astronaut must truly have the "right stuff."

NASA's initial selection process requires only the most highly qualified individuals to apply for manned space missions. For both pilots and mission specialists, candidates must possess the minimum of a bachelor's degree in biological science, engineering, mathematics, or physical science, in addition to three years of professional experience in a related field. An advanced degree is, of course, considered more favorably. Pilots must have a minimum of 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft, with flight test experience being more favorable. Both pilots and mission specialists must pass a rigorous physical, be of a proper height (64-76 in; 162-193 cm), and have perfect (or correctable to perfect) eyesight. The possession of all these qualities means only that a candidate will be considered for a manned space mission, not that they will be accepted for further training. Out of the thousands of applicants, less than a few dozen are chosen.

Should a candidate be one of these lucky few, he or she will begin formal astronaut training at the Johnson Space Center, located just outside Houston, Texas. This training consists of laborious physical and educational training over a period of one to two years, depending on a mission's requirements. Classroom training includes courses such as astronomy, computers, guidance and navigation, mathematics, physics, and various other sciences. Trainees also receive technical training in handling complex equipment, parachuting, survival techniques (air, land, sea, and space), and operating a space-suit. To prepare them for the space environment, candidates are also exposed to severe atmospheric pressure changes and microgravity. All the while, they are under a strict observation and evaluation. Again, completion of this training does not mean a candidate will become an astronaut.

Considering the training candidates must undergo to become astronauts, it is difficult to understand how an untrained civilian could be considered worthy of participating in a manned space flight. Nor is it justifiable that an unqualified civilian be allowed to replace a more experienced and qualified candidate. Rich civilians cannot pilot the shuttle, operate space suits or ISS equipment, or conduct the numerous and valuable experiments vital to space research. In truth, they are nothing more than ballast, taking up precious space and resources better made available to someone with qualifications. With the diminishing number of space flights and the work schedule for the ISS, it becomes increasingly important that every seat be given to trained astronauts rather than wealthy individuals.

Distraction to Astronauts and Operations

Since an untrained civilian is not trained to participate in a manned space mission, they stand a very high chance of getting in the way. The interiors of the shuttle and the ISS are cramped environments, where space is utilized to its utmost degree. Adding a person who cannot make an equal contribution to the team to such an environment is a waste of the available space. In essence, a disservice is done to the remainder of the crew, whether intended or not.

One key characteristic of an astronaut is the physiological ability to act as a team player. Each member of a manned space mission is trained to work with the others in a effortless and efficient manner. Having an outsider thrown into the mix can cause significant distractions to a closely knit crew. Another consideration that must be taken into account is the extra burden placed on mission controllers and support staff while they try to maintain safety for both themselves and the tourist. This was one of the chief concerns for former NASA chief administrator Daniel Goldin, who greatly criticized the proposed presence of Dennis Tito on the ISS.

Given that each manned mission costs taxpayers several billions of dollars, NASA and other space agencies are concerned about successfully completing their missions in the best and most expedient manner. A civilian could detract from research and operations by their mere presence. This in turn wastes money and resources that could be better used by a trained staff member. An excellent example of this is Tito's flight, as NASA is now seeking compensation for losses incurred because of the millionaire's presence on the ISS.

Finally, civilians could quite likely serve as a dangerous distraction should a problem occur. Emergencies in space require cool heads and cohesive teamwork. Specialized experience and expertise with regard to the various systems in the space vehicle can make all the difference in a critical situation. A panicked civilian, for example, would become a hazardous obstacle in an already perilous situation, costing astronauts vital seconds that could be the difference between life and death. This issue of safety has been one of the major points in the criticism of civilians in space.

Safety Considerations

Space travel has many dangers. A second's hesitation can lead to catastrophic consequences. It is for this reason that astronauts undergo such strenuous training before being allowed to participate in manned space missions. A civilian, no matter how much they have paid for the trip, cannot be considered a "safe" passenger, they simply do not have the training to react properly to an emergency. As mentioned previously, civilians would be more of a hindrance than a help in such a critical situation; thus, only increasing the danger.

Potential damage to public relations must also be taken into account when considering the addition of civilians on manned space flights. The first civilian traveling into space met with an untimely end. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was killed along with her six crewmates when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during take-off in 1986. McAuliffe was participating in a NASA program that could have allowed civilians to participate in manned space missions without the usual training. The program was immediately cancelled, and the public relations disaster has hung over NASA for years since.


The addition of civilians to manned space missions is an unsuitable and dangerous course of action. Not only is such an action a waste of resources better utilized on a trained astronaut, it places other crew members at an unreasonable risk. Civilians do not have a place on the space shuttle, the ISS, or on any other space mission. They cannot contribute to the mission and only serve to get in the way no matter how we look at it.

The risks to the crews and machinery are far too high to allow civilians to participate in manned space missions. No matter how wealthy, civilians should leave space travel to those with the experience and training. It is a safer and more efficient use of our space flight capabilities and resources. Millionaires hitching rides into space are on nothing more than glorified ego trips, and it is unreasonable to put so many and so much at risk simply to appease a wealthy person in search of the ultimate thrill.

Space exploration has only been in our world for approximately four decades. It is still in its early stages, and has a long way to go before it becomes safe and efficient enough to allow civilians to participate. Undoubtedly, this will change in the future, but for now, it is an endeavor best left to the professionals. In a May 2001 survey by Cosmiverse, 64% of those surveyed responded that they believed that civilians should be allowed to visit the ISS at some point in the future, but that they should not at this time.


Further Reading

Ashford, David, and Patrick Collins. Your Space-flight Manual—How You Could Be a Tourist in Space within Twenty Years. Australia: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Ask an Astronaut Archives: Byron Lichtenberg. <>.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Astronaut Selection and Training. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1990.

National Commission on Space. Pioneering the Space Frontier. New York: Bantam Books, 1986.

Santy, P. A. Choosing the Right Stuff: The Psychological Selection of Astronauts and Cosmonauts. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994.

Tumlinson, Rick N. "Manifesto for the Frontier:A Call for a New American Space Agenda." Space Frontier Foundation Online. March 16, 1995. <>.



Unit of measurement for determining the inertial stress on a body undergoing rapid acceleration, expressed in multiples of acceleration of gravity ( g ).


Inhabited satellite orbiting Earth at an altitude of 250 mi (400 km). The completed space station, built by the United States, Russia, and 15 other nations, will have a mass of approximately 520 tons (470 t), and will measure 356 ft (108 m) across and 290 ft (88 m) long.


U. S. government agency charged with conducting research on flights within and beyond Earth's atmosphere.


System for manned space flights that includes a reusable orbiter spacecraft capable of returning to and landing safely on Earth.

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Should civilians participate in manned space missions

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Should civilians participate in manned space missions