There’s an interesting scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a pen is captured floating in microgravity aboard a Pan Am flight to a giant rotating space station. Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz plays in the background as an incredibly 60s-looking flight attendant enters the cabin, picks up the pen and tucks it into the pocket of a sleeping passenger.
Spaceflight has been made commonplace by the film industry’s fascination with Retrofuturism. But for modern viewers – to whom space travel seems like a tangible possibility – such scenes have sparked curiosity about space tourism and whether it will be a part of the not-too-distant future.
How soon might this happen? Will there be space flight attendants? And, if so, are they going to be wearing ridiculous Sci-Fi-esque outfits?
Of course, civilian flights to space stations are not scheduled, and there’s certainly no Pan Am. But space tourism has existed for decades now, and there’s no shortage of companies vying to become the first to expand its plans for recreational human space travel.
Piggybacking on space programs
Most space tourists, including Dennis Tito, the world’s first private space explorer, have hopped aboard established flights manned by professional astronauts. In 2001, Tito spent nearly eight days in orbit as a crew member of ISS EP-1, a visiting mission to the International Space Station.
Prior to their trips, space tourists underwent extensive and complex training. As you can imagine, there was no need for pre-flight instructions or for someone to be on hand to advise on seatbelt safety.
During the 2000s, Space Adventures, an American space tourism company founded in 1998, was at the forefront of cosmic tourism. The corporation uses Russian Soyuz capsules to send their customers into orbit, which are only able to house three passengers. So, including attending personnel was never a consideration. After all, a Soyuz is a little too small for a service trolley.
Since early 2020, Space Adventures has advertised a switch to a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule and there is currently one full-tourist flight planned for late-2021. Despite a slight increase in internal space, seats on the Dragon are still far too expensive to include any attending personnel.
So, what about bigger space-faring vessels? In comparison to its much smaller counterparts, the Space Shuttle was enormous. The vessel was roughly the size of a regional airliner and routinely carried seven people in addition to two dozen tons of cargo. Yet, it never transported any tourists. Even non-professional astronauts were in the minority and accompanied by an extensive crew of well-trained professionals.
But why? Well, the Shuttle, the Soyuz and even the Dragon aren’t exactly tourist friendly and space travel places several grueling demands on prospective customers. Quite understandably, passengers are expected to have broad knowledge of safety procedures so that they know exactly what to do in the event of an emergency. Prior to the flight, all passengers undergo extensive training in both zero-G and high-G. In general, the phenomenon of space tourism on these vehicles was seen a mere outgrowth of existing space programs.
It’s safe to say that the situation has remained unchanged since Tito’s flight. So, while space tourism companies continue to use spaceships of non-dedicated design, space tourists must continue to pick up their pens without an assistance.
Nevertheless, slowly and surely, we are beginning to reach a point where this may no longer be the case.
Presently, at least several companies are in the process of designing a dedicated tourist spacecraft. More importantly, none of these designs are a shoebox-sized capsule with controls that could put any airliner to shame. On the contrary, spacecraft is being designed to appear sleek and attractive and boasts a streamlined space tourist experience with none of that professional astronaut hassle.
One such company is Blue Origin, an American privately funded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services provider. Since the 2000s, Blue Origin has been developing the New Shepard sub-orbital vehicle. Its aim is to offer a willing customer the chance to hop over the internationally recognized edge of space, the Kármán line, at the altitude of 100 kilometers.
Compared to regular orbital spaceships, the New Shepard is simple and straightforward. It ascends, reaches space and then comes down without the need for great speed or any fancy maneuvers. With room for six astronauts, the capsule is spacious: its seats are arranged in a circle and every passenger is given a window seat. Unfortunately, there’s no bathroom and you won’t be able to order a packet of peanuts and a drink during the 11-minute-long flight. But, with the click of a button, each passenger has the ability to contact ground control. This is the closest thing that the New Shepherd has to a cabin crew and, according to Blue Origin, nothing more is needed.
Another company famed for selling tickets to space is Virgin Galactic, an American spaceflight company within the Virgin Group. Their setup is a bit more complicated and includes a spaceplane with rocket engines. SpaceShip III has a roomy cabin capable of providing an astronaut experience to six passengers. It’s also sub-orbital, so there’ll be no trip to the space station. But the flight will take significantly longer and involves less automation.
In contrast to Blue Origin’s New Shepherd, the SpaceShip III will be controlled by a pair of pilots and feature a wide aisle between pairs of high-tech designer seats. But what about flight attendants?
In response to an enquiry from AeroTime, a Virgin Galactic spokesperson said: “There will be no flight attendants. But part of the customer experience is the preparation leading up to the actual flight, which will involve a number of people as you can imagine.”
The preparation, dubbed the Astronaut Readiness Program, is primarily focused on the health and fitness of Virgin Galactic customers, who will have to endure significant G-loads on their flight. Presumably, the training will include detailed instructions on emergency procedures and the process of the flight, alongside the problem-solving skills usually required by flight attendants. The company assumes that these measures are enough to eliminate the need for additional personnel.
SpaceX, which was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, also harbors space tourism goals. More recently, the company’s plan seems to be focused on Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, and his dearMoon project: a proposal to take up to eight hand-picked artists on a trip around the Moon by 2023.
There is little concrete information about procedures and possible crew. The only available intelligence suggests that the artists will be accompanied by one or two professional astronauts. It’s possible that the latter will assume some flight attendant duties. However, statements from SpaceX have been incredibly vague, so it’s highly likely that such details are yet to be decided.
It’s only recently that the vessel, named The Starship, began serious testing. However, it’s safe to assume that if SpaceX were to begin the hiring process for space flight attendants, they wouldn’t hesitate to announce the news.
So, none of the major space tourism companies have considered adding attendants to their flights. Does that mean the idea has no future? Not necessarily.
A growing need
Currently, there are no attendants trained for spaceflights. However, similar duties are already being carried out by professionals in the space industry.
One such person is Tim Bailey who, for many years, has been a member of the Parabolic flight crew for ZERO-G Corporation, a company that provides training in weightlessness. Bailey, who has accompanied thousands of people on aircraft that simulate microgravity by diving at steep angles, has strong opinions about the reluctance to hire space flight attendants.
Bailey explains: “I’ve talked with people at commercial spaceflight companies that believe they will be able to train their clients, so that they won’t need any help [and] a corporate pilot can help them instead, or [they’ve said] that everything will be automated, so that no-one will need to support them directly.”
He adds: “Here’s the reality, regular customers cannot be counted on to handle emergencies and correctly operate emergency equipment on a spacecraft. These spacecrafts are not a city bus or a subway car.”
Bailey has witnessed thousands of people experience microgravity for the first time and states that individual reactions cannot be predicted. While some people giggle, others panic. Everybody needs assistance.
It was fine when the training Tim provides could be undergone by every space tourist; it was fine when there were two professional astronauts for every tourist in a Soyuz capsule. And it will probably be suitable for the initial flights carried out by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, when the idea is still fresh, and a lot of effort can be dedicated to training. But as the space tourism industry grows, and the process becomes more streamlined, there will be an urgent need for space flight attendants.
Bailey says: “I strongly believe that these companies will quickly realize that they either need far more training and individual responsibility than a paying customer is willing to endure, or a crew member to facilitate and support the experience to make it truly worth the price. While this will take up valuable space in the spacecraft, it will result in a more enjoyable and safer experience for the passengers.”
He adds: “The alternative is a few botched flights with chaos in the cabin and high-net-worth early adopters upset—and possibly injured. I can’t imagine a commercial space company today that will survive that PR nightmare.”
Bailey did not answer whether he has ever had to pick up a floating pen that fell out of customer’s pocket. But his answers seem convincing enough to imagine that in the very close future somebody will have to perform that process, with Retrofuturistic outfits or without them.