Do not call Richard Garriott de Cayeux a space tourist.
True, he paid $30 million to Space Adventures to be launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station (ISS). But to get to that point, he first co-founded Space Adventures, had an operation to remove a lobe on his liver that was blocked and allowed NASA to map the nucleus of every cell in his eye to see if any changes would occur in space (he had previously had laser corrective eye surgery, which NASA believed might disqualify him for space flight).
Importantly, he also had lined up significant research to conduct while aboard the ISS. “Unfettered by NASA red tape, I believe I had a heavier workload than my government counterparts,” he said.
But NASA, in concert with the other stakeholders of the ISS, will not designate him or the other six Space Adventure clients as astronauts.
As space (or near-space) becomes more accessible to private citizens after the recent successful flights by Jeff Bezos on a Blue Origin rocket and Richard Branson on Virgin Galactic, the line between exploration and tourism — and who defines what’s exploration and what’s tourism — threatens to blur.
Whether Garriott de Cayeux is a space tourist or a bona fide astronaut is not merely a question of semantics to him. He’s also the current president of the Explorers Club, whose membership is an eclectic and elite collection of academics, adventurers, writers and entrepreneurs.
He takes NASA’s snub seriously.
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At the Explorers Club’s five-day Global Exploration Summit (GLEX) in Lisbon and the Azores last month, presentations were made by individuals who have walked to the South Pole and traversed the length of Africa. Members heard from leading experts on sharks, bats and narwhals; the professor who discovered the most massive dinosaur species; a man who holds the record for surfing the largest wave; a woman coordinating efforts to prevent the world from being destroyed by an errant asteroid; a TV host who rappelled into the cauldron of an erupting volcano; and the magician David Blaine, who, working with medical professionals, explores the limits of human endurance.
And, it turns out, a surprising number of GLEX presenters and attendees have direct involvement with the travel industry. Some give an occasional lecture on a cruise ship, but others are former or current tour operators.
Among them was Robin Brooks, director of marketing and public relations for North America for the Adventure Division of Travelopia (which includes International Expeditions, Zegrahm Expeditions, Headwater and Exodus Travel). She said that, during Covid, people took up walking, hiking and cycling in much greater numbers, and that has translated into longer, more adventurous and more challenging trips, up to and including Everest climbs.
So, to where has the line between adventure travel and exploration moved? When asked for his views on the intersection of tourism and exploration, George Kourounis, host of the television show “Angry Planet,” responded, “It’s not so much an intersection; it’s more like a roundabout.”
There’s a gray area, he said. “Exploration is not necessarily doing something that never has been done before. That’s part of it. The spirit of exploration is to do things that you’ve never done before. People want to have this feeling, this sense of adventure, and are looking for interesting ways to meet that need. As someone who found my own niche in that world, I understand the appeal for people to have that thrill.”
On “Angry Planet,” Kourounis enters and documents extreme nature events. But he discovered “that thrill” when he was a tourist, a passenger on a storm-chasing outing looking for tornados. After two tours as a passenger, he got a job driving and guiding for the operator, Cloud Nine Tours, before moving to television.
Still, not all exploration lends itself to tourism. Martin T. Nweeia, principal investigator of Narwhal Tusk Research, wouldn’t bring paying guests on his research expeditions for any price. “We spend so much time earning the trust of the Inuit hunters that we work with, and because that relationship is so delicate and trusted, we need to be cautious about the character and personality of people who are invited to be a part of our team,” he said.
Some travel companies, however, have found ways to successfully blend tourism with research. Lindblad Expeditions has long brought the two together, often in partnership with National Geographic. (The company’s founder, Sven-Olaf Lindblad, is an Explorers Club member.) In addition to hosting researchers on the same vessels that carry paying guests, the passengers on its expedition ship National Geographic Explorer contribute photos of whales to onboard scientists conducting longitudinal research on killer whales.
Guests also have contributed more than 3,700 photos of lichens, mosses and skua scat on South Georgia Island as part of a research-driven, citizen-scientist BioBlitz program.