A Taste of Space

Have you ever taken a flight and had a neighbor snoring in your ear or jockeying with you for the armrest? Well, in the year 2040 if you want to be a space tourist, you’ll have to get along with your neighbors on the flight. In fact, you may be drinking their urine.

All fluids are easily recyclable in space, explains Derek Wang, a NASA outreach coordinator and a guide on NASA’s Starship 2040 tour, which made its way through the nation’s capital in June on the back of a 48-foot trailer. He points out the stair climber exercise machine, with its small vacuum that you would use to slurp your beads of sweat out of the air. The sweat would then be used to wash hands or to drink. Urine and other fluids also would be recycled through the filtration system.

Robert Cowley doesn’t have to worry about drinking sweat. He’s the driver of the tour’s 1990 International cabover. “This job’s a lot of fun,” Cowley says. “You get to go to a lot of different cities and meet people. I’m a people person. They give you a nice trailer to drive.”

Being surrounded by space travel is normal for Cowley. His father was a design engineer for NASA, and his mother worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. “All this stuff’s been in our blood,” he says. “We used to go to Cape Canaveral to watch rockets blast off. I saw the Apollo and Gemini spaceships blast off in the 1960s.”

Cowley gets to drive a trailer with a NASA spacecraft painted on the sides. He hears comments over the CB such as, “You haul parts for the space station?” Other drivers wonder if the inside of the trailer looks like the rocket ship painted on the side.

Derek Wang, a NASA outreach coordinator, gives a tour on the Starship 2040 tour.

The Starship 2040 Tour, which is operated by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., started last February and will continue for five years. Cowley wants to continue driving for the tour indefinitely. It’s currently a part-time gig, and he drives his own truck when he’s not on the tour.

“It’s the ideal situation,” he says. “You can pay for your truck and not wear it out. There’s no wear and tear on my truck – no miles.” Cowley charges NASA a flat rate per day. “It had to be something close to what I could be making with my own truck,” he says. He leases his truck to Kelly, Inc., of Wadley, Ala.

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Cowley knows from a former job hauling computer equipment that the trade show and convention circuit can sometimes land you in interesting places. At the end of July, the tour brought him to the air show in Oshkosh, Wis. “I’ve always seen it on TV and always wanted to go, and now I have the opportunity to go,” he says.

As the only driver on the tour, Cowley has to be a jack-of-all-trades. The morning of the tour’s first day in Washington, D.C., a couple blocks from the Capitol, Cowley is doing maintenance on the trailer. First he shaves some wood off the top of a door to a small movie theater in the back of the trailer – the door won’t close because the trailer is parked on an incline. His next troubleshooting assignment is to reprogram two television screens so that they show the same video about the past and future of the U.S. space program, called “Building the Highway to Space.”

While Cowley is troubleshooting, Wang gives tours to anyone who comes along. He walks them through the trailer, which is designed as a 2040 tourist spacecraft, called the Starship. There is a kitchen, a bathroom, an exercise station and information booths.

NASA is trying to bring the cost of spaceflight down, Wang explains. Now it costs $10,000 per pound to launch a vehicle into space. NASA wants to reduce the cost to $1,000 per pound in the near future, and to $10 per pound by 2040.

If NASA reaches that goal, a trip to Mars might only cost you a few thousand dollars, Wang says. “About the price of a flight on the Concorde,” he says. “You won’t have to pay the $20 million that Tito paid,” he says in reference to the U.S. man who paid to fly aboard a Russian spacecraft last year.

“We go to a lot of small towns where people don’t get exposed to what NASA’s doing,” Wang says. “We tell them that if you further your education you can be a part of it.”