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A Century of Savvy Travelers: A Look Back at the GSST Project, 100 Years On

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From Journal of the History and Anthropology of Early Space, Volume 22, Number 4 | December 2201: A Bicentennial Celebration of Space Tourism

A mere 300 years ago, human life was lived in two dimensions. It seems foolish, now, but most of human existence was limited to roughly two and a half meters above the surface of the Earth. Certainly, one could get technical -- we had, by that point, figured out ladders, for instance. Trees existed, and so long as there are young people, trees will be climbed. But the clouds, the stars, the moon, the planets, the sky above? These were out of reach, above our heads, seen but not examined.

In the 20th century, that all changed. From the first airplane flights to the first human experience of leaving Earth's gravity, we humans accelerated our grasp of the universe, technologically, scientifically, and recreationally.

It is amazing now to look back on this time. We humans had so little back then: only the resources of our one planet. We only the resources of a single planet, and yet, we reached for the stars above.

In the 20th century, space travel was largely monopolized by national governments: the United States of America, the Soviet Union and later Russia, and other governmental players had the majority of control over who made it to space. It was simple: They held the rockets.

In the early 21st century, a new industry sprang up, destined to change everything. Private companies such as SpaceX, Final Frontier Technologies, and StarReach, Inc. arose, making successful and operational rockets that could make the trip into space. A mere 200 years ago, Dennis Tito became the first-ever official space tourist, paying $20 million in 2001 USD (worth roughly $6.3 billion now) to visit low earth orbit.

With a trip beyond the atmosphere suddenly available to citizens with the cash to pay for it, the institution of space tourism began in earnest in the middle of the 21st century. At first, the flights were few and costly, allowing only the wealthiest citizens to experience freedom from the bonds of Earth’s gravity. As the technology developed and costs fell, the proverbial Final Frontier became available to more and more citizens. Eventually, nearly everyone could afford an expedition to somewhere in the Solar System, to see them for ourselves, up close and shining bright.

This issue of the Journal concentrates on the 200-year history of space tourism and its role in creating the modern universe. Before we dig in, however, the Editors of the Journal wanted to highlight one of our favorite under-acknowledged pieces of space tourism ephemera and a useful frame for the era: the Guides for the Savvy Space Traveler .

The first space tourism boom lasted only a few decades before the collapse of the Earth’s economy. As national borders dissolved and our home planet became increasingly hostile, space tourism became space colonization. Backed by corporations hoping to strike it rich somewhere else, people began leaving the planet in droves, trusting the promise of a solid job in construction on the moon, engineering on Venus, or mining Mars. Corporations had the rockets now, and many Earthlings left everything behind to start a new life among the stars.

We now know this time as the Great Colonization, and with it came the founding of many of the locales we know and love today: Moon Bases One and Two, Mars Domes 1-5, and the construction of Aether, the first cloud city on Venus.

Over the next few decades, the establishment of these colonies, and the colonies that came soon after (Aventine City on Jupiter, New Haukadalur on Enceladus, and many others) began paying off. Natural resources flooded our home planet, allowing for the rise once more of peace and prosperity and giving the newly formed economy of Earth United a much-needed boost. But many Earthlings, especially creatives, remained unemployed. This crisis of creativity led several attempts by the world government to both employ out-of-work Earthling creators -- writers, videographers, artists, and photographers -- and create instances of cross-cultural communication between Earth and the largely independent colonies.

One of these was the Galactic Space Tourism Board (GSTB), founded in 2101: a quasi-governmental organization based on Earth. It was one of the more successful governmental programs, succeeding at decreasing unemployment as well as encouraging Earth-based economic activity through a revitalization of space tourism. The GSTB’s first project was to produce a series of travel guides, for Earthlings, by Earthlings.

Collectively known as the Guides for the Savvy Space Traveller (GSST or simply “the Guides”), the series represented a huge endeavor of human talent, time, and treasure. It was also instrumental in realigning the newly disparate cultures of Earth and Outer Space with a piece of common culture.

The project lasted from 2101 to 2112 under the purview of the GSTB, publishing 23 Guides for 23 distinct locales spanning from the Moon to Deep Space. Under the GSTB, each Guide was organized similarly, beginning with a General Information section, followed by a section full of essays describing different colonies, cities, or areas of interest, and ending with several suggested itineraries a traveler could use to plan a trip. Most volumes were compiled by several authors, though some, like The Savvy Space Traveller’s Guide to Europa, were compiled by a single writer. The Guides were published without giving attribution to the authors who wrote them, but the GSTB is responsible for launching the careers of several of the most famous authors of the early 22nd century, including two excerpted here: Iolana Hokulani and Fatimah Ramesh.

Now, exactly a century on, the GSST project is the best snapshot we have of life in those early colonies: the pitfalls, the triumphs, the sights and sounds, of early space colonization. For those of us reading them a century on, they are a unique record of humanity at the very cusp of a new age. Local culture, food, festivals, and traditions played a central role in each of the Guides, adjacent to descriptions of atmospheric conditions and what accommodations a weary traveler might expect.

In this editorial, we've excerpted three sections from three different Guides. First, from The Savvy Space Traveler’s Guide to Venus , a description of watching the Mercury transit from the Venus Cloud Settlement. From The Savvy Space Traveler’s Guide to Deep Space , a paean to sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll told through the medium of a short trip to the infamous and always-open casino city known alternately as Zook Zook, Jira, New Las Vegas, New Old Las Vegas, and Lost Vegas, on the Rogue Planet PSO J318.5-22, where all of life was a gamble (now it is known as nothing; PSO J318.5-22 has been a ghost town since at least 2174). Finally, from The Savvy Space Traveler’s Guide to Europa , a tale of, if not first contact, then certainly early contact, with the Beings of Europa.

Most of the Guides were written as straight travel guides, to be narrated from a distance. The excerpt from author Fatimah Ramesh in The Savvy Space Traveler’s Guide to Venus is a good example of the general style of the Guides. Her description of a major cultural event, the transit of Mercury, is included in the essays section of the Guide. It is interesting to note, however, that Ramesh assumes any visitor would have a chance to see the Mercury Transit; unfortunately, the truly savvy space traveler will be aware that the Mercury Transit only happens slightly more often from Venus than it does from Earth.

In contrast to most other guides, in the excerpt from The Savvy Space Traveler’s Guide to Deep Space, the author, Zhang Wei uses first person narrative to insert himself into the story. Taking inspiration from a twentieth-century Earth journalist, (the title is derived from Hunter S. Thompson’s work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Zhang embraces the dual role of writer and main character.

We have not been able to find an explanation for such a stark stylistic departure, but the Deep Space edition is different from many of the other volumes of the GSST. As the main author of the Deep Space Guide, Zhang was the only author experiencing the new phenomenon of hypersleep. Additionally, this edition was the final Guide produced in the GSST series -- by that point, the GSTB administration was likely in talks with the Unlonely Planets corporation, which would take over publication of the Guides in late 2112.

The Deep Space Guide was the least useful of the series: with the edges of traversable space simultaneously so difficult to reach and experiencing such cultural upheavals, the Guide consists only of Zhang’s essays without any suggested itineraries for travelers, making it less a travel guide and more a travel narrative. That said, Zhang’s exploits are just plain entertaining, as you will surely note.

For the modern reader, one of the most interesting excerpts from the Guides is also one of the shortest pieces: “‘Whale Watching’ on Europa,” excerpted here. In the time that Iolana Hokulani was writing The Savvy Space Traveler’s Guide to Europa , Europa was a brand new colony. Avallaktuk, the major port for offworld travelers and main city on the Jupiterian moon had been established only eight months prior to Hokulani’s arrival. There was no way she could have known what we now know about the intelligence and cultural norms of the Beings.

“Whale watching” in the title refers to large, intelligent, earthbound aquatic mammals in whose company humans on Earth would spent countless hours. In the piece, she also mentions their likeness to “jellyfish,” which are similar only in shape.

In terms of animals found on Earth, we now know that the Beings are closer to hyper-intelligent schools of fish or bee colonies than whales, which nobody at the time could have known. At the time Hokulani was writing, nobody had communicated with any Beings at all. These rules of proper comportment she sets out for interacting with the Beings, then, are based on faulty assumptions. But their general thrust -- that it is wise to be respectful of the space of others and not to make assumptions about their level of understanding of humanity -- helped create a solid foundation once leaders from both sides were able to open formal communications.

Knowing what we know about the ever-evolving relationship between Beings and humanity (and how close it has come to actual warfare more than once), it is best to keep in mind that this passage was written, or rather, tucked into the “General Information” section at the beginning of the Europan Guide, a century ago, before the travel ban. Although the Beings have been accepting tourists onto Europa for more than a decade and a half now, today’s savvy space traveler should note this passage reflects outdated notions of cultural exchange. We also must give thanks, however, that it was Hokulani, and those who would follow her, that led our first introduction to the Beings.

Ultimately, we hope this inspires you to pick up the nearest copy of any GSTB Guide for the Savvy Space Traveler. Though old they may be, boring they are not, and they are essential to any study of early colonization. Unsure of where to find one? Ask your friendly local librarian!

-Dr. Ajax Sara, Dr. Tupaarnac Itzqual, and Dr. Ramona Ebele