Space Tourism’s First Small Steps
Forty years ago, Pan American was taking reservations for the moon.
On Christmas Eve in 1968, when the Apollo 8 astronauts read passages of the Bible’s Genesis to an Earthbound TV audience, Juan Trippe, the PR-savvy head of Pan American World Airways, thought to phone ABC-TV. He let it be known that the airline was keeping a list of people interested in one day taking a commercial flight to the moon. By the next morning, Pan Am had received “a flurry of requests” from wannabe space tourists, adding to a list that already numbered about 100 names.
Two weeks later, the New York Times reported that the Abruscatos of Long Island, and their two young children, were among the 200 people now on the waiting list. There was a backlog of unprocessed applications pending and more pouring in, even though Pan Am had no means of getting anyone to the moon and lacked the authority to do so if they had. Of course, the company likely had no real expectation of flying anyone to the moon in the near future.
The waiting list is said to have gotten underway in 1964, when Gerhard Pistor, an Austrian journalist, beseeched a Viennese travel agent to book him on a flight to the moon. The agent forwarded the request to Pan Am, where public relations personnel thought to draw up a list of like-minded souls. (The airline made similar waiting lists for the much ballyhooed debuts of the 747 and supersonic transport, which were slated to get off the ground in late 1969 and the early 1970s, respectively.)
A Pan Am spokesperson acknowledged that a few problems would need to be sorted out before lunar flights could get off the ground—among them, the high cost of fuel, passenger comfort during launch, and lack of accommodations on the moon. As the company began mentioning the waiting list in its radio and TV spots, the number of names grew rapidly, and the First Moon Flights Club—complete with a snazzy membership card—was born.
By July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, there were 25,000 names on the Pan Am list, and another player had moved into the burgeoning field of space tourism.
Trans World Airlines’ waiting list was smaller than Pan Am’s but had also been growing at a brisk clip since the Apollo 8 mission. Though no real progress had been made in getting the average Joe to the moon, Pan Am figured that, at six cents per mile, a one-way trip would cost about $14,000. Given the lack of lunar accommodations, though, it was a pretty safe bet that most passengers would spring for a round-trip ticket.
Even as Apollo 11 was splashing down in the Pacific, TWA announced that it had filed an application with the Civil Aeronautics Board to be allowed to fly “persons, property and mail between points within the United States and points on the moon.” TWA buttressed its claim by mentioning that it was already serving as a contractor to NASA in various capacities.
In July 1969, Holiday magazine chose the moon as its “place of the month,” and in early 1971, the New York Times Sunday travel section featured an article that speculated on the possibilities of the moon as tourist trap. By this time, Pan Am’s club had swelled to 80,500 members.
New York Times writer Jon Swan wondered if, by the time tourists made it to the moon, there might not be levitators “to whisk individual tourists from crater to crater or from mare to highland.” He speculated, however, that perhaps the novelty would quickly wear off. “Apart from the view, and from whatever thoughts and feelings it might inspire, another moot question is just what the moon will have to offer to the run-of-the-mill tourist.”
By March 3, 1971, when Pan Am shut down its waiting list, it contained more than 93,000 names from 90 countries, including such luminaries as Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Walter Cronkite.
Both airlines’ real-world enthusiasm for space tourism had been foretold in a fictional context. In 1955, TWA began a five-year stint as the sponsor of the new Rocket To The Moon exhibit in the Tomorrowland section at Disneyland. The 80-foot high TWA Moonliner included in that exhibit featured TWA's colors and logo.
On April 2, 1968, Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, premiered to a decidedly mixed reception. Viewers could hardly have failed to notice that the shuttle craft featured in the the film was a Pan Am “Space Clipper” known as the Orion III. 2001 fans who had to have one could do so—more or less —thanks to the Aurora model company, which marketed plastic replicas of the ship.
Neither Pan Am or TWA ever got around to shuttling anyone to the moon. As late as 1989, the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing, Pan Am was still holding out hope, though perhaps with tongue placed in cheek. Any such ambitions were dashed two years later when the struggling carrier finally went under. TWA followed Pan Am into oblivion in—please pause to contemplate the irony—2001.