O n the dusty morning of July 11, 2021, two hundred miles south of Albuquerque, Sir Richard Branson squeezed into a blue and gold jumpsuit and shot into space. He was the first person in history to ride fifteen kilometers short of the Kármán Line—the international boundary between the atmosphere and the void—on a rocket built with his own money.
“To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream, looking up to the stars,” Branson said to the camera inside the Virgin Galactic spaceplane. “Now I’m an adult in a spaceship, with lots of other wonderful adults, looking down to our beautiful, beautiful earth. To the next generation of dreamers, if we can do this, just imagine what you can do! Heyyyy!”
Branson unbuckled his straps and wafted out of his seat. “Come out, mister!” yelled one of the wonderful adults in the background. Three minutes later, Branson and crew glided into southern New Mexico and doused their blue and gold jumpsuits in expensive champagne. Standing on the press-release stage like a rock god, Branson announced that from now on, anyone could have the same life-changing experience for only $400,000.
And so, with one small step for mankind and one giant leap for one man, the Age of Space Tourism began.
Branson is not the only billionaire hurtling into space these days. Amazon mastermind Jeff Bezos followed Branson a week after the Virgin Galactic stunt, launching from Van Horn, Texas, to upstage the British music mogul by twenty-one kilometers. Never one to let other genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropists steal the spotlight, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk sent four tourists into orbit 366 miles above the Earth for three days in September. The Inspiration4 mission, the first all-civilian spaceflight in history, was financed by billionaire Jared Isaacman, who founded a payment processing company after he dropped out of high school.
Thanks to the glitzy billionaire space race, the demand for star tours has soared alongside the price tag. Space tourism companies like Space Perspective and Space Adventures have already sold out flights for 2024. Tickets for the Space Perspective experience run at a modest $125,000 “per Explorer.”
“The demand is very, very high,” Bezos said at a Blue Origin presentation following the historic New Shepard launch, after the company had sold nearly $100 million worth of future flights. “This is a tiny little step of what Blue Origin is going to do.”
With all the money and the press pouring into space tourism, it seems reasonable to ask: why do so many people want to jet above Earth’s atmosphere at a few hundred-thousand dollars a minute? COVID-19 has been bad, but it’s not an Interstellar-level disaster. The universe’s first known luxury space hotel is still at least six years away. You can’t even play golf on the moon yet. What are space tourists paying small fortunes to experience?
Judging from the hype videos, website slogans, YouTube ads, and press releases, nothing short of a really awesome view.
The real question is, is it worth the price?
Unsurprisingly, space tourism companies seem to think so. “To go beyond the reaches of the earth, into space and to look back down at it,” said Joe Rohde, a forty-year Disney Imagineer and Experience Architect at Virgin Galactic, “It’s a spectacularly neat opportunity with huge potential for transformational change in a person.”
The rhetoric from other space tourism companies flies just as high as Rohde’s. “See the world as it was made to be seen” (Space Adventures). “To gaze upon Earth from space—to take in the astounding views and vivid colors—is an unforgettable spectacle that astronauts call life-altering” (Space Perspective). “Purchase a window seat on a life-changing spaceflight” (Blue Origin).
For all the suspicion we may have of corporate PR-speak, the experience has mostly lived up to the hype. “It was so amazing,” said Oliver Daemen, the eighteen-year-old Dutch teen who ate Skittles in zero gravity with Bezos in the New Shepard, “Let’s hope that many, many more people can do this.” “My journey to space changed me in unexpected ways,” wrote Hayley Arceneaux, the twenty-nine-year-old Inspiration4 crewmember who works as a physician assistant at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. “When I saw Earth from the glass cupola for the first time, I was overwhelmed with gratitude—gratitude for being alive to see it, but also for getting to see something that so few people have seen from that perspective,” she continued. “To be in that small group is something I never felt I deserved, but it was an opportunity that I was able to seize, and I hope many others will too.”
Space tourism may well deserve the critiques it’s already drawn, from scientists warning about its effects on climate change to social critics calling it a frivolous pastime for the ultra-rich. There’s certainly a wisp of dramatic irony to Daemen and Arceneaux’s hopes that “many” more people will experience the wonders of spaceflight. Daemen’s father paid an undisclosed price for the joyride after the original winner of Bezos’s charity auction gave up his $28-million-dollar seat. Arceneaux, a bone cancer survivor, was selected for Inspiration4 after Isaacman underwrote the mission and donated a seat to St. Jude’s, all for roughly $200 million. The future where anyone can shoot to the stars for the price of an airline ticket is still far, far away.
But when it comes to hyping the view from space as “life-changing”—a sight worth paying limb and risking life to see—the space tourist companies are actually onto something. And judging from the history of human spaceflight, that “something” is much older and more wonderful than even Sir Richard Branson’s childhood dreams.
Humans first saw the Earth from outer space on April 12, 1961, when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed one orbit around the planet in the Vostok 1. But the view of Earth from space only became a thing—a discrete subject to discuss in conversation, newspapers, or YouTube ads—seven years later. It was Christmas Eve, 1968, four days into the Apollo 8 lunar orbital mission, seven months before Neil Armstrong took his giant leap. On one of the final loops around the moon, American astronaut Bill Anders snapped a photo of Earth peeking around the lunar surface. He called it “Earthrise.”
The photo was a sensation. American wilderness photographer Galen Rowell described it as
"the most influential environmental photograph ever taken." Another writer called it the beginning of the ecological movement. Smithsonian Magazine calls it one of the most iconic photos of the century.
The image of the blue marble hanging in the void laid bare how fragile “starship Earth” really is. Why was everyone so eager to nuke it into stardust? The past decade had seen Southeast Asia scorched by napalm, Los Angeles charred by race riots, a president and a civil rights leader assassinated. But from 239,000 miles away, with all those sins washed white and blue, how wasteful our wars, how pointless our racial and religious divides, how silly our pretensions to knowledge suddenly seemed! It was like John Lennon’s “Imagine” frozen in a photograph.
"The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring,” said Jim Lovell, Command Module pilot on the Apollo 8 mission. “It makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth."
Two other striking photographs amplified the earthrise effect over the next three decades. The first was “The Blue Marble,” taken 18,000 miles from Earth’s surface by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972, the first image to show the Earth’s south polar ice cap. The second was snapped by the deep space probe Voyager 1 in 1990, thirteen years into its Saturn-bound mission, four billion miles from home. In marked contrast to the rich swirling blues of “Earthrise” and “The Blue Marble,” this photograph shows Earth as a dust mite. Smaller than a pixel, it’s all but sucked away by the gaping black vacuum that swallows 99.99% of the image. Astronomer and author Carl Sagan, who originally requested that Voyager 1 take the photograph, captured the picture’s poignant effect in his 1994 bestseller, The Pale Blue Dot:
There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Astronauts after Apollo 8 have had similar reactions to seeing our world wrapped in the wide womb of uncreated night. “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it,” explained Edgar Mitchell, Lunar Module Pilot for the 1971 Apollo 14 mission. “Looking at the universe out there from my vantage point, I began to realize that we don’t know crap about anything, we really don’t…” another Apollo crew member reported after he spent several days orbiting the moon. Following a six-month stay at the International Space Station in 2011, American astronaut and former F-16 pilot Ron Garan described the Earth in Sagan-like terms as a “stunning, fragile oasis.” Seen from far enough away, it seems, the world reverts to Eden.
As for life-changing, many astronauts have radically corrected course after they landed back on Earth—some more radically than others.
Mitchell went on to found an Institute of Noetic Sciences to study the revelation he received in space about the unity of the universe.
Garan started writing books and giving TED Talks about “the orbital perspective,” which he claims will “guide and inspire our efforts to build a better world.”
Perhaps the most extreme, James Erwin of Apollo 15 left the space capsule convinced that humans descended from extraterrestrials. For over a decade, he led expeditions to Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey in search of Noah’s Ark.
Not every astronaut leaves space with a new religion. But the life-altering reaction to seeing Earth from outside the atmosphere is common enough to have both a name and a Wikipedia page: “the overview effect.” Writer Frank White coined the term in his 1987 book of the same name, which re-released in its third edition in 2014. “I was flying cross-country, from the east coast to the west coast, in the 1970s,” White explained in a recent documentary short about the overview effect, “and I was looking out the window, and as I was looking down at the planet, the thought came to me, ‘Anyone living in a space shuttle, or living on the moon, would always have an overview.’” White continued, “They would see things that we know, but we don’t experience, which is that the earth is one system, we’re all part of that system, and that there is a certain unity and coherence to it all.”
The language resonates with the select, but growing, number of space travelers who have experienced the view White only imagines. From Gagarin’s observation, famously contorted by Soviet propagandists, that an astronaut “cannot be suspended in space and not have God in his mind and his heart,” to Arceneaux’s telling People Magazine that the view of Earth made her feel “overwhelmed with gratitude,” the history of human spaceflight makes it hard to deny the overview effect. Something out-of-this-world really does seem to be out of this world.
Ancient and modern philosophers like Longinus, Edmund Burke, and Immanuel Kant would call it the sublime. Contemporary social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dachner Keltner would call it awe—that powerful, seldom-broached “third dimension” on the axis of human experience where we perceive divinity, sacredness, and moral connectedness. By any name, that feeling of being swept up into something utterly mysterious, confronted with the fearfully infinite, and thrust face-to-face with something deep and true and totally beyond the reach of everyday existence, is real.
It’s hiding behind waterfalls, swirling in hurricanes, dancing in symphonies. And, judging by the evidence of the overview effect, it seems to be floating a mere sixty miles above the Earth.
“[M]y research on the moral emotions has led me to conclude that the human mind simply does perceive divinity and sacredness, whether or not God exists,” wrote Haidt in his 2006 Happiness Hypothesis, “by our actions and our thoughts, we move up and down on a vertical dimension,” and we are “impoverished human beings” if we let our world “collapse into two dimensions.” The cosmonauts, astronauts, and tourists who have rocketed higher up this vertical dimension than any humans in history seem to agree. Their language reveals an aesthetic and moral response to the view from outer space—in Gagarin’s case, first seeing the Earth as a precious blue marble, then feeling the moral weight of protecting that marble, and finally writing three-hundred-page memoirs to help people see “a way forward without divisions of race, nations or religions.” From the evidence on Earth, Spaceland seems to be the world beyond second-dimensional strife over ego, fame, and fortune.
We all stand to gain if Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and other space tourism companies can reduce the cost of spaceflight so that more than the ultrarich can experience this launch-to-Damascus. If millions, even thousands, of diplomats, politicians, CEOs, doctors, lawyers, software engineers, teachers, law enforcement officers, factory workers, grocery clerks, nannies, parents, and siblings went about daily life inspired by the overview effect, we might see real improvements in global issues like poverty, inequality, and climate change. We might make real progress toward peace.
Does this mean that space tourism will save the world? Not quite. For all the wonder of spaceflight, and its potential to open a new frontier for experiencing the sublime, there are several reasons to doubt that the billionaire space pioneers can, in the words of billionaire space pioneer Tony Stark, “privatize world peace.” Altogether, these reasons should be the cause of great rational optimism for us as-yet Earth-dwellers.
First, we should be wary that corporate motives will discolor the space-tour experience of the overview effect. Competition might push companies to optimize their adventure experience, as well as drive down the price of admission, but market dynamics might also chafe against the spirit of the sublime.
The overview effect is all about encountering the wonder of a universe too big to grasp, and a planet too precious to lose over egotistic squabbles. But space tourism, for all its highflying PR, descended into egotistic squabbling even before Sir Richard Branson squeezed into his electric blue spaceflight suit: Jeff Bezos announces the New Shepard will launch on July 20, the fifty-second anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing; Branson announces he’ll launch nine days earlier. Two days before Branson takes off, Blue Origin tweets that Bezos’s rocket is bigger than Branson’s. It’s hard to find the Earth-is-too-precious-to-lose-let’s-stop-fighting spirit in a middle-school-playground-level Twitter exchange. These are the pioneers forging a new way to the sublime?
It seems wrong to turn the experience of Haidt’s vertical axis, so basic to being human, and the overview effect, so precious to astronauts since Gargarin, into a battleground for billionaire egos and corporate ownership. Will all space tourist companies fall into the same trap? (Musk, for his part, seems content to launch his space capsule 366 miles above the squabbling en route to Mars.)
Beyond the corporate politics, the structure of the space tourism industry may, somewhat paradoxically, keep tourists from actually experiencing the overview effect. The view-of-Earth-from-space was born in a moment of serendipity. Bill Anders wasn’t planning to take a photo of the earthrise when Apollo 8 slipped around the lunar surface. He wasn’t in space to gaze poetically at the Earth, experience “a life-changing adventure,” and return to his wife and kids with a new orbital perspective. He was a fighter-pilot-turned-astronaut simply doing his job. Part of the reason “Earthrise” was so profound is that it was unexpected.
We’d think, consequently, that the novelty would wear off for astronauts following Apollo 8. But even astronauts who have been warned about the overview effect ahead of their first mission report feeling amazed. Why? Until this summer, the view of Earth from space was almost exclusively reserved for professional astronauts. Spaceflight was risky, and the men and women who did it devoted their lives to aviation and aerospace. They blasted above the Kármán Line on taxpayer dollars to conduct scientific experiments. Even if other astronauts had experienced it before, the overview effect was something special--something that both the astronauts and their home nations appreciated in proportion to their risk and sacrifice.
But a minutes-long jaunt to the edge of space in a pay-as-you-go rocket is a categorically different experience from a week-long mission to the moon in a capsule funded by American citizens trying to beat the Soviets in the Cold War Space Race, run by a computer with less processing power than an iPhone. The serendipitous view of the earthrise from the Apollo 8 command module was a miracle. The hyped-up view of Earth from the VSS Unity backseat, or the New Shepard capsule, is the A/B-tested product you paid for. Tomorrow’s space tourists will rocket up the atmosphere in a vehicle designed (in Branson’s case) by a Disney Imagineer, to experience the Earth as profit-maximizing marketers want them to see it. Where is the “Earthrise” serendipity, the danger, the sense of earned privilege, the perspective-shattering surprise? Will we appreciate the view the same way without these things? Will we look out the passenger window and see anything beyond the pictures we saw in advertisements and Instagram feeds?
Space tourism companies themselves are wary of these dangers. Why else does no one call space tourists “space tourists”? Ordinary citizens who have gone to space have resisted the label since the early 2000s. Space tourists today are called “clients”, “mission participants”, “explorers”, and even “citizen astronauts.” The labels certainly apply to the Inspiration4 crew, who underwent months of training before their three-day mission, but what happens the day after tomorrow, when space tourists blast up to space like they blast up Space Mountain today? Does “astronaut” apply to anyone who can afford to buy the label? Even space tourist companies, rhetorically at least, seem to have an aversion to making spaceflight strictly commercial.
Beyond these worries about turning the cosmos corporate, we have reason to doubt that space tours, taken even in the best of faith, can give us a long-term source of sublimity. In the event that ten years from now we have a flourishing space tourism market that lets millions of people snap earthrise selfies for their social media accounts, the wonder of the world above the Kármán Line will eventually wear off. What happens when we have hotels in space, waystations on the Moon, and colonies on Mars? Exactly what happened to the view of the Earth from the airplane, a mere 35,000 feet above the planet. The novelty will get old.
In the early twentieth century, seas of clouds inspired French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to write The Little Prince; oceans of sky stirred Kenyan aviatrix Beryl Markham to write prose that made Hemingway jealous. The view from a commercial jet window, after all, is what first inspired Frank White to write about the overview effect. Now, most airline passengers pull the sunshade over their window, so they can hack away at their email without squinting. Why should the view of Earth from a few hundred thousand feet higher be exempt from the same hedonic adaptation?
Branson, for his part, already seems to have gotten over his life-changing view of the “beautiful, beautiful earth.” A month after the VSS Unity stunt, he offloaded $300 million worth of Virgin Galactic stock as shares nose-dived more than 25%. Whether it was the bad business model, the course-deviating spaceplane, or Branson’s electric blue spacesuit, it seems that capturing the space-sublime is trickier business than imagineering thrill rides.
At least three considerations, then, should sober our excitement about space tourism’s one-hundred-percent-subliminity-guarantee: corporate motives that cut against the spirit of the overview effect, the risk of over-commercialization cheapening the experience, and the likelihood that sooner or later, people will get bored of the orbital perspective. But this is all wonderful news. Why? If we’re doubtful that we can always find the sublime on space tours, we should be optimistic that we can always find the sublime on Earth, without paying for admission.
The third dimension of human experience, for Haidt, is about seeing the divine and the sacred in what surrounds us, whether or not we believe that God exists. If that’s true, the sublime is simultaneously the scarcest and most plentiful resource on Earth. Life-changing perspective is everywhere if we look hard enough to find it. Romantic poet William Blake saw “a World in a Grain of Sand”; writer David Foster Wallace found the sublime in Tracy Austin’s tennis serve; playwright Thornton Wilder discovered wonder in an ordinary New Hampshire town. Most people feel something similar when they get swept up in the crowd after the beat drops at a rock concert, or the rookie scores the winning touchdown and the crowd rushes the field at the championship game. Others feel it watching a sunset, hearing a speech at a funeral, holding a newborn baby, or seeing the groom’s face when the bride starts down the aisle. Still others might feel that strange mystic unity watching the Olympics opening ceremony, contemplating the Rose Window of the Notre Dame Cathedral, or gathering around a campfire on a long summer night to gaze open-mouthed at the stars.
Spaceflight is wonderful. The overview effect is a gift to this generation that anyone lucky enough to receive should embrace with open arms. But if we flatlanders don’t have the aesthetic appreciation and moral charity to wrestle wonder from the recalcitrant stuff of everyday life, we won’t be able to keep wonder pinned for long in the backseat window of a rocketship. If we can’t find a reason to stop the petty ego battles and self-destructive infighting here on Earth, we won’t find it out there in space. But if anything, that’s reason for excitement. It means that the sublime is everywhere we’re willing to see it.
A retired astronaut in his fifties, who flew multiple missions to the International Space Station during his career, summed up the limits of space tourism in a recent interview:
As far as the overview effect and getting a sense that we are a common humanity, and we all share a common home, and at the end of the day that the things that unite human beings are commonalities between human beings that are greater than the things that divide us . . . You know, I think the reason that I didn’t come away with some kind of sudden, strong compelling feeling in that regard is that I think I knew that before I left.
To reach the highest view of this beautiful, beautiful planet, we can—and maybe one day must—keep our feet planted firmly on Starship Earth.