What is your single most memorable travel experience?
Not just a good one, but one that has become your go-to solution for awkward social interactions. The one you discuss to impress. The one that makes your cheeks warm, your eyes dilate, and your heart beat a little faster. You may have prepared for it, or perhaps it came as a complete surprise.
Remind yourself how that experience felt. When you were dwarfed by the sheer largeness of a moment.
Now imagine staring at the very thing that holds all of these experiences.
That’s what astronauts describe as the Overview Effect, the humbling feeling of looking over our glowing blue planet from the outside of it. No matter what kind of traveller you are, it all comes down to a simple Seussian philosophy — Oh, the places you’ll go!
The earth rising over the lunar surface. Photographed by astronaut Bill Anders on the Apollo 8 mission, December 24,1968. Image courtesy of NASA (public domain).
From above, Spaceport America resembles a giant stingray in an ocean of brown. From eye-level, it reminds me of a set piece from a Hollywood blockbuster movie about a dystopian future earth ravaged by alien invasion. In most photographs, a translucent curtain of dust blankets the structure. I imagine that if Earth were ever subject to an alien attack, this would be the place where brave, ex-Air Force pilots would congregate in a final ditch attempt to save her.
For now, this giant construction located in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin in New Mexico is the first ever purpose-built commercial port for space travel. It’s home to Virgin’s “Galactic Mission,” an endeavour that hopes to launch the first commercial flight into space.
Space Tourism: The Money and the Mission
Virgin Galactic, heralded by Richard Branson, has investments valued at $400 million. Though there are other players in the game, Galactic leads the race. The Founders (the first 100 passengers who will fly on Galactic) have already shelled out a reported $250,000 to get on the list. The completely sold-out passenger manifesto is the subject of immense speculation and is said to be filled by media moguls, industrialists, and actors. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have reportedly paid up. So has Justin Bieber. Richard Branson has confirmed that he will travel alongside his family on the very first flight.
Virgin’s “SpaceshipTwo” is based on the designs of Burt Rutan. Rutan won the Ansari X Prize for designing SpaceshipOne — the first privately built and manned craft to reach space. Image courtesy Flickr user Jeff Foust.
Can I Travel to Space?
So what about us regular folks who store pizza coupons and break flights in obscure locations to save a couple hundred bucks? Do we have a chance to do some space exploration?
If you’re a world-renowned astrophysicist, you could get a free seat. But for the rest of us, it’s still a maybe. If the mission is successful, future flights could be (relatively) cheaper. But that “could be” resides in a pool of splendid uncertainty, alongside the contention that Virgin Galactic could never actually takeoff.
If you do manage to cough up the cash, don’t pin your hopes on a space adventure à la Star Trek. The closest you’ll get to the movie is matching its on-screen run-time – the galactic experience is estimated to last two and a half hours (from takeoff to landing).
You won’t be cruising towards a planet or wandering through a wormhole. You will be part of a “sub-orbital flight.” Your flight will hit the edge of Earth’s atmosphere and fall back down. In other words, imagine a giant roller coaster that goes up 68 miles and glides back down. In this case, the roller coaster is dubbed “SpaceshipTwo.” It’s an eight-seater flight that will propel you into space.
Once in the sub-orbit, you will witness the vast darkness of space, feel several moments of weightlessness at zero gravity, and experience the celebrated “overview effect.”
Now to the Tricky Part – Safety
A recent crash of a galactic test flight that killed one test pilot and severely injured another has further increased concerns over the safety of space tourism. Detractors of space travel believe that space tourism is an excess, a hobby for millionaires with deep pockets. Space travel supporters believe that tragedy and innovation are inevitably linked. The history of human advancement has shown us that growth will and must occur at the cost of human life.
At this point, space tourism is around the same place commercial aviation was in the early twentieth century. Nobody believed that commercial aviation was even viable. When it did finally happen, it was considered an elitist luxury. And though air travel is still a luxury for some, it is by no means or forms strictly elitist. Ask my airplane yoga pants; they’ll tell you.
Let’s Leave the Technicalities Behind for a Bit
As travellers, we salivate at the thought of the unexplored. We will swim farther, climb higher, rise earlier, or endure a 15-hour bus ride in a rickety old vehicle alongside clucking hens for a chance at an experience that will blow us away.
Maybe space tourism isn’t worth it. Maybe the rigidity of space travel will render it a cliché. Perhaps we will huddle around a window like tourists on a safari — pop-up flash on, snapping seven images per second of the bored-out-of-her-wits lioness (who would probably judge us if she could).
Space selfies, zero G duck faces, “I went to space” t-shirts: thousands of dollars spent on a cliché.
But to think that Africa is all about safaris, means we’re not seeing the whole picture. The very essence of space travel lies in its limitlessness. We need the wealthy early adaptors and the brave pilots to build us a dream we can one day possess. Because even in zero gravity, there is something magnetic about the pale blue dot in the sky.
The southern lights as seen from space. Image courtesy of NASA (public domain) on Wikimedia Commons.