Shaffer is a student majoring in journalism and international relations at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is originally from Carmel Valley.
Launch. Land. Repeat. ” That’s the motto of Blue Origin, the aerospace company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos that shuttles civilians to the edge of outer space.
While the so-called “billionaire space race” has garnered a lot of controversy, the accessibility it has provided is worth recognizing.
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a pilot and cosmonaut for the Soviet Union, became the first human to fly into space. Sixty-one years later, just over 600 people have joined him.
Although years in the making, it was not until 2021 that a door opened to welcome a greater pool of participants. Space tourism refers to human space travel for recreational purposes. Space tourists are everyday people, and they are visiting space with no specific frontier beyond space itself.
We provide this platform for community commentary free of charge. Thank you to all the Union-Tribune subscribers whose support makes our journalism possible. If you are not a subscriber, please consider becoming one today.
While there is surely industry competition between the three leading private-sector aerospace companies – Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin – Virgin Galactic has since paused its space tourism efforts to do refurbishments and SpaceX is currently prioritizing orbital flights, so Blue Origin has been dominating the suborbital landscape with its New Shepard rocket, named after Alan Shepard, the first American to go into space and the fifth to walk on the Moon.
The flight is roughly 11 minutes long, but even in that short span of time, participants have viewed their experience as utterly transformational.
After going into space, Blue Origin space tourist Glen de Vries told me, “I still wake up every day figuring out exactly how to articulate what I experienced and how I feel changed by it.” De Vries, who has since passed away, was part of the NS-18 crew, Blue Origin’s second civilian space flight, which launched on Oct. 31, 2021, with crew members who included “Star Trek” actor William Shatner, Blue Origin’s vice president of mission and flight operations Audrey Powers, and the co-founder of Planet Labs, a satellite Earth-imaging company based in San Francisco, Chris Boshuizen. Bezos himself was on the first flight, which launched on July 20, 2021.
A third flight on Dec. 11, 2021, named six new people Blue Origin space tourists, including TV personality and former professional football player Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, Alan Shephard’s daughter. A fourth Blue Origin flight occurred on March 31, marking yet another successful manned mission for the company.
While space experts consider these missions huge strides for the aerospace community, many other people aren’t ready to celebrate. For starters, many people aren’t thrilled by the amount of money being invested in space tourism. For weeks after Bezos flew into space, memes circulated the internet, clowning his decision to do so and grilling him on why he did not use that money to raise wages for Amazon employees or to help combat climate change.
Politicians and celebrities have come forth, voicing their critiques of space tourism, too. Last July, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont, tweeted“Here on Earth, in the richest country on the planet, half our people live paycheck to paycheck, people are struggling to feed themselves, struggling to see a doctor – but hey, the richest guys in the world are off to outer space! ”
These critics do have a point. According to one analysis, Bezos alone makes nearly $ 205 million a day. That’s more than 1.4 million times the money the average American makes in a day. There are endless ways in which he could spend his fortune. This begs the question: What makes space something worth investing in?
According to de Vries, when you travel to space, “you just realize that the lines that divide states and countries, and races and genders and sexual orientations … just none of this stuff is as important as the fact that we’re all one species in one giant civilization. ”
What de Vries is describing is the “overview effect,” which refers to the cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while looking down on Earth from outer space. It is a common sentiment felt by those who have traveled into space – and could be the solution to ending world conflict.
“I want people to understand how important this stuff is and to celebrate human achievement,” de Vries said. “When somebody says, ‘space tourism is not sustainable,’ I think they might be looking at the wrong picture and they might need to also zoom out a little bit and look at something bigger.”
More can always be done to limit the cost and environmental impact of space tourism, but let’s not overlook its advantages, such as how it increases accessibility for space travel, transcending cultural barriers and uniting people above borders.