Why would a tourist want to take a trip to space?
For the wealthy thrill seekers able to pay upwards of $450,000 for a seat with commercial space projects such as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, the answer is likely to involve the pursuit of awe or wonder. Philosophers call the type of sensory and aesthetic stimuli that provoke it the sublime.
On its face, the kind of short flight to the edge of space that looks set to be the predominant mode of space tourism, at least in the short term, seems the very definition of what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called a “peak experience.” The kinetic thrill of rocketing to an altitude of over 50 miles, combined with the astonishing perspective it affords of our planet, invites us to believe that few adventures could be more profound.
But picture the millionaire awe chaser when the big day comes around, and the capsule he has booked a seat on hurtles skyward into the deep blue of the upper mesosphere. The whole escapade is being recorded by HD cameras. A dulcet computer-generated voice provides the commentary. The chair is uncannily comfortable. The ride, controlled by cutting-edge A.I. technology, is disconcertingly smooth. Champagne is waiting for the passengers on the landing pad.
Under such contrived conditions, awe will always be a chimera. That which we explicitly pursue will always, to a greater or lesser extent, remain out of reach.
The appeal of the sublime has been a subject of conjecture and interpretation for as long as humans have pondered the stars. Existing at the intersection of joy and fear, the feelings it can elicit are best understood as a paradox: the sensation of feeling enriched by way of feeling diminished. A person might experience it while standing on a mountainside when a storm rolls in or peering down the gullet of a thunderous waterfall. The transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson memorably called it his “transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.” The writer Shannon Stirone described it as “the simultaneous shrinking and expanding of our hearts.”
We covet the experience of sublimity because it hints at mysteries and forces beyond the realm of ordinary human understanding. And it is good for us. Neuroscientists discovered that regular doses of awe can boost critical thinking, physical health and emotional well-being. Studies have also shown that it makes us kinder and more empathetic.
But chasing it misses an essential element of awe, which is that so much of its potency depends on factors that commercial spaceflight seems custom designed to negate.
In many years of working as a travel writer — which I’ve often thought of as working the awe beat — I’ve come to understand that awe cannot be easily choreographed.
Some of the times I have experienced awe: An hour of avalanches rumbling down the south face of Annapurna under a full moon. Fork lightning strobing across the empty deck of a cargo ship on Lake Victoria. An eagle hovering 20 feet above my shoulder in the Chilean tundra.
These were the sort of transcendental moments we might hope to enjoy when we book a trip for adventure. But what they all had in common was some unanticipated ingredient. They relied on serendipity, whether in the form of weather conditions or animal idiosyncrasy. The high-flown emotions they triggered — the sorts that manifest in goose bumps, sometimes even tears — came unbidden.
Some occasions, by contrast, when I didn’t feel awe: gorilla tracking in Uganda, seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre amid a jostling crowd of people taking photos of it with their mobile phones, every safari I’ve ever been on. These experiences were certainly noteworthy. But they were far from sublime.
Space tourism belongs to this subset of ostensibly awesome experiences that often feel anticlimactic precisely because they come with a promise of awe factored in.
For one thing, space tourists probably embark with a pretty good simulation of the experience already imprinted on their minds. Westernized and space curious, clients of the new space tourism outfits will have watched the modern canon of astronautical drama, including “Gravity” and “Interstellar.” In preflight training, they will have been drilled and prepped for every moment they will spend in suborbit. The sense of surprise that is arguably the most vital precondition for experiencing awe will have been watered down by the months of forethought and demystification.
Often, the problem is simply one of context. Do you have any preconceived expectations about the experience? How exposed are you to the thing you’re observing? Is the activity ethically fraught? These potential distractions might seem incidental. But they all have the potential to obstruct our ability to enjoy an authentic communion with the sublime.
It’s the difference between joining a 20-strong organized tour to see the Northern Lights and, say, camping alone in some Scandinavian wilderness and being roused from your tent by the aurora’s spectral green ripples illuminating the canvas. The first will be nice, even memorable. You will take pretty photos and get lots of hearts on Instagram. The second could make you feel that you have been touched by grace.
The scientific study of awe is still in its infancy, but this awe junkie’s intuition is supported by a growing body of research. “One of the most striking discoveries in our 15 years of studying awe is how often it involves finding the extraordinary in the ordinary: a friend’s generosity to a homeless person in the streets, looking at a leafy tree’s play of light and shadow on a sidewalk,” said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley and the author of a book on awe set for release next year.
“The best way to access this everyday awe is by allowing yourself to wander, to avoid following a schedule each moment of the day. We didn’t evolve to feel awe about hurtling through space.”
Oh, most of the space tourists will say it was awesome, as the billionaire and space tourism entrepreneur Richard Branson did: “How you feel when you look down on Earth is impossible to put into words. It’s just indescribable beauty.” But how could they say it was anything less than the best moment of their life, having shelled out hundreds of thousands for the experience? In the age of performative experientialism, in which those with economic means can be seduced by gold-wrapped steaks not because they taste good but merely because they are exclusive, this conflation of expectations with lived sensation — the mistaking of bragging rights for joy — is nothing new.
Consider, again, our millionaire astronaut in his cushioned revolving chair, as the indigo sky fades to black. The thrusters shut off, their roar giving way to the profound silence and weightlessness of the cosmic void.
While he is up there, gazing down at this godlike overview of metastasizing deserts and receding ice, the best he might hope for is a moment of clarity.
“When you get up above it,” Jeff Bezos said of the atmosphere after his inaugural flight on New Shepard in July, “it’s this tiny little fragile thing, and as we move about the planet, we’re damaging it.”
Perhaps he and other amateur astronauts are fated to recognize, in that quiet knot of bathos, that to be the Midas of an ailing planet is the ultimate spiritual impoverishment. That an act of hubris can never truly buy humility, let alone wonderment.