As the recent flights of Branson and Bezos showed, for the right price, you too can touch the face of God.
The space tourism industry blasted off recently, with Virgin Galactic sending the first billionaire ego into orbit before Jeff Bezos’ ego joined Richard Branson’s in the stratosphere on July 20.
A giant leap for homo sapiens? Or Pigs in Space? You decide.
What caught my eye was how the trips were being marketed as “a spiritual experience.” Virgin Galactic described its product as “humbling … spiritual.”
Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, one of Virgin’s space tourism vendors, said his customers are spiritual seekers: “… [traveling] takes you out of your comfort zone, opens your mind and helps you grow as a person. Seeing things from a new perspective is my motivation and everyone who has been to space has says [sic] it is life-changing. That’s how I feel about all travel, but this is the ultimate. Being, even briefly, decoupled from Earth is humbling and reminds us we are all in this together.”
We are all in this together, folks.
Jeff Bezos likewise says he expects to be transformed by his two minutes in space: “To see the earth from space, it changes you. It changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity. It’s one earth. It’s an adventure. It’s a big deal for me.”
It’s true that astronauts say seeing the Earth from space changed them spiritually. This well-chronicled phenomenon was dubbed “the Overview Effect” by space philosopher Frank White. He researched how astronauts come back from space with an enhanced sense of the specialness and interconnectedness of life on Earth.
In one case, the astronaut Edgar Mitchell had a full-blown ecstatic experience while orbiting the Earth. I interviewed him about it for my first book: “What would it do to humans if we could all experience the Overview Effect?”
That’s what Stewart Brand tried to give people when he campaigned in 1969 to disseminate the Earthrise photo as widely as possible. His intention—formed during an LSD trip—was to shift human consciousness towards planetary consciousness. This is the notepad he scrawled during his trip, alongside the cover of his Whole Earth Catalogue.
Some (like my brother) have speculated that psychedelics can give people something similar to the “overview effect”—a profound spiritual experience of the interconnectedness of life.
But now Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin want to go one better. They can give you the Overview Effect for real, for a mere $500,000 (Virgin’s price) or $28 million (what one anonymous bidder paid in an auction for a seat on the Blue Origin shuttle).
It’s the ultimate boutique spiritual experience. Yours for $28 million.
You offer people an experience of oneness with humanity, an insight that “we’re all in this together,” but at a cost that makes it inaccessible for any but the 0.01%.
In some ways, it’s a grotesque reflection on Western spirituality; its free-floating rootlessness, elitism, and commodification of special experiences. You offer people an experience of oneness with humanity, an insight that “we’re all in this together,” but at a cost that makes it inaccessible for any but the 0.01%. Never mind “all in this together.” You get to be in the most exclusive club in the world. The 60-mile-high club.
You sell people an experience of “humility” and self-transcendence, but also Silicon Valley bragging rights. “Forget DMT, have you tried going to space? It changes you, bro. I mean, like, totally.”
The same week Branson’s ego escaped gravity, Death Valley experienced the hottest daily temperature ever recorded (54 degrees centigrade, 130 degrees Fahrenheit). Wildfires raged throughout North America and Europe, hundreds died in the heatwave in Canada, as well as an estimated one billion marine animals. There was unprecedented flash flooding in London and Germany. A report announced that the Amazon is now emitting more CO2 than it’s absorbing. And just to end the week off with a smile, NASA announced that a “moon wobble” is set to make the 2030s a decade of extreme flooding, which will severely impact the 600 million people who live on coasts.
But, hey, the billionaires are achieving satori in their toy shuttles. It’s all one, baby.
The cynic in me hopes the anonymous person who spent $28 million on the fourth seat on Bezos’ shuttle has terrible flatulence, thereby ruining the experience for everyone else. I picture Bezos trying to float in the lotus position while ignoring the terrible smell emanating from the second row.
But that’s the petty side of me.
The pragmatist in me sees that this ultra-rich tourist stage, grotesque as it is, is necessary for the evolution of humanity.
I happen to agree with Bezos and Musk that the future of humanity is multi-planetary and interstellar. That doesn’t mean abandoning Earth, it means we need to move our energy-gathering and industrial-polluting activity off the planet, to save the ecosystem without abandoning innovation and growth. We also need to spread our species off the planet to reduce extinction risk. We need to join other species in the interplanetary club, or we are destined to be a short burst of sapiens.
It’s not either 1) save the planet or 2) explore space. The latter will help us achieve the former. And the billionaires behind the space race are doing a lot to shift to a post-carbon economy—both Tesla and Amazon are helping drive the rapid transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles.
So, I hope the billionaires enjoy their flight.
But the real spiritual experience is down here on Earth, in the mud and the rain and the smog and the wildfires. A lesson in transience and consequences. Everyone will get to experience it for free. In fact, the less money you have, the more you will experience it.
Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.