When a billionaire goes to space, does he come back a better billionaire?
This, apparently, was the hope of many commentators who watched Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos blast off into the beyond this week: that the world’s richest man would gaze upon his realm from above and realize his responsibility to do more on this planet to protect a precious, imperiled home.
The experience these people wanted for Bezos is called the overview effect. Astronaut after astronaut has reported entering this special state of altered awareness upon viewing our pale blue dot against the blackness of the universe. They’ve described the Earth as “beautiful” and “tiny.” Often, they’ve said “fragile,” too. And they’ve felt keenly our interconnectedness as mutual occupants of a breakable object. Scientists say these psychological phenomena of self-transcendence and awe draw spacefarers, as never before, toward the whole of humanity.
Those of us down here on the ground, of course, haven’t transcended a thing.
Bezos’ low-orbit sojourn may not have sent him high enough for altered awareness to kick in, though in a post-flight news conference he did nod to the profundity of seeing something “tiny” and “fragile.” The same probably goes for Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, who beat Bezos to space by nine days. Yet earthbound observers didn’t wish these billionaires would find some clarity in the cosmos because it would lead to enjoyment or edification. No, they hoped the overview effect would stop them from going to space at all.
A lot of people do not like the private space race — more of them, surely, than did not like the public space race in the 1960s. Part of the problem is that the planet is a shambles, hot and unequal and unjust; folks would rather those with money spend it here trying to fix things than spend it above the atmosphere planning for a post-apocalyptic future. Our attitudes about space are anything but rational: Taxpayers are still pleased to let their own money fund military contractors to build launch systems that never launch anything.
Yet the resistance also comes from a sense that when we do step into space, we should do it together. One man’s pursuit of a lifelong passion, made possible by the depth of his pockets, so far seems to have very little to do with us.
The overview effect, admittedly, has never been accessible to the masses. Indeed, however effacing the experience of flying above the atmosphere, all this adventuring has the opposite result on terra firma. The overview teaches an explorer that we’re small even when you put all of us together; the universe dwarfs us. Yet when we as a watching nation put a man on the moon or watch a woman walk through the stars, we’re hardly humbling ourselves before the unconquerable reaches: We’re suggesting we may, bit by bit, conquer them after all — that we can transform the unknown into the known, and make it ours.
Still, even the most modest of these conquests has typically been regarded as a tremendous task that we can only complete together. The leaders of nations have spoken to their citizens about space as if calling on them to participate in a joint endeavor. John F. Kennedy didn’t choose to go to the moon; we did. NASA’s Voyager carried a golden record including greetings in 55 languages, and musical selections from Chuck Berry to Johann Sebastian Bach to Azerbaijani bagpipers. This represented, supposedly, the best of humanity (especially the bagpipers). Even the missions of old, however steeped in nationalism, were also glossed with global camaraderie. “For all mankind,” reads the Apollo 11 lunar plaque.
Blue Origin, so far anyway, lands less poetically. Yes, the company may eventually provide benefits to plenty of people who aren’t on its ships. But the private space race is, well, private. When Bezos dons a special blue suit, soars 66.5 miles high, tosses a zero-gravity candy into the mouth of the 18-year-old child of a millionaire, and dons a cowboy hat for a post-flight presser, it feels less like celebration for all mankind and more like an individual victory lap.
This visionary’s ultimate ambition might be magnanimous: to build space colonies that can support mining, manufacturing and a massive population after this planet inevitably can’t anymore. This, he thinks, is the only way to save the Earth and those who continue to live on it — yet it will also involve a lot of people living off of it. The furtherance of the human species doesn’t strike the same note as the furtherance of humanity, because humanity is so tightly intertwined with that pale blue dot we have always called home.
Maybe if we, too, had the chance to fly up above Earth, look back down and unlock self-transcendence, we’d feel connected even to Jeff Bezos. Right now, though, he may as well be a galaxy away.
Molly Roberts writes about technology and society for The Post’s Opinions section.