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. 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. Westernised 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.
Wismayer is a travel writer for NYT©2021
The New York Times