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Billionaires’ space race could help our planet

It’s easy to be cynical about the future of the planet as our billionaires launch themselves and their companies into space, but I – for one – have hope. We know from the early days of space flight, with former military test pilots as the first astronauts, the experience of seeing Earth from space has a near universally profound impact on a person. Space philosopher and author Frank White coined the term the overview effect to describe it.

Earth, dubbed the “Blue Marble”, as seen by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972. This image resonated with people worldwide.

Earth, dubbed the “Blue Marble”, as seen by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972. This image resonated with people worldwide.

Astronauts and cosmonauts report space flight as a lasting, transformative experience, and we’ve seen many of them become active in environmental causes as a result. People like first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, Michael Collins of Apollo 11 and, more recently, Sally Ride, Chris Hadfield and Anne McClain have all spoken of this perspective shift.

It’s no coincidence that the environmental movement globally grew in strength, scale and significance when we saw Earth suspended in the void of space. The iconic “Blue Marble” seen by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972 resonated with people worldwide as a transformative reminder of the reality of our existence. There is a thin veneer of atmosphere around the ball of dirt where all our lives are led and lived, and we need to look after it better.

What happens when our wealthy see a fragile Earth? The world’s wealthiest people will be the first space tourists, but they will also experience first-hand the overview effect. With their money, power, and influence, we can only imagine how they could change the planet for the better if they are moved in the way that former military pilots have been.

Passengers of SpaceX and, it is planned, Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ company, will have a true, orbital experience of space – taking potentially month-long or days-long trips around the Earth, out to the International Space Station or even lapping the moon. On these trips, they’ll see the Earth surrounded by a sea of blackness.

Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are in a race to take wealthy tourists into space.

Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are in a race to take wealthy tourists into space.Credit:AP

Space tourists taking a sub-orbital parabolic flight as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic did this monthwill skim just short of the Karman line – the 100-kilometre official international designation of space, although fortunately for Sir Richard his astronaut wings are recognised by NASA, which states 80 kilometres as the boundary.

All up, these passengers experience a few minutes of microgravity as the craft falls back to Earth, experiencing that fall as weightlessness. Earth will occupy most of the view, with the blackness of space just above – not far removed from what Gagarin described on the first human flight in space.

As we see hundreds, if not thousands, of people become space tourists, we could also see an empowered group of the world’s wealthy back on Earth motivated to do more to protect it. Democratising space can only be a good thing. Space tourism today is an experiment. It could be a billion-dollar market, but we don’t yet know for sure how many people will pay for (and can afford) this unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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