Our Strange New Era of Space Travel

Humans last set foot on the moon 50 years ago. Now we’re going back, but the way we explore space has gone through some big changes.

Tesla Roadster in space
SpaceX / Getty

In December of 1972, the astronaut Eugene Cernan left his footprints and daughter’s initials in the lunar dust. In doing so, he became the last man to set foot on the moon. Now, after 50 years, humanity is going back. But in the half century since Apollo 17, a lot has changed in how we explore space—and how we see our place in it.

While those early missions were all run by governments, much of modern spaceflight is the domain of billionaires and their private companies. Commercial space travel has brought a new way of thinking about trips outside Earth’s gravity, with tourism turning space into a vacation and something of a status symbol. It’s also widened the range of people who go to space from the clean-cut white male astronauts of the Apollo era.

New visitors bring new perspectives to space, and that diversity could well change our relationship to it. A year ago, at 90 years old, the actor William Shatner rode one of Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin spacecraft. But as he told staff writer Marina Koren, his time in space didn’t line up with the optimism of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk.

Koren and fellow staff writer Adam Harris discuss our changing relationship with space on an episode of the podcast Radio Atlantic. They also listen to some of Koren’s interview with Shatner. You can hear their conversation here:

The following is a transcript of the episode:

Adam Harris: This is Radio Atlantic. I’m Adam Harris.

Marina Koren: And I’m Marina Koren.

Harris: This week on the show, we’re talking about space. We just heard some of our colleagues’ kids talking about space. As a parent myself, it feels like the images of space are inescapable. One of the first T-shirts I remember buying for my daughter was a NASA T-shirt. We have blankets in our house that have moons and rocket ships on them. Is that your recollection of childhood?

Koren: Definitely. I had those glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling. Occasionally one would fall off and spook me, but I recently got a set for my 3-year old nephew. This is a go-to source of wonder and excitement for kids, for sure.

Harris: And I should say that we are both staff writers, but you are the one on the space beat.

Koren: Yes, I am The Atlantic’s outer space bureau chief.

Harris: (Laughs.) And it’s been a big year to be a space reporter, right?

Koren: It has, yeah! We are definitely in this strange new era of exploration. It’s been 50 years since the last time human beings have set foot on the moon. 1972 was Apollo 17, the final moon landing.

I think the universe is a lot more familiar to us now, because we’ve come such a long way. But something that’s really different now is that you have commercial companies that are doing the work that was traditionally done by governments. There’s SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, and Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s venture.

And even 10 years ago, if you told someone that SpaceX will be launching people to the International Space Station, they might have laughed at you. It seemed ridiculous, but this is the reality now.

It feels like we’re in this strange sci-fi future where space travel is something you can buy. It’s a type of vacation. And it’s become a status symbol in a way.

But now people can go to space and come back and tell everyone: “Well, I’ve been to space. I’ve done something that only about 600 or so people have done in the history of humankind.”

Harris: Before private space travel, [when you think of people going to space,] you think of folks like John Glenn or Buzz Aldrin. It’s someone with military training who has studied to be an astronaut like their entire life. What does it mean that that’s no longer the only type of person that’s going into space?

Koren: I think that spaceflight is about to get really, really interesting because the stories that we’ve heard from spacefarers have come from a specific group of people. These were, more often than not, white men with military backgrounds, trained in a certain workplace culture that values “the Right Stuff.” It values being stoic and unafraid in the face of something dangerous.

But in this new era of commercial spaceflight, you’re gonna be seeing a wide range of participants. There will hopefully be more women, more people of color, people from underrepresented groups, from different educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, and people with just a wide range of experiences.

Harris: And what are the stories that we’ve already heard about the experiences in space, right? These professional astronauts, when they come back, what do they say space was like?

Koren: Yeah, there are a few common themes. So people, when these astronauts have gone to space and they’ve seen Earth from that perspective, they have been overcome with emotion at the beauty of Earth. And it suddenly becomes very clear just how thin our atmosphere is. And that is the only thing that really protects our planet from everything else. They’re struck by the fragility of the planet.

And then something else also happens to a lot of astronauts when they go to space—they suddenly feel a sense of connectedness with their fellow human beings down below. Because from space, you can’t see any national borders. It’s just continents and seas and clouds. And so, many astronauts have come home and described these feelings. And the stories are indicative of a cognitive shift, almost, that is known as “the overview effect.”

And I’ve talked to astronauts who say that they were taken aback by the borderless world and how beautiful it is, how it made them feel like: Why are we at war? Why is there conflict? We’re one planet. It made them feel whole.

I’ve also talked to one academic who did an extensive study of astronauts—and she couldn’t reveal this astronaut’s name to me—but she said that this person, when he went into space, he took one look out the window and was convinced that humanity was going to destroy itself in some hundred-number of years. And so that experience could be profound and inspiring to one person, but it could also actually make another feel despair.

And what’s happening now with space tourism and private spaceflight is that the people going into space now have heard these stories of the overview effect. It’s a thing. And so they’re expecting to feel a certain way when they go to space. They’re expecting to have a profound change on their perspective of the world, and even maybe on their personalities. And so I wonder if we’re kind of over-hyping that. And I have talked to a few professional NASA astronauts who agree. They worry that these spaceflight companies and their sales pitches to customers are overselling the effects of the overview effect. It’s not a guarantee. It’s not a gift from the universe. It’s something that a person experiences and feels individually. And your mileage will vary.

Harris: Yeah. And you said these flights are like a couple of minutes. Is that enough time to change you?

Koren: That is a great question. So I talked to Frank White, the author who coined the term “the overview effect.” He came up with it when he was flying on a plane—so, not in space, but he had a pretty good view—and he got to thinking: Future generations of humans who might be living and working in space would have this distant view of Earth all the time. And they would have these insights that regular earthbound people lack.

And he was surprised that people who were flying on Blue Origin and having a few minutes of weightlessness were coming home and talking as if they had had this profound experience. They were saying it changed them. And he was surprised because he thought that in order to really get the full hit of the overview effect, you had to spend some time in space. Weeks to months in orbit around Earth, or even all the way out on the moon.

So, that’s kind of the literature that we’re working with here. And I think that’s what’s going to change in this era of commercial spaceflight, because you are going to have people who are not like the Apollo astronauts. And they’re going to be coming home with different stories and really widening the overview effect that we’ve become familiar with as a public.

And the future participants won’t be restricted by some of the constraints that the professional astronauts were. If you were a professional astronaut and you went to space and you didn’t have a great time, I don’t think you could say that once you came back from space, because that could potentially affect your future flight assignments. You had to have a certain response on your way home. And so I think we’re about to hear some of the most honest stories of spaceflight that we’ve ever heard before.

Harris: Is the overview effect real? If we only have this limited pool of stories to pull from, is that theory a real thing? Have all of the folks who have gone up to space shared that view?

Koren: That’s a great question. And I think the way we talk about the overview effect, it becomes like this mystical, magical thing. Astronauts are revered people. Even when I’ve interviewed astronauts, when they walk into the room in their full flight suits with all their mission patches on the fabric, you can’t help but feel intimidated. Because you think: Wow, this person has seen something that I’ve never seen.

And so we think of the overview effect and the experience that people should have in space as something that the universe gives us. But it’s actually a cultural phenomenon. It has been shaped by a certain group of people working under a certain set of pressures who wanted to make sure that they could fly again.

So they couldn’t say anything outrageous. And the overview effect also came out of a certain time and place. Many of these stories come from the midst of the space race, in the middle of the Cold War. That definitely shapes a person’s perspective. So I would say that seeing Earth from space is not a one-size-fits-all reaction.

Harris: What are some of the interviews that stuck out because they may have differed from this idea of an overview effect?

Koren: So I spoke with William Shatner about his space flight. He was 90 years old when he took that trip. I recorded some of my conversation with Shatner. And he said it was a really transformational experience, but not for the reasons that we’re used to hearing.

Harris: So you got to talk to Captain Kirk?

Koren: I did, yes! I will admit: I have never seen Star Trek before.

Harris: So we have a space reporter who’s never seen Star Trek?

Koren: (Laughs.) I haven’t. But you’ve seen it, right?

Harris: I have seen Star Trek. It was playing pretty frequently on our TVs when I was a kid. My dad rarely missed episodes or reruns. [But] for people like Marina who don’t know who Captain Kirk is: He’s the captain of the starship Enterprise on Star Trek in the 1960s. The original captain. And he was this really optimistic figure—this really sort of classical hero. [But] what did Shatner have to say about going to space? Actually being there?

Koren: When I talked to him, it was about a year after his experience, and the flight was still really fresh in his mind. I asked him how he was feeling a year out, and he dove right into a Shatner-esque monologue about going to space.

William Shatner: We had emerged from the film of air that surrounds the Earth, and we’re weightless. I got out of my five-point harness and made my way to the window. I saw a wake of air. Like a submarine might leave in the water.

And then I looked to my right, which was facing space. When I looked up there, I saw nothing but blank, palpable space. The blackness was so overwhelming. My immediate thought was: My God, that’s death.

And then I looked back, and I could see with great clarity the beginning of the circumference line of the Earth. The color of the desert that I had just left, which was beige. The whiteness of the clouds. The blueness of the air. And those three colors in deference to the blackness—I was overwhelmed by the sense of death and overwhelmed by the sense of nurturing by the Earth.

Koren: When Shatner came back from his quick trip to space, he’s standing outside the capsule; there’s other people around him. Jeff Bezos is there. Bezos is popping champagne like a frat boy. And Shatner is just standing there, super still.

Shatner: I didn’t know what I was feeling, but I was weeping, and I didn’t know why. Everybody else was celebrating. It took me a couple of hours sitting by myself to understand that what I was feeling was grief. And the grief was for the Earth.

Koren: He is overcome with emotion. He is weeping, and then he starts saying how he was just taken aback by the blackness of space, the ugliness of space, how it looked like death.

So Shatner was super, super honest about his experience. And when I talked to him, he said that that grief was still with him. Earth was beautiful and gleaming and delicate from that perspective, but it just reminded him of everything that’s wrong on the ground and particularly made him think about how unstoppable climate change feels.

And so for him, this was in many ways a negative experience. And Shatner was starting to cry when we were talking about it, because the experience is so fresh in his mind and nothing about climate change and the prognosis there has really changed in the last year since he went to space. So that grief was still with him.

Harris: How was his experience different from what he may have imagined that he would feel after going up to space?

Koren: He told me that he expected to see Earth and just be reminded of how beautiful and wonderful this planet is. I think he expected it to be reaffirming in a positive way. And it’s interesting to think of this man who played a character who was this really big space optimist in real life going to space, and his initial emotional reaction to that is grief and sadness and all kinds of negative emotion.

I think what Shatner shares with other astronauts is: When people have gone to space, they have felt an overwhelming desire to take care of the planet. You really see that this is all there is. This is all we know, at least. And if this is our one home on this floating ball of rock in the void, then we should take care of it.

And so, you know, there’s a case to be made that the more people go up into space, that feeling will trickle down and lead to some type of meaningful improvement on Earth.

Harris: If somebody gives you a ticket on a $20 million flight, you’re not gonna be able to say, “Well, that wasn’t exactly what I expected it to be.” But Shatner was able to do something different. Why was his experience different from others who have been up to space and came back down and just said, “Oh, it was great. Thanks, Jeff Bezos, for putting me on this flight”?

Koren: I mean, William Shatner is William Shatner, right? He was 90 years old during his space flight. He’s Captain Kirk. I think he doesn’t owe Jeff Bezos anything. Yes, Bezos comped his ticket, and that’s lovely. But someone like William Shatner going into space can come back and say what they want, because the public looks at them in a different way. If a very wealthy person decides to comp the tickets for an electrician [or] for a nurse, and they go up and come down, can they speak their minds very freely? I don’t know.

Harris: Say a billionaire called you up and was like: “Hey, Marina, love your stories. You wanna go to space?” Would you go if you got the opportunity?

Koren: Oh man, well, there would be some conversation about journalistic ethics. But would I ever go to space? I’m gonna say no.

Harris: Really?

Koren: Because spaceflight is risky. You never know what might happen, what could happen. I don’t wanna die on the job not having filed my story. Like, if something happens—if I’m somehow incapacitated, I come back and I can’t write the story—that will haunt me. (Laughs.)

Planes freak me out. I still can’t believe that we can get planes off the ground and land them back in one piece. And, you know, space is not at that level yet, but maybe someday it will be. And that’s pretty wild to think about.

Harris: Actually, to that point, thousands of people fly at high altitudes every day. Do you think that there’s a future where spaceflight is going to feel as sort of commonplace as taking a flight to LaGuardia?

Koren: I think that future is possible. I think what we have to be careful about is making too many promises. If you listen to Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos talk about spaceflight right now, they’re suggesting that this future is happening, like, next week. And I don’t think that future will happen that quickly. It’s true that more people than before are going to have the opportunity to go to space now. I’m not sure if in my lifetime there are going to be spaceships full of people going to the moon.

I mean, there might be. SpaceX and Elon Musk are working really, really hard to make that future reality. SpaceX’s next-generation moon rocket could reach orbit as early as next year. SpaceX has already sold tickets to people to go on a trip around the moon. These things are happening. How quickly they become reality, I don’t know. Maybe 50 years from now when we’re a hundred years out from the Apollo-program anniversary, maybe it will feel a bit more mundane, just like a plane ride.

Harris: Is some of the mystique fading from space, or space travel? Are we sort of becoming desensitized to space travel? Those first couple of commercial flights, it was all 24-hour news cycle. They broadcast all of them. But that sort of slowed down. Are we sort of becoming desensitized to the awe and wonder of space travel?

Koren: I think that’s possible. I think of the Earthrise picture taken by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968. That picture was mind-blowing to people. They’d never seen Earth like this before. Fifty years later, I think our brains are so spoiled by special effects that I do wonder if the sight of Earth from space is going to be that shocking. Especially when you have so many people going into orbit and coming back and posting on Instagram like: “Here’s what it looks like.” I do wonder if we’ve seen so much incredible CGI, if our modern brains might be less impressed by the view than maybe people were in the 1960s. But I also don’t know if that’s just some dumb Millennial take.

Harris: It’s like if somebody goes up, and they’re like: “This isn’t what Interstellar looked like.”

Koren: (Laughs.) “Where’s the wormhole?”

Harris: “I was expecting a wormhole.” And all they see is, as Shatner said, this great blackness of space.