July 06, 2021 at 12:16 pm by Frank White
It’s hard not to get excited about personal space exploration right now, isn’t it? After all, we have Inspiration4, DearMoon, Axiom flights to the ISS, and...Sir Richard Branson just announced the Unity 22 mission, which will fly nine days before Jeff Bezos lifts off on his own Blue Origin flight!
Yes, I am excited that all of these non-professional astronauts will be experiencing the Overview Effect so soon, and I can’t wait to hear what they will say about it.
However, there is one thing I wish I could change about the Branson/Bezos “race,” and that is exactly the point: the media are positioning it as a new “space race,” this time between billionaires, not nations. Of course, these two entrepreneurs are competing for customers who want to experience the Overview Effect, and that is an appropriate goal for any business. Also, I don’t think Sir Richard and Jeff want their flights to be seen as competitive, but rather as complementary ways to realize their visions for the future. In fact, Branson said in a CNN interview that he thought it would be great if Bezos came and watched his launch, and vice versa. He also said, “It really doesn’t matter” if one or the other goes first. (https://www.cnn.com/videos/business/2021/07/02/richard-branson-going-to-space-crane-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/business-spacex/)
However, from a space philosophy perspective, we are at a key moment in history: will large-scale human migration off the planet be a race, a chaotic scramble for “firsts,” or will it be a collaboration, a “central project for all of humanity,” as my colleagues and I at the Human Space Program have advocated?
We should try to avoid having Sir Richard and Jeff be positioned with the template of the Apollo era, rather than that of the International Space Station—of competition, not cooperation.
As I have discussed in The New Camelot: The Quest for the Overview Effect, we’ve seen this before. President John F. Kennedy wanted to avoid having Apollo be a race. Instead, he tried to make it a joint US/USSR mission to the Moon. In fact, just before his death in 1963, he proposed to the United Nations that it be a multi-national mission! Think of how history would have shifted if he had lived long enough to realize his vision, and astronauts of many nations had experienced the Overview Effect together from Moon .
If we are not careful, we are going to miss an opportunity to use space exploration, (as my colleague Dylan Taylor puts it) as “an opportunity for transformation.” These opportunities don’t come along very often, as the decades since the Apollo era attest.
While it may be too late to change what is about to happen on July 11 and July 20, it is not too late for Branson and Bezos to set a new example and inaugurate a new paradigm of spaceflight.
What if Sir Richard invited Jeff to fly with him on the second Unity flight and what if Bezos invited Branson to fly with him on the second Blue Origin flight? Having made those arrangements, they could issue a joint statement, saying, “This is how it should be, all of us in it together, experiencing the Overview Effect and bringing it down to Earth to improve life on the home planet.”
Now, that would be exciting!