Humans are going back to the moon. On Monday, Feb. 27, the commercial space flight company SpaceX announced that they are sending two tourists around the moon late next year in a privately-crewed capsule. These tourists will be launched into space, where they will loop around the moon – but not land on it – and come back to Earth. The mission is estimated to take about a week.
It is still unknown who the tourists are and how much they are paying. They will be not the first space tourists; there have been seven space tourists before, each paying between 20 and 40 million dollars to the Russian government to send them up. However, none of these tourists ever went above Low Earth Orbit.
To gauge the perspective of students and faculty around the College, I interviewed Assistant Professor of Physics Eilat Glikman and had quick conversations with 12 Middlebury students about their thoughts on this event, as well as their feelings about space travel in general.
Glikman is an astrophysicist. Naturally, she is excited about this news. However, she is not excited that tourists can now pay to go into space. She hopes this event “won’t just create one more thing that rich people can do”.
“I think it’s the kind of thing that makes the news, and I think that kind of thing making the news definitely wakes people’s minds up and gets people excited,” she said.
Glikman mentioned the 1969 moon landing, which she said is in a weird way, “so far in the past, it’s almost like it didn’t happen.” People from our generation know that people have been on the moon, but have taken it for granted their whole lives. Tourists going to the moon in our lifetime could reawaken the excitement our grandparents felt when Neil Armstrong took those first extraterrestrial steps.
“I would hope that this sort of thing would push our nation to invest in more space exploration, from the NASA side,” added Professor Glikman. “Not to take away from the entrepreneurial aspect, but I think, at the end of the day, if you really want to break barriers, you need the kind of investment that isn’t driven by profit.”
She believes that governments need to take the risk and pave the way without monetary profit in mind. After that, commercial businesses can take over.
In her discussion, she drew a parallel to Lewis and Clark.
“After Lewis and Clark did their charting and mapping out of the West, you had migrations, you had people moving into those places…”
Glikman went on, however, to mention the current government’s lack of funding for NASA.
“It’s interesting to think of private industry saying [to the government], ‘we’re just not going to wait for you,’” she said. “So you have people like Elon Musk … eccentric Billionaires who are willing to take risks and kind of allow for those losses.”
Glikman mentioned the story of Richard Garriott as an example of the potential benefits of space tourism. Garriott was a space tourist who performed some scientific studies while aboard the ISS. Because of him, NASA was able to determine the effects of space on LASIK, the corrective eye surgery.
Some people today are drawing parallels between space – specifically Mars – and the New World in the 1400’s. When I asked Glikman whether or not she would agree with this, she seemed skeptical about the possibility of humans colonizing another planet.
“Mars is not a hospitable place,” she said. “We are components of an ecosystem; it’s not just that we need an atmosphere to breathe, we need food. Well, our food comes from plants that grow in the ground, and plants don’t just grow … our entire biological existence depends on other biological existences which depend on other ones, you can’t just pluck one out and plop it somewhere else … ecosystems don’t just sprout out of nowhere.”
While all these deterrents are valid, I have to mention that there are several theories for how Mars could successfully be made hospitable, though none of them are perfect.
Another part of space exploration that Glikman brought up was law. If people want to harvest an asteroid, “Who owns the asteroid?” Or, if people manage to colonize Mars, “Who owns Mars? Is that another country?” Glikman brought up these questions as interesting things to consider, stating openly that she “[doesn’t] have answers to any of them.”
Finally, I asked Glikman whether she would fly around the moon. She responded with a resounding no. Her answer was a personal preference, however, and she does not discourage other people from travelling into space. As an astronomer, she has seen some of the best night skies viewable on Earth. She describes those experiences as “existentially overwhelming.” She does not know how she would react if she saw the view from space. Moreover, she understands that the human body has evolved over billions of years to thrive on Earth. She would personally prefer to stay where humans are evolutionarily meant to be.
“I’ll let Hubble take my pictures for me,” she said.
I also talked to 12 somewhat random students around campus. Five of them had not heard that SpaceX was sending people to the moon. When I asked about whether they viewed this event as important to their lives, 10 answered yes, and two were more apathetic. All of the students were excited about the possibility of space travel. However, the two who were more apathetic stated that the money spent on going to the moon could be used for issues that humans are facing here on Earth. In rebuttal, one student mentioned that space travel pushes the advancement of technology, and thus is beneficial to current issues that Earth faces. There are scores of world changing technologies that were invented solely because of the world’s space programs.
Finally, I asked every student whether or not they would go to the moon if they did not have to pay. Every student but one answered yes. That one person said they are claustrophobic and would dislike being in such a cramped space. The rest of the students I asked were very enthusiastic, most saying yes in an instant.