Private-Sector Space Experiments Could Add To Mankind’s Knowledge Bank. Keep An Open Mind – Forbes

Private space travelers, weightless, aboard Blue Origin mission NS-22, August 4, 2022.
There’s a 30-second CDW/Cisco television commercial currently airing which features a fictitious “SpaceTripz” rocket bringing tourists back to Earth. As the fliers file out of the spacecraft, one proclaims in wonder that the flight was “pretty life-changing.” Another brushes by, saying, “Dude, it was only eight-and-a-half minutes.” Yet a third complains that he didn’t have enough time to finish his burrito. The comedic spot ends with the life-changing guy putting his feet, clad in white space boots, up on the conference table during a business meeting. The woman next to him says sarcastically, “We get it, Greg, you’ve been to space.”
Ah, what was once the select purview of NASA and right-stuff astronauts is now the stuff of mainstream pop culture. Private companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX have recently taken mere mortals to the final frontier, and for a hefty price, ranging from a half-million to tens-of-millions of dollars. Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson has been up, as has actor William Shatner,’s Jeff Bezos and Good Morning America host Michael Strahan. Wilshire Associates founder Dennis Tito just announced plans to orbit the moon with SpaceX in 2024 – and actor Tom Cruise, riding the coattails of “Top Gun: Maverick” success, declared that he will be filming his next movie on the International Space Station (yes, he will be part of the crew – imagine that insurance bill), courtesy of SpaceX and NASA.
As with anything reaching pop-culture status, there are naysayers. They poo poo the space tourism movement as a waste of money, something only the rich can do, that it contributes to pollution in the atmosphere, and more. They say that wealthy participants do nothing more than sit in a big tin can for 11 minutes, just to brag that they’ve been to space – defined by NASA as 50 miles above Earth – when they return. It’s a bit like what happened when Mt. Everest became part of pop culture in the mid-1980s as novice climbers began paying $65,000 (it’s much more expensive now) to hire professional guides to take them to the summit, again mainly for bragging rights. Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” book chronicles the craze and its pitfalls brilliantly.
One way to dampen this kind of criticism is by trying to do something that contributes to the knowledge bank of mankind, perhaps conduct an experiment or two up there, as Shift4 Payments billionaire Jared Isaacman plans to do on his three upcoming SpaceX Polaris orbital missions. Isaacman wants to test a new, less-cumbersome space suit on an EVA (spacewalk), and head out to the far reaches of the Van Allen Belt, quite a bit higher than ISS, to test the effects of radiation on the crew and delicate electronic equipment in preparation for future trips to Mars.
Blue Origin NS-22 mission crew member Vanessa O’Brien prepares for her suborbital spaceflight, … [+] August 2022.
This past August, adventurer Vanessa O’Brien rode a Blue Origin rocket, mission NS-22, to suborbital space. Rather than just sitting in the capsule enjoying the view and observing how Skittles, when thrown into the air, react in a zero-G environment, she conceived of an inflight experiment beforehand. With the help of Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and space enthusiast, she developed a test to determine if one could quantitatively measure the “overview effect,” a term commonly used when describing the otherworldly view of Earth from space, and its life-changing effects upon fliers when they’ve returned.
The two rotating objects used in the overview effect experiment with Blue Origin flier Vanessa … [+] O’Brien, summer 2022.
O’Brien visited The Marcus Institute Of Integrative Health in Villanova, Pennsylvania, for an MRI of her brain a week prior to her flight, then returned a few weeks after the flight for a similar MRI. Both times, she stared at video of a rotating Earth and a rotating nondescript object separately, for five minutes each. The pre-flight MRI’s showed little difference in brain activity when viewing the two. But when O’Brien was tested again after the flight, her MRI’s showed a significant difference in the one of the Parietal Lobes when viewing the two objects. In the rotating Earth video, that Lobe area was much greener, indicating a significant decrease in activity there.
What does this mean in layman’s terms? Newberg, who has written papers on the overview effect, says less activity in the Parietal Lobe indicates a loss of self, and a more connected or “at-one-with-the-world” state of mind – ie, precisely what the overview effect seems to produce post-flight. Newberg quickly goes on to say that by no means is the O’Brien experiment conclusive, as it was done with a very limited sample size – one – but he does admit that the results are interesting, possibly directional. If similar studies could be fielded with more space travelers over time, and with similar results, valid conclusions about such changes in the brain post-spaceflight could be drawn. Further, Newberg says, were fliers able to continuously monitor brain activity over the entire duration of their flights, even more data could be gathered and analyzed. (Newberg had been hoping to do that with O’Brien’s flight, but Blue Origin wouldn’t allow it because such equipment is too bulky.)
MRI photograph of Vanessa O’Brien’s brain pre-Blue Origin spaceflight, July 29, 2022.
O’Brien plans to periodically return to Villanova for subsequent MRI tests to determine whether her results play out long-term. When I interviewed William Shatner directly after his flight last year, then again several months later, he still seemed to have the profound change in his view about Earth – ie, that humanity needs to take care of the planet’s atmosphere, himself having seen it as so thin and fragile during his flight – his overview effect, if you will. Shatner, of course, did not have MRI’s pre- and post-flight as did O’Brien, so no hard evidence can be used to support his feelings.
MRI photograph of Vanessa O’Brien’s brain post-Blue Origin spaceflight, August 31, 2022. Note … [+] increased green shading in the Parietal Lobe, indicating diminished activity in that area.
Naysayers or not, one can’t argue that valuable information about the human psyche and hard-core science can be gleaned from private spaceflight, including the space tourism element. For example, all three of the companies mentioned earlier employ fully reusable spacecraft – SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s booster rockets automatically land via computer back on pads, and their capsules back on Earth, while Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane lands on a simple runway, just like the retired Shuttle. That’s a far cry from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs in the 1960s and 1970s, when NASA dumped most of its rocket parts, as they became unneeded, into the ocean during flight.
Bottomline, maybe we as a society should be more positive than negative, embrace rather than denigrate, new developments such as private spaceflight and space tourism. Maybe Isaacman and O’Brien have the right idea with their experiments. As Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin once told me during a live interview holding up his cellphone to a captive Explorers Club audience in New York: “Believe it or not, there is more computing power in this little device than in all of the computers that took us to the moon in 1969.” Think about that, then think about what such astronomic technological advances could mean to mankind in another half-decade.
In full disclosure, this reporter has a ticket for a future Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceflight.


Leave a Comment