During the Summer of 2021, on our multitude of screens, we were invited to pay witness to billionaires flying to or near the arbitrary Karman line, to watch both their personal pleasures and to be persuaded by the feasibility and desirability of a new elite experience called ‘space tourism’. With their safe return, much was then written in op-eds, blogs, and tweets about those flights and their contested significance. One aspect that drew my attention was how, for Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, the sensations of weightlessness loomed large in the accounts they gave of their experiences. While the poetry addresses the transfigurative potential of the ‘overview effect’, video from within the cabins show that spinning around, laughing, floating, pushing objects to each other appeared to be the real highlight of the trip for those who went. After his flight, Branson tweeted: ‘So joyful I still felt weightless’, and Bezos opined in the post-launch event that being in that state of weightlessness ‘felt so normal, it felt as if humans had evolved to be in that environment [ …] it felt peaceful, serene, very pleasurable’ (see: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/first-human-flight-updates).
I’m confident that it’s an awesome feeling. As the editorial in the Chicago Tribune (2021) commented: ‘who does not crave the chance to float around like the great astronauts of our childhood dreams, Earth’s gravitational pull falling away with our quotidian worries?’ In this paper I wish to explore this claim seriously and to consider how the fantasy and desire to experience weightlessness comes to signify another kind of weightlessness as a strategy to escape the urgencies and pull of today’s world.
For STS, weightlessness is an interesting topic. In the early days of developing human spaceflight capabilities, weightlessness was the source of some consternation and was not necessarily an experience to be craved. One leader in the field of what became known as space medicine – Heinz Haber who worked for the Luftwaffe Institute for Aviation Medicine in World War II and was later taken to the US through Operation Paperclip – drew attention to what he called the ‘human factor’ of spaceflight. Writing in 1951 he ventured that:
From his conquered home-planet man has begun to look expectantly toward new worlds in the heavens. The Moon and the neighbouring planets, Venus and Mars, irresistibly challenge his fancy with the same spell that the seven seas once cast over their explorers. Like the pioneers who first ventured to sea in sailing ships, we are preparing to launch our first frail craft in the vast ocean of space. (Haber 1951: x)
However, he argued that the success of space exploration lay not only with rocket design but also with managing the effects of spaceflight on the human body (and, in particular, on the male body assumed to be the only viable astronaut body at the time). In particular, the field of space medicine was engaged in efforts to better understand what would be involved in weightlessness. Haber speculated that ‘a man liberated from the shackles of gravity would most probably be in a constant state of physiological and psychological tension (1951: 18). As alluded to above, during World War II, Haber and other scientists, including Otto Gauer (another beneficiary of Operation Paperclip) had speculated on the possible effects of weightlessness. They had a paper included in the US Air Force’s compendium of aeromedical research conducted in Germany during the war, in which they expressed the concern that weightlessness could have dire consequences for the person experiencing it, rendering them with ‘an absolute incapacity to act’ (Gauer and Haber 1949). In the 1950s, to develop more of an understanding, US scientists turned to using non-human animals, strapping them into the nose cones of sounding rockets and blasting them up into the atmosphere, where eventually some survived their landing and were assessed, showing no ill-effects of being weightless (Swenson et al 1989).
As the quote from Haber’s 1950 paper shows, the concern with the effects of weightlessness on the human body was bound up with the colonial ambitions that he and others envisaged for humans in outer space. As many scholars working within historical and social studies of outer space have shown, advocates of spaceflight often frame this endeavour in such colonial terms and view ‘the space frontier as a site of renewal, a place where we can resolve the domestic and global battles that have paralyzed our progress on Earth” (Kilgore 2003: 1-2). For Cosmists in the early twentieth century, for example, it was linked to how humans would overcome death and attain immortality by escaping gravity, travelling through space and establishing life in the cosmos (Groys, 2018). Weightlessness would be a desirable state of being, signifying the escape from Earth and death.
In our times, the pursuit of weightlessness by very wealthy men is troubling, because these momentary, experiential states of weightlessness are connected to other practices and strategies of ‘social weightlessness’ – to adopt the term that feminist scholar Lois McNay (2014) discusses in her work. The title of this paper is a riff on one of the chapters in her 2014 book The Misguided Search for the Political (‘The unbearable lightness of theory’, which is in turn of course a play on Milan Kundera’s novel). Drawing on the writings of Pierre Bourdieu, McNay (2014: 40) uses ‘social weightlessness’ to describe a mode of thought that is ‘far removed from the practical mundanities and urgencies of the world’. She relates how Bourdieu shows that elites act to establish a ‘“magical boundary” between themselves and the mundane world. This apartness from the everyday world is both a liberatory break and a potentially crippling separation’ (McNay 2014: 41).
For McNay (2014: 39), her concern with ‘social weightlessness’ is directed at certain academic theories and their tendency to ‘rarefaction’. But in this paper I read the flights of these billionaires and the space tourism they prefigure as an expression of another mode of ‘social weightlessness’. Flying high into the atmosphere, reaching or exceeding the Karman Line to escape gravity becomes then a ‘magical boundary’, which indeed achieves a ‘liberatory break’ for those privileged to experience it. It is a few minutes in which a fantasy of freedom can be celebrated, freed as the Chicago Tribune suggests, of our ‘quotidian worries’. But in fact, rather than this being an experience a great many ordinary people will experience, access to space tourism – to the weightlessness of space – is one to be enjoyed by those who already enjoy a good degree of ‘social weightlessness’. Aside from a few lottery winners, few will experience what is otherwise closed to anyone who is not a millionaire.
Yet this pursuit of weightlessness both seeks justification from and is fatally entangled with the urgencies of the world. Bezos proposes that development of new space vehicles is a step towards ensuring that ’our children can build the future’. He believes with apparent passion and conviction that human expansion in the solar system will produce a better future for humanity. While acknowledging that there are immediate social problems that need addressing – pollution, homelessness, poverty – Bezos prefers to think long term. Faced with the prospect that capitalist economies will eventually be unable to meet their energy demands, Bezos proposes that to avoid a society characterized by ‘stasis and rationing’. We must pursue one of dynamism and growth that comes from expanding into the solar system, where there are unlimited resources. These resources would support a human civilization of a ‘trillion humans [..] which means we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins. This would be an incredible civilization’, Bezos concludes.
Outer space then is Bezos’ imagined new ‘Great Frontier’ (Moore 2021) for capitalism. Moore (2021: 3) argues that ‘capitalism emerged through a prodigiously generative nexus of Cheap Labor, imperial power, and the unpaid work/energy of previously uncapitalized soils, forests, streams, and all manner of indigenous flora and fauna’. In Bezos’ vision, the ‘uncapitalized’ entities are moons, asteroids, and planets in the cosmos. And science fiction has long imagined who would be the ‘Cheap Labour’ (see for example, The Expanse, a series financed and shown by Amazon Prime!).
In the here and now, however, the entire existence of Blue Origin – Bezos’ aerospace company – is dependent on Amazon and its multi-billion dollar profit margins. Bezos explicitly acknowledged this relationship in the post-launch press event, going so far as to extend his thanks ‘to every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this’ (see: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/first-human-flight-updates).
After Branson’s flight, Virgin ran an ad to celebrate both his achievement and to promote its various businesses in travel, finance and media (see: https://www.virgin.com/about-virgin/latest/if-we-can-do-this-imagine-what-else-we-can-do). The ad asked ‘if we can do this… imagine what you can do’, ‘if we can feel this .. imagine what you can feel free’, with scenes of ordinary people living with their ‘practical mundanities and urgencies’ (McNay 2014: 40) striving to overcome adversity, to escape the weight of their worlds. The promise is that they too can attain a state of weightlessness. The privileged experience of a select few inspiring everyone else to throw off their shackles.
In this short paper, I have explored weightlessness, as a valorized embodied experience of space tourism that is also an expression of another kind of weightlessness – a ‘social weightlessness’ pursued by the extremely wealthy to escape the attraction of mundane realities and pressing social problems. Further, it is a cruel promise directed at those struggling with adversity that a simple escape is possible, as exemplified by the pleasures of billionaires as they fly to the edge of space.
Chicago Tribune Editorial Board (2021) ‘We don’t begrudge billionaires chasing the zero gravity of space. But can they spell ‘murraya’?’, Chicago Tribune, 12 July 2021. Available at: https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/editorials/ct-editorial-richard-branson-space-zaila-avant-garde-20210712-x3pkhlwle5gxdnihcwrj6m74aq-story.html
Gauer, O and H. Haber (1949), ‘Man under Gravity-Free Conditions,’ in German Aviation Medicine, World War II, I, 641-643.
Groys, B. (ed.) (2018) Russian Cosmism, Cambridge MA: MIT Press
Haber, H. (1951) ‘The human body in space’, Scientific American, 184 (1): 16-19
Kilgore, De Witt D. (2003) Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
McNay, L. (2014) The Misguided Search for the Political, Cambridge: Polity
Moore, J. (2021) Climate, Class & the Great Frontier From Primitive Accumulation to the Great Implosion, unpublished paper, World-Ecology Research Group, Binghamton University. Available at: https://jasonwmoore.com/academicpapers/
Swenson, L.; J. Grinwood and C. Alexander (1989) ‘This new ocean: a history of Project Mercury’, NASA History Division. Available at: https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4201/ch2-3.htm