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Star Trek, space tourism, and the Overview Effect

This summer three private enterprises flew civilians to outer space. Among the first ‘space tourists’ were actor William Shatner and aviation pioneer Wally Funk. But is space tourism just an amusement for a select few, or can it also bring new understanding to life here on Earth?
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October 13 was an important date for millions of Star Trek fans. 90-year-old William Shatner became the oldest person to fly to space. Shatner is better known as James T. Kirk, a character of the TV series Star Trek (1967-69). Set in the 23rd century, Star Trek follows the adventures of the crew of the USS Enterprise, a spaceship that travels the galaxy “to boldly go” – as the series’ opening states – “where no man has gone before”. Kirk is the captain of the Enterprise and the main protagonist of the series. Although Star Trek was cancelled after only three years, it became a pop-culture phenomenon, spawning 10 more television series, 13 films, countless books, comics, games, and merchandise. Shatner has become a living legend for millions of fans, who were excited to see the actor finally step onto a real spaceship and experience space, just like his most famous character.  

To boldly go

Shatner’s short trip (it only lasted 10 minutes) was aboard a Blue Origin space vehicle. Blue Origin is a private enterprise that’s developing technologies to make space travel safer and cheaper. Shatner was on its second passenger flight; he had received a free ticket from a Star Trek fan, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin (as well as of Amazon). For the first passenger flight, Bezos gave a free ticket to a woman he admires: Wally Funk. In the 1960s, Funk was a pilot who wanted to become an astronaut. She took part in a programme which proved women could pass the same physical and mental tests as the male NASA astronauts. NASA, though, required its astronauts to be military pilots, and at the time the military didn’t allow women pilots. When, in 1979 NASA finally started accepting female astronauts, the 40-year-old Funk was again rejected, partly because she was considered too old. This July, at 82 years of age, Funk’s lifetime dream was finally realized aboard a Blue Origin passenger flight.  

Space tourism

Blue Origin is only one of three private projects that promote space tourism. The other two are billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Space X. All three manned their first passenger flights this summer. Space tourism, though, has been criticized as an amusement for the super-rich: the ticket for a space flight costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although Bezos claims that Blue Origin can help advance “space travel and rocket launches, through tourism and entertainment,” many are not convinced. Prince William, for example, said: “we need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.” Even UN Secretary-General Antònio Guterres criticized what he described as “billionaires joyriding to space.”  

Space science and the Overview Effect

Regardless, space exploration, rather than tourism, can go hand in hand with solving Earth’s problems. Among other things, NASA helped develop technologies for trapping greenhouse gases and advancing renewable energy. Much of climate science, so important in the study of climate change, relies on satellites. Finally, it’s also worth mentioning a philosophical and romantic aspect of space exploration: the ‘Overview Effect’ often experienced by astronauts in space. Many have described it as a state of inexplicable euphoria, a ‘cosmic connection’, and an increased sensitivity to our place in the universe. Shatner experienced the Overview Effect when he left the atmosphere and saw our planet below him: he felt electrified, overcome by the sudden realization of the beauty and fragility of our blue planet against the black void of space. “I hope I never recover from this,” said Shatner when he returned to Earth. “Everybody in the world needs to do this!”    
USEFUL LINKS 1) Learn about Blue Shepard, the spaceship that brought William Shatner and Wally Funk to space: 2) Here are the highlights of William Shatner’s trip to space: 2) Blue Origin has a ‘Club for the Future’ project aimed at children: 3) What did William Shatner say when he returned to Earth? Check it out here: 4) Would you like to know more about Wally Funk? Here’s her story in a video from 2013 (therefore before her flight to space): 5) The BBC has developed an immersive, interactive (and free) virtual reality game that simulates a spacewalk. You can check out the trailer and find the links to download it here:
COMPREHENSION 1 1) Read the article and complete the sentences with the correct alternative. 1. William Shatner
  1. played a character in the TV series Star Trek.
  2. is the name of the character played by James T. Kirk.
  3. flew to space this October aboard the USS Enterprise.
2. Star Trek
  1. was never a popular series.
  2. is a series set in the present day.
  3. is a series about space exploration.
3. Blue Origin is the name of
  1. a private enterprise owned by a Star Trek fan.
  2. a NASA enterprise that develops space vehicles.
  3. one of Star Trek’s spaceships.
4. In the 1960s, Wally Funk did not become an astronaut because
  1. she did not pass the necessary tests.
  2. she was a military pilot.
  3. NASA did not hire women astronauts.
5. This summer, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Space X
  1. tried to find a new planet to live on.
  2. were created to amuse the superrich.
  3. flew people to space.
6. Prince William 
  1. believes there are more urgent issues than space exploration.
  2. received a ticket to space from Bezos.
  3. believes space travel can be advanced by space tourism.
7. Space exploration
  1. produces climate change.
  2. can help solve the problem of climate change.
  3. uses renewable energy.
8. The Overview Effect can be described as
  1. an increased awareness of climate change.
  2. a sudden realization of our connection to everything in the universe.
  3. an unpleasant feeling experienced by astronauts.
  COMPREHENSION 2 2) Watch the video on the Overview Effect and complete the sentences with the correct alternative. 1. The Overview Effect is
  1. caused by floating weightlessly is space.
  2. a shift in how we view life and our planet.
  3. a feeling of being very fragile.
2. Yuri Gagarin was most impressed by
  1. the vastness of the universe.
  2. his historic voyage.
  3. the view of Earth from space.
3. Those that experience the Overview Effect feel that borders, wars and money 
  1. are very important.
  2. are not important.
  3. are a fundamental part of being human.
4. Researchers say that the Overview Effect
  1. makes people care about the planet.
  2. fades when astronauts come back to Earth.
  3. is caused by the evidence of climate change.
5. The Californian start-up Space VR
  1. uses 100 astronauts for its experiments.
  2. wants to reproduce the Overview Effect here on Earth.
  3. promotes space tourism.
  VOCABULARY  3) Complete the sentences with the following words. Put the verbs and nouns in the right form, if necessary.

crew  *  bold  *  to spawn  *  flight  *  launch  *  to joyride  *  to rely on *  overview  *  electrified  *  void

1. Don’t confuse bald with ________________________: the first word means without hair, the second means courageous. 2. I’m going to the airport: I booked the 8.00 o’clock ________________________ to London. 3. She ________________________ herself into this new project with great enthusiasm. 4. All the sailors on a ship make up the ship’s ________________________. 5. When I met that astronaut, I was more than excited, I was ________________________! 6. ________________________ usually means to steal a car and drive it dangerously fast, but it can also mean driving a car just for the pleasure of it. 7. An empty space is called a ________________________, a word that can also describe an emotional emptiness. 8. Astronauts ________________________ very sophisticated equipment – their life depends on them! 9. ________________________ means to reproduce in large numbers, like fish laying eggs. 10. Like the word suggests, ________________________ is like a view from above that gives you the big picture of something.   GRAMMAR – Modal Verbs 4) Choose the correct modal verb to complete the sentence. 1. If you’ve never seen Star Trek, you have to/will/can watch it! It’s such a great show! 2. I must/would/may love to fly to the Moon! It’s my dream! 3. To become an astronaut you should/have to/might go through very specific and rigorous training.  4. I’m sure that one day space travel would/will/may be accessible to everybody. 5. I suspect that inviting William Shatner aboard the Blue Origin flight might/can/must have been a publicity stunt! 6. William Shatner believes that everybody should/would/could see Earth from space. 7. Wally Funk proved that women should/would/can pass the same physical and mental tests as men. 8. Wally Funk can/may/could be old, but she’s young at heart! 9. I have a suggestion for tonight: must/will/shall we watch a Star Trek film? 10. Prince William thinks that Blue Origin scientists and technicians would/can/should use their brains on more important issues.   SHORT ESSAY 5) Imagine that you are given a free ticket to go wherever you like, here on Earth or anywhere in the universe. What destination would you choose? And why would you choose it? (60-80 words) 6) “Everybody in the world needs to do this!” said William Shatner after returning from his trip to outer space. Can you say the same thing about something that you have done? Write about your experience and about what makes it incredible or interesting. (60-80 words)   DEBATE 7) Pair up with one of your classmates and look at the proposition below (Prince William’s statement on space tourism); one of you will argue in favour of it and one of you against it. Proposition: “We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live.”  
___ (Carlo Dellonte) (Image credits: Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay)

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