Richard Branson on the Value of Space, the Overview Effect

July 14, 2021

Why space? Worthy discussion.


On Saturday, Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, tweeted that she’d be appearing on CNN to talk to Fareed Zakaria about the record-breaking heat wave gripping the West. The next day, she announced her segment had been cut. “Bumped, due to billionaire going to space,” she wrote.

Hayhoe was slated to appear on CNN as Death Valley was clocking the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on the planet, on the heels of another heat wave that killed hundreds of people across the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Meanwhile, Richard Branson spent 3 or 4 minutes weightless to advertise a spaceship that will offer seats for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop—and earned wall-to-wall coverage on broadcast networks this weekend, many of which aired footage of his “brief joyride.”

Juxtaposing the amount of public alarm and loss of life tied to these record-breaking heat waves versus the importance (or lack thereof) of Branson’s little trip to space makes Hayhoe getting bumped particularly enraging. These past few weeks have been so dire that it has felt like a breakthrough moment culturally on climate change—that networks like CNN then decided to throw away by filming a billionaire floating around in zero gravity. And Branson’s stunt taking precedence on primetime over our rapidly unfolding climate crisis isn’t an exception, but rather the norm. It shows that cable news, and TV news as a whole, still largely continues to fail at grasping the climate crisis as the existential threat it is. Instead, coverage prioritizes entertainment and sensationalism that keeps people watching the commercial breaks.

That said, Branson makes an argument about the “Overview Effect” – the real phenomenon of personal change that seems to happen when humans are exposed to a view from space of their home.

The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from outer space. – Wikipedia



13 Responses to “Richard Branson on the Value of Space, the Overview Effect”

  1. grindupbaker Says:

    No it’s too far, just looks like a blue marble. I’m not a billionaire but I help out by driving my pickup truck aimlessly around Canada, window down & my arm hanging out gawking at the scenery up close. Up close makes me feel very touchy-feely about Earth which will greatly reduce IR-active gases and plastic. Also, I now feel empathy for the poor & hungry because I see the bums hanging around the road edge some times, can’t see them good from space. You poets & artists all decide what makes you feel all touchy-feely but for me it’s blitzing around in my pickup truck, not blitzing around in a near vacuum.

  2. jimbills Says:

    I’m a huge sci-fi fan. But – I’ve come to the conclusion that all this stuff about space exploration is really just an extension of the human urge to conquer and expand. As I’m also a believer that growth is at the center of our ecological predicament ( ), what we really need is cultural and intellectual progress instead of material and monetary progress. Our technology is improving at a rapid rate, but we’re still essentially the same creature behind the countless atrocities in history. I see technology as a means of extending human power, but give a caveman a laser and they’re going to use it with the same motives in using a club. All this technology just allows us to destroy with greater capacity.

    The monetary profit in space is in mining, and that’s where our focus is going to be. It’s going to be about allowing economic growth to continue on this planet, and there ‘should’ be obvious environmental predictions from this. We likely will build livable communities and the Moon, space stations, and perhaps Mars, and these will be headline-grabbers, but it will be about mining in the end.

    I don’t put a lot of stock in the ‘transformative’ experience of seeing the Earth from above. The only ones who have seen it are highly educated and trained people that would naturally have a positive experience from it. But how many will actually get this experience in the future, and at what point? Would it make a difference in time? Also, if a majority can see it at some point, it would likely mean they are going to their ‘real’ home on the Moon or something. Earth will be a second thought at that point. Or, space travel will be status symbol – bragging rights – the ego of the individual will be the main takeaway. They’ll all be competing to increase their own personal wealth in a growing economy to do it.

    Does someone think Branson would get up there (using a ton of carbon and money to do it) and come back saying, “Meh, I wish I had spent that money to save hippos (and not told the press about it).”?

    • redskylite Says:

      Ace writing JB, well put and easy to read – reading some comments in my local news media today – I despair for “cultural and intellectual progress”, which I agree is what we need badly.

  3. peterangelo Says:

    In the first tweet it says one way flight London yo New York is 6,900 miles. That seemed long to me, so I did some research and guess what I was right:

    Also multiply the airlines emissions by the hundred of transatlantic flights daily and the comparison to space travel isn’t so stark. In fact, the environmental impact of all rocket launches today pales in comparison to the similar impact of the current number of transatlantic flights. So that comparison is quite skewed and if humans do survive long enough to make regular (daily) trips to outer space it will be because we learned how to do it without destroying all life on this planet. Yes, a single rocket launch is huge in terms of emissions but we are a long way off from doing it often enough to have significant impact when compared to other types of transport.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      IIRC, total emissions from all aviation is 2.1% of our total And non commercial air travel is about one half of that 2.1%.

      IOW, it isn’t all that big a deal. We still need to keep our eyes on the bouncing ball – transportation and electricity production.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      London to NYC is ~6900 miles round trip.

      The metric (0.2kg) is per capita, but there are a lot of “capitas” flying.

      I know people who fly many thousands of miles per year for pleasure travel. I feel guilty taking a couple of two-hour flights a year (well, round trip) to visit family.

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    The real question is how much do we need to reduce emissions so that we reach the point where atmospheric CO2 starts to go down, not up.

    The fact is that CO2 in the atmosphere is not a simple system – we have a carbon cycle, and it is HUGE, constantly transferring enormous amounts of carbon around. And, while the carbon cycle is currently overloaded and [CO2] is increasing, it isn’t increasing by much every year. Which is why it has taken 170 years to get to the point where we now find ourselves.

    What would be good to know is IF we reduce our transportation and electricity sectors by X amount, how quickly would we start to see [CO2] going down? My guess is it wouldn’t take all that much reductions to see a real benefit.

    • redskylite Says:

      Over simplistic view – nature does not respond in human time frame expectations, it will not instantly respond, 2-3 ppm CO2 increase per year does not seem much, but slowly it is creeping up and very close to scientist predicted tipping points. Germany floods has shocked scientists, US and Canada heat has shocked scientists. Your view of time is not the same as natures, long term changes must be made and at the best speed we can muster. Can you not see the peril we are inviting ?

  5. peterangelo Says:

    If I snapped my fingers right this second and ended every CO2 source of emissions instantly it would take a decade for the keeling curve to slope downward, ie: ten years for whats already built into the system for c02 levels to drop. That’s just with nature no added c02 removal technology.

  6. dumboldguy Says:

    Let’s get back on topic—-the value of space. My two cents,

    The entitled and self-centered folks who will spend $250,000 to take a little jaunt into “space” should be taxed 100% and the money used for something of value to the planet.

    NO ONE should be allowed to spend $55 million for a week’s stay on the space station—–that’s a good argument for a substantial wealth tax.

    Sending humans to Mars is the biggest waste of all for so many reasons, as is going back to the moon—-we should scrap both programs and concentrate on near-earth projects that will help in the fight against global warming.

    • peterangelo Says:

      I can almost agree with that. Building habitats on the moon could be useful, trying to live on Mars (at least at this time) not so much. As for joyrides into space: fuhgeddaboutit!!!

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