Elon Musk recently announced billionaire Yusaku Maezawa as the first space tourist slated to take a trip on SpaceX’s Blue Falcon rocket to the moon in 2023. Initially, the choice seemed to perpetuate the idea that space is a playground only for rich non-astronauts. But Maezawa upended that assumption by introducing the “Dear Moon” project and declaring his intention to bring between six and eight artists to the moon with him, providing otherworldly inspiration for their work.
It’s a beautiful idea that recognizes the role space, the moon and views of Earth have had on art and culture since humans first cast their gazes skyward. By recognizing the importance of art and artists, SpaceX and Maezawa could inspire and stoke the curiosity of the human race, urging us to widen our perspectives. Even more important, they could help make space accessible to all of us, not just to the wealthy.
Space tourism isn’t a new idea, and companies offering such trips have often claimed they’re “democratizing” space. Charles Walker, an engineer with McDonnell Douglas, was the first private citizen to join a space mission, which he did three times between 1984 and 1985 at a ticket price of $40,000 (about $97,000 today). In 2001, California millionaire Dennis Tito paid $20 million (around $28.5 million today) for an eight-day trip on a Russian rocket brokered by Virginia-based company Space Adventures. Between then and 2009, six other space tourists took the trip for sums ranging from $20 million to $35 million. Space Adventures now advertises “circumlunar” trips that come within 62 miles of the moon, but won’t specify how much they might cost.
SpaceX isn’t the first company to conceive of bringing artists to space. In 2015, Lady Gaga thrilled fans by announcing that she would be the first person to perform a song in space aboard a Virgin Galactic shuttle as part of the Zero G Colony music festival, but a fatal explosion during a 2014 test flight of SpaceShipTwo put those plans on hold. (Virgin Galactic has since rebuilt and has successfully tested its new ride, and reports that more than 600 people have plunked down the $250,000 deposit for a trip.)
In the early 1980s, NASA established the Space Flight Participant program to recognize the importance of sending citizens to space. First up was the Teacher in Space program, for which more than 11,000 people applied. New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe made the cut, but she died in the Challenger disaster of 1986. The tragedy led to the cancellation of the program, through which NASA had also intended to bring journalists and artists to space after the successful completion of McAuliffe’s flight. In 2003, NASA announced another program to bring journalists to space, but that plan ended with the explosion of the Columbia spacecraft.
Humans, whether artists or astronauts, are the most precious cargo, and of course SpaceX has to be as certain as it can be about the safety and success of the mission. Initially, SpaceX planned to bring two tourists on a lunar flight in 2017, but the additional six years leaves time for testing and preparation — and for SpaceX and Maezawa to carefully consider the impact this mission could have on art and culture, as well as people’s perceptions of space.
In a keynote address at the 2008 National Space Symposium, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson argued that space exploration is crucial not just for the economy, science or knowledge, but also because it affects culture. Tyson referenced everything from science fiction to car designs to environmentalism as evidence of space’s cultural impact. In December 1968, Apollo 8, the first crewed moon mission, generated the first photo of Earth as a whole.
Known as “Earthrise,” this image, taken for granted by those of us born since, changed humanity’s perception of the planet. Every human ever born hails from our pale blue dot, which is small and fragile in the cosmic perspective. Bill Anders, the astronaut who took the iconic picture, has said that even though they trained for a lunar exploration, the astronauts “discovered Earth.”
It’s impossible to predict exactly how this mission might affect our culture, but it’s safe to say that if it gets off the ground, it certainly will. Maezawa seeks a fashion designer, a musician, a painter and a film director (among possible others) to produce work inspired by the physical, spiritual and artistic discoveries of the trip. Without giving an indication of who he might ask to accompany him, he simply asked the artists he approaches to “please say yes.”
Here’s hoping he understands how monumental these invitations will be, and how important it is to choose artists of different persuasions from different countries. This mission may not “democratize” space, but it will be the first time humans will have the opportunity to experience art made by non-astronauts who have witnessed something few will ever see firsthand: our entire planet against the backdrop of the infinite cosmos.
It’s hard to imagine a more important time for humanity to rediscover earth and what it means to a citizen on our beleaguered planet. The announcement suggests that Maezawa and SpaceX realize that. Now they’ve got a chance to demonstrate they really mean it.
Joelle Renstrom teaches writing with a focus on science fiction, space exploration, and artificial intelligence at Boston University. She wrote this for The Washington Post.