Go back to article: Through the lens of a space tourist

The new worldview

This narrative of Dennis Tito and his journey to space was presented to the world by MirCorp as a kind of political milestone in the history of space travel, but it was also an important moment in the history of tourism. The emergence of the space tourist signals the opening of a new territory for tourism, one that sees the Earth itself as the ultimate destination. If we think of a 'tour' as an orbital journey, a tourist performs a round trip returning to the point where they started (Theobald, 1998, pp 6–7). Beginning with Tito, seven international tourists have circled the Earth and returned to their point of origin. However, it is not only the idea of a circular or orbital journey that translates so well to space travel, it is also the underlying idea of free movement around the globe. As Ueli Gyr (2015) observes, ‘Tourism crosses borders: spatial, temporal, social and cultural’. Tourist traffic flows globally, moving people to different time zones and climates, even seeing post-communist Russians vacationing in the West. Transport innovation has been essential in enabling modern tourism and the new global forms of holiday experience have been shaped by the successive technological advances of the ship, the train, the aeroplane, and now also the Soyuz rocket.

Our modern forms of tourism date back to at least the eighteenth century, when travel for the sake of experience emerged as a rite of passage for young male aristocrats, educated elites, as well as artists and writers.[13] Alongside the requisite ‘grand tour’ of continental European cities, the more adventurous travellers seeking self-discovery found themselves in increasingly exotic, sublime and disorienting locations. Most important in this pursuit was an idea of the privileged view or vantage point. In Germany in the late eighteenth century, alpine climbing and other nature expeditions were sought out as aesthetic experiences, and as tourism developed as an art form, it also generated new genres of fine art production to illustrate the experience (Brilli, 1997). The industrialising societies of Western Europe found a new appreciation for the cascading views of natural grandeur, captured in the landscape paintings of the German Romantics. These works, which emphasised confrontations with sublime nature, brought together the emotion and descriptive power of the travellers’ diaries and sketches with the monumentality of history painting. By the early nineteenth century it was common to see the world through the representation of these travellers, such as the figures in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, viewing the dramatic landscape from over their shoulder. Here, there is a paradoxical tension between the emotional anxiety of the sublime and the always distant and elevated position of the viewer. As social historian Tony Bennett observes, ‘Even where Europeans were keen also to experience “reality” as directly as possible, as in their ventures into unknown places or, in a rather different way through the development of highly accurate replicas, the idea of detached representation remained important’ (Macdonald, 1998). The cosmopolitan traveller of the nineteenth century was a detached beholder of the world who simultaneously sought out more and more direct and authentic forms of engagement with that world. Astronauts and cosmonauts have retained this simultaneously intellectual and emotional regard for the sublime view, and often convey such sentiments in their accounts of space walks, moonwalks, and orbital flights. Stepping out into the Hadley Rille lunar mountains in 1971, Apollo 15 Commander David Scott reflected, ‘As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize that there's a fundamental truth to our nature. Man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest’ (Casey, 2013, p 191).

Figure 9

Oil painting from 1818 of a man standing atop a mountain and looking into the cloudy distance

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818)

In the late 1860s, even a decade prior to the first aeroplane flight, Jules Verne predicted the profound impact of flight and the effects of the aerial view. In his ground-breaking science fiction novel, From the Earth to the Moon, Verne (1867) writes, ‘We shall travel to the stars just as today we go from Liverpool to New York, easily, rapidly, surely, and the oceans of space will be crossed like the seas of the moon’. Michel Ardan the poet and traveller in Verne's novel, was modelled on the French photographer Félix Tournachon (Nadar), who in 1858 had ascended on a hot air balloon flight in an attempt to photograph the aerial view of the Earth. Nadar wrote prolifically about his observation of the Earth from the balloon. Both Nadar and Verne’s character Ardan testify as to how the aerial view transformed the way in which we understand our world. From his balloon, Nadar saw the diminished features of the landscape in their miniature forms on the ground below him from what he believed to be a view of supremacy. As Mark Dorrian and Frederic Pousin (2013) have written, ‘From the 18th century onward, the phenomenon of human flight generated profound transformations in the cultural imagination. The aerial might even be claimed to be the central modern visual form.’ But more important than the aeronautic experiments of pilots and the projections of writers, it was the generalisation of flight among travellers and tourists that brought the aerial view into popular discourse (Thebaud-Sorger, 2013).

While projecting a selection of still photographs and hand-held recordings on the lecture screen at Pepperdine, Tito (see Video 2) reflects, ‘I spent about 30 hours listening to opera, as I looked out at space’. He goes on to explain that even six years after the flight, he often looks back at this footage at his home in the Pacific Palisades to reminisce about the experience. As a tourist in the Romantic tradition, Tito went to space for the same reason that Prussian aristocrats climbed the Alps. The documentation, retelling, and re-visitation of the journey anchors his experience in reality and attests to both its uniqueness and authenticity. And yet, like the romantic sublime, the most important parts of the experience were beyond words. ‘It's unbelievable that you can go in nine minutes from sitting on top of a launch pad to seeing the Earth like this,’ Tito says, gazing at his own slides. Tito is obviously overtaken by emotion when he describes his flight. He is able to testify to what he saw and experienced only by pointing to the pictures and video clips. Reviewing personal footage from inside of the Soyuz spacecraft at the launch site, Tito states: ‘This will speak for itself.’ Tito relies on the impact of his visuals to induce the emotions, which he felt but cannot describe. ‘This slide will give you a kind of a feeling for what I was seeing’. Eight minutes and fifty seconds after the launch, Tito is in orbit around Earth. ‘Nothing can explain the thrill!’. He jokes about the Russian space technology, creating a narrative of suspense and embedding himself as the protagonist in the story – a man on a mission.

In the grand tradition of tourism, it is just as important to be pictured beholding the landscape as it is to actually witness it. ‘I was videotaping my position in the capsule,’ Tito explains while showing footage of fragments of his torso and knees inside the Soyuz spacecraft. When showing a fly-through video tour of the space station he highlights his own sleeping bag and the place he claims to have had ‘the most comfortable sleep in the world’. These personal connections are crucial to capturing the evidence of the authenticity of his experience. ‘This is my seat and this is what I saw when we first entered orbit. That’s what the Earth looks like’. The camera focuses out of the window on to the blue curvature of the globe in the distance. This is both an image that we have seen before and yet it is distinctly new – the first tourist’s photograph of the Earth.

Spaceflight has undoubtedly been a completely new and literally ‘other-worldly’ experience for the select few who have flown, but – rather than being closer to outer space – it was the fact of being that much further from the Earth, and our encounter of looking back at the Earth from space that has had the most important cultural impact (White, 1998; Diederichsen, 2013; Singleton, 2013). For instance, the image of the Earth captured by Apollo 17 in 1972, was referred to as an ‘icon of our age’ by the astronomer Carl Sagan (1994, p 6). In the 1970s this image, commonly known as ‘the Blue Marble’ and ‘the Whole Earth’ became representative of global unity and the fragility of our environment, perhaps most famously through The Whole Earth Catalog (Brandt, 1968) and Frank White’s seminal text, The Overview Effect (White, 1998).[14] However, the idea of this global overview was already acknowledged even in the 1960s, with the very first orbital flights. Despite the fact that the first cosmonauts were fighter pilots enrolled in a military programme, the aesthetic and cultural dimensions of capturing images of the Earth from space was one of the primary objectives from the very first flight. In fact, Earth observation was built into the very concept of space technology, making the spaceship the perfect scenic lookout point. The first manned spacecraft series, the Soviet’s Vostok, was a modified craft originally designed to carry a spy camera on board. This mechanical ‘eye in the sky’ was replaced by passengers, who could not only fulfil military objectives, but also convey what they had felt and seen to a rapt worldwide audience.

Figure 10

Colour photograph of Planet Earth from space

The celebrated Whole Earth image taken by Apollo 17, 1972

The inaugural human space flight, performed by a Soviet pilot, Yuri Gagarin, on 12 April 1961, was a quintessential marriage of national objectives and personal travelogue. The in-flight sound recording of the 108-minute journey around the Earth was a testament to the impact the view from space had on the first cosmonaut. Viewing the Earth from the window of the Vostok-1 spacecraft, Gagarin famously tells mission control how beautiful the Earth looks.[15] During the second manned flight performed by a Soviet pilot, Gherman Titov, the camera was pointed out the window and back at the Earth, in an attempt to visualise those emotions reported by Gagarin, and to capture a new kind of image of the world from the vantage point of divinity.[16] The view of the Earth from space elicited a distinctly metaphysical reaction in the cosmonauts and astronauts who experienced it, but also, to a certain extent, even in those millions of people who experienced the images of those first views (Overview, 2012). By the time that Tito gazed out of the ISS at the Earth below, we had all been the audience of decades of testimony and media imagery transmitting what a space traveller should, and would experience during space flight. ‘Earth is such a precious place,’ says Tito on reflection. ‘You look at the atmosphere and you can see how thin it is – just a wisp over the curvature.’ In the same sense, the ISS now allows people to log in and view the Earth in real time through life feed cameras on board, while listening in to mission control.[17] The images broadcast are there to entertain and excite the viewer back on Earth, taking us to the heavens, as it were, to experience a deeper connection with the planet.

Figure 11

Colour photograph of Planet Earth from space taken by Dennis Tito the first space tourist

Earth photographed by cosmonaut Gherman Titov inside Vostok-2, 1961, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, Science Museum

Nearly fifty years after Gagarin and shortly after his own trip, Tito’s slideshow of images seemingly resemble a long tradition of images from space travel. Indeed, in the new millennium, images from outer space are ubiquitous in popular media: Earth and weather satellite observation, as well as cosmonaut and astronaut mission snapshots archived by their respective space programmes. Despite their modern day prevalence, images from outer space have also had the ability to define the twentieth century and shape our understanding of the world (Singleton, 2013). As seen through the frame of the Space Race between the USSR and America, dramatic lift-offs, likeable dogs and apes, Technicolor space walks, a fragile blue Earth rising on the horizon of the Moon, and the debris of the shuttle disasters have all elicited popular fascination. Even to this day, the images of alien landscapes broadcast by the Martian rovers are creating new narratives within our global cultural and scientific history (Vertesi, 2015).

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However, something about the images in the lecture slideshow – and the person who took them – are unique within the history of images that came before. With his trophy photos, the space tourist represents a categorically new worldview, with new values and expectations. If every ‘perspective of Earth serves as a metaphor for the beliefs of its day’ then there is an inherent new value produced by the ones who are doing the ‘looking’ (McCurdy, 2011). The space tourist has produced a new view from space. Documentation has always been an important aspect of space history and since Tito’s flight, the power to produce those images has moved away from science to the market. With the introduction of commercial space tourism, we now have a new category of the space-image that sits curiously alongside satellite mapping, scientific documentation and national propaganda.

As a reflection on the images produced by the Apollo programme, a NASA representative exclaimed, ‘One hundred thousand miles out from Earth there is no room for a space race, no place for Russian-American competition. This is something for all mankind’ (Poole, 2010). This statement reaffirms White’s thesis in The Overview Effect, that the view from space transforms people in positive ways, creating an image of unity and peace. However, as Jordan Bimm argues in ‘Rethinking the Overview Effect’, believing in the ‘natural’ ability of the overview to transform society ‘eclipses and discredits other ways of seeing, experiencing, and thinking about the planet’ (Bimm, 2014). In this sense there is a clear distinction between the astronaut testimony, which makes up The Overview Effect and the one given by Tito.

Beyond their historical significance, images of the Earth and outer space inform our material culture in new and unexpected ways. ‘The fundamental event of modernity is the conquest of the world as picture,’ writes Martin Heidegger (1950, p 71) in The Age of the World Picture. Heidegger’s claim can be understood at a number of registers. On the one hand, images from outer space can literally encapsulate the ultimate representation of our world. On the other hand, Heidegger sees the world as a representation of the essential phenomenon of modernity – the experience. In this sense, where the human becomes subject, and the world becomes picture, the world is assumed to mean the totality of experience, and picture as that which is depicted. Heidegger explains how this phenomenon is best encapsulated in the idea of a ‘world view’. He writes, ‘As soon as the world becomes picture, the position of man is conceived as world view’ (Heidegger, 1950, p 70). In this sense, it can present a variety of viewpoints: Tito’s privileged position, both as a wealthy businessman, and one who views the world from afar.

‘Looking out the window this is typically what you would see,’ says Tito about the curvature of the blue marble, in this case the main attraction. But on a closer examination, seeing the globe throughout his one hundred and twenty eight orbits in space, Tito makes one striking observation, telling his audience that the Earth looked different each time he saw it. He specifies the differences in texture and colour, the distinction of natural features through pictorial terms. He tells his audience that he selected some ‘pretty pictures’ to show off the subtle differences that he had observed from space: the clouds lined up in the direction of wind look like a corn field; the textures of the desert sands; the break up of the ice in Canada and ice flow during spring; a storm approaching; the weather front sharply defined; a dried up lake bed that looks like an ear; and the site where China performed their first nuclear test in 1967.

When the general public first saw images of the Earth as a whole sphere, the distance seemed to erase all political borders and traces of human impact (Poole, 2010). From this distance, there was a reflection on how absurd human actions were, how minute, in respect to the scale of the Earth and the universe. From the distance of the space station, however, being able to see the man-made features from space impressed Tito above all. Gazing back at the Earth through the eyes of the space tourist, we are no longer faced with a delicate organism of the Earth’s whole ecosystem, but with a tableau of man-made construction constantly in flux. He shows some of his footage flying over the Middle East where the boundaries between Israel and Occupied Territories are clearly visible in the linear breaks in vegetation. ‘What this illustrates if nothing else is that you can see man-made objects from space.’ The familiar experience of listening to someone narrate their recent holiday photos is complicated by the fact that Tito is quickly clicking through every continent on the globe.

Figure 12

Tweet of a colour photograph of part of Australia taken from space with the text fit for the walls of an art gallery: Australia as seen from the ISS

UrtheCast broadcasts images of Earth on social media from a camera in outer space

Figure 13

Colour photograph of the Australian landscape taken from space

UrtheCast broadcasts images of Earth on social media from a camera in outer space (original image)

Tito’s claim, that the Earth seemed different each time that he looked at it, may be one of his most intriguing observations. Most of the observable changes in his images are reflections of human impact on the planet, from changes in the polar ice caps to the architecture and electricity that distinguish our urban environments. Mark Dorrian (2013) has written that, ‘As the audience of geospatial data is no longer made up of only cartographers, scientists, military strategists and state operatives but rather – overwhelmingly – consumers, how commodities look from sky, and how they address it, is a new concern’. Seeing the Earth from above is the desire to see ourselves reflected back as an image to study and enjoy, and the image that Tito saw reflected back was one of technological progress and development – a civilisation of constant change.

‘The Earth is rotating underneath you. You say, this is my planet, and you can see the whole thing.’ The transforming view from above changes not only based on natural phenomenon but also strangely in relation to the viewer. Tito wants to see himself reflected in the world he views as his own. Seeing mountain ranges, rivers, and clouds is less stimulating than witnessing the human-made creation and interference on the surface of the planet. Tito’s experience, based on consumption, produces a new worldview. Understanding the planet as both a site and a sight to be consumed, the view itself becomes a commercial platform. The Earth is a vehicle for advertising that is visible on the scale of the view from space.[18]

A notable example of this consumer view on the global scale is the Palm Islands development on the coast of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, described by the developers, Jan De Nul and Van Oord as ‘Master planning the Universe’ (Kerr, 2008). The island development, which broke ground in 2001, takes the shape of two palm trees surrounded by rocky crescents and an archipelago representation of ‘the World’ and ‘the Universe’ on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Built with sand and rock from the Gulf, the constructed artificial islands are filled with mansions, entertainment, and leisure complexes that add over five hundred kilometres of new private beach space to the city of Dubai. This artificial island resort is an extraordinary display of fantasy and wealth constructed as a luxury tourist attraction, which advertises itself as a place of vacation on the scale of a worldview.

Figure 14

Colour photograph taken from space of the artificial archipelagos created off the coast of Dubai

Artificial archipelagos of Dubai, United Arab Emirates create an image visible from space

In 2001, the Palm Islands were under construction at the very same time that Tito, Earth’s first space tourist, gazes back at the world. The fact that Tito flew in the same year that this luxury leisure complex in Dubai began construction is merely a coincidence, but in a way they are symptoms of a cultural shift within a new world-picture. Thus, Tito’s observations of the world from the position of a wealthy space tourist will have a mutual reflection back in the form of a ‘universal’ resort. The policies of the Russian Federation and the Emirates are imprinted on the world, visually, culturally and politically.

A 2010 report into space tourism anticipated that it could be a billion-dollar market by 2030 (2010, p 11). Spencer and Rugg (2004) speculate that the future of the International Space Station will be as a converted ‘private orbital yacht’. They predict that by 2050, a million tourists will have travelled ‘off-world’, attending zero gravity sports events and zero gravity weddings. Tito himself is investing in a space agency. He founded and funds a research agency called Inspiration Mars, which hopes to take people to Mars by 2018.[19] ‘If you are looking for a business, space tourism is one with a great future,’ says Tito at the end of his lecture. The realisation of travellers in space is also generating a new reality on the ground, where man as subject, and Earth as picture create now yet another experience in our cultural history.



Special thanks to the Science Museum Group Research Department, Kate Steiner, the anonymous peer reviewers, Cosmonauts Project Leader, Annika Joy, and to Tim Ivison, for their comments, suggestions and help.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150407/004