Astronauts describe a change in how they see our planet after looking down on Earth from space: Without borders, fragile, a beautiful ecosystem.
Many space explorers come back and use that experience to educate others. After spending 180 days in space, now retired NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg launched a fabric line called "Earth Views" with images of the planet to inspire others to think about our impact on Earth.
The impact also comes from shorter spaceflights. Actor William Shatner was speechless after his 10-minute spaceflight with Blue Origin last year. "I hope I never recover from this feeling," the 90-year-old said after landing.
Nonprofit Space for Humanity aims to use that experience known as the "Overview Effect" to teach citizen astronauts to use it for the benefit of humanity.
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Founded by investors and philanthropists Dylan Taylor in 2017, Space for Humanity's goal is to increase access to space for a diverse group of people who can share the experience with the world. Taylor flew on Blue Origin's third human spaceflight in December.
"There is a cognitive shift that happens to astronauts when astronauts go to space. They look back, and they see our interconnected, fragile, beautiful, finite planet," Space for Humanity Executive Director Rachel Lyons said. "Very often astronauts come back down, changed people. They come back down humanitarians, environmentalists, with a completely new perspective on all of our greatest challenges."
Partnering with Blue Origin and other spaceflight companies, Space for Humanity will select and train people for their spaceflight, not through physical training but how to prepare their minds for the experience.
The nonprofit's first citizen astronaut is Katya Echazarreta, a 26-year-old electrical engineer and TV host. She was selected by Space for Humanity to fly on Blue Origin's next human spaceflight, New Shepard-21. She will become the first Mexican-born woman and youngest American woman in space when she launches later this summer.
"For each of our ambassadors, beginning with Katya as citizen astronaut No. 1, we'll be training her pre-flight, helping her get her mind ready for the experience that she can really take it in. And she'll come back down, and we'll support her in integrating it and making sense of it," Lyons said. "Then we'll support her in using it as a way to forward social impact work that she cares about."
Echazarreta uses her social media channels "Katvoltage" and YouTube series "Netflix IRL" to share unexpected parts of the space industry and encourage others to pursue careers in STEM.
"I want the space industry to look like the demographics of this world. Currently, it doesn't," Echazarreta said. "And I think that I can't really help change that just by allowing people into this experience with me."
Echazarreta said it’s essential that more diverse communities have these experiences.
"So that they can then go back to their own communities and share that experience and change their own society and community in the way that matters to them," she said.
Until the past year, government astronauts have trained in science, engineering, and safety, all of which are important. Commercial spaceflight has opened up opportunities for private citizens but mostly the uber-rich.
The Axiom-1 mission became the first all-private spaceflight to the space station earlier this year, flying in SpaceX's Crew Dragon. As the access to space remains limited, Axiom-1 mission commander Michael López-Alegría said those who can go have a responsibility to use it for good.
"Our responsibility, at the same time, is to use that as a platform for greater leadership and advocacy and, hopefully, inspiration going forward," López-Alegría said. "I think that's that's our next big challenge, is to figure out how best to apply that to that going forward."
Space for Humanity is opening applications to people who won’t pay the hefty price tag Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX charge for spaceflights. Instead, Space for Humanity will sponsor the ride.
"We have the opportunity to have a different purpose around this flight," Lyons said. "Our purpose is around going to space for the benefit of life on Earth."
The nonprofit is working with Johns Hopkins University researchers who have studied the overview effect and the psychological impacts of the experience.
Some training will include mind techniques and learning from those who have been to space to find out what to expect.
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She compares it to returning home after traveling abroad.
"Sometimes people feel like a fish out of water, and they don't really know how to come back to their family and friends. And this is a similar thing," Lyons said. "We want to help our people, after having such a transformative experience, come back and understand how to apply it and then take action around applying it to their regular life."
Space for Humanity is working with several spaceflight providers to set up future citizen spaceflights, including an entire crew.