When Neil Armstrong stepped from the ladder of the Eagle lunar lander to become the first human being to walk on our Moon, he said, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." When he later described his experience, what we now know as the Overview Effect (OE), he explained that, "It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth."
Fortunately, it is not necessary to go to the Moon, or even the International Space Station, to have an OE experience. Thanks to the efforts of dedicated NewSpace entrepreneurs, we are on the cusp of an era where hundreds and then thousands of people will have their own OE experience during suborbital flights.
Whether buying a $200,000 ticket and flying to a 100km altitude aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, or buying a $95,000 ticket and flying to a 50km altitude aboard XCOR Aerospace's Lynx, passengers will have a few minutes to experience our Earth as a place without borders. As a home where we all breathe the same air within the precious bubble of a thin atmosphere, regardless of the political and idealogical beliefs that all too often divide us.
And these space tourism flights are just one way that more and more people will have an OE experience. Science, too, will benefit from these flights, and new discoveries will increase our understanding of the Earth-Space relationship and help us appreciate that human activity in space is a vital part of our stewardship of our home planet.
The Suborbital Applications Research Group (SARG), a coordination and advisory committee of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, was recently established to facilitate suborbital science. While the current emphasis is on the hard sciences, as the pace of suborbital flights increases and more and more passengers and scientists publicly discuss their experiences, I expect to see the "soft" sciences (sociology, psychology, philosophy, etc.) and faith/religion studies represented in the near future.
While Neil Armstrong's giant leap was a recognition of the distance traveled, the next giant leap will reflect the increasing numbers of those who travel.