These were the sort of transcendental moments we might hope to enjoy when we book a trip for adventure. But what they all had in common was some unanticipated ingredient. They relied on serendipity, whether in the form of weather conditions or animal idiosyncrasy. The high-flown emotions they triggered — the sorts that manifest in goose bumps, sometimes even tears — came unbidden.
Some occasions, by contrast, when I didn’t feel awe: gorilla tracking in Uganda, seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre amid a jostling crowd of people taking photos of it with their mobile phones, every safari I’ve ever been on. These experiences were certainly noteworthy. But they were far from sublime.
Space tourism belongs to this subset of ostensibly awesome experiences that often feel anticlimactic precisely because they come with a promise of awe factored in.
For one thing, space tourists probably embark with a pretty good simulation of the experience already imprinted on their minds. Westernized and space curious, clients of the new space tourism outfits will have watched the modern canon of astronautical drama, including “Gravity” and “Interstellar.” In preflight training, they will have been drilled and prepped for every moment they will spend in suborbit. The sense of surprise that is arguably the most vital precondition for experiencing awe will have been watered down by the months of forethought and demystification.
Often, the problem is simply one of context. Do you have any preconceived expectations about the experience? How exposed are you to the thing you’re observing? Is the activity ethically fraught? These potential distractions might seem incidental. But they all have the potential to obstruct our ability to enjoy an authentic communion with the sublime.
It’s the difference between joining a 20-strong organized tour to see the Northern Lights and, say, camping alone in some Scandinavian wilderness and being roused from your tent by the aurora’s spectral green ripples illuminating the canvas. The first will be nice, even memorable. You will take pretty photos and get lots of hearts on Instagram. The second could make you feel that you have been touched by grace.
The scientific study of awe is still in its infancy, but this awe junkie’s intuition is supported by a growing body of research. “One of the most striking discoveries in our 15 years of studying awe is how often it involves finding the extraordinary in the ordinary: a friend’s generosity to a homeless person in the streets, looking at a leafy tree’s play of light and shadow on a sidewalk,” said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley and the author of a book on awe set for release next year.