Virtual reality technologies have given rise to a new breed of space travel, enabling touring of cosmic environments without leaving the Earth. These tours democratize participation in space tourism and expand its itineraries – reproducing while also altering the practices of tourism itself. The chapter explores the ways in which they alter modes of establishing “authentic” tourism destinations and experiences, rendering outer space into a stage for the performance of space travel, while themselves facilitating novel avenues for its social organization and technological assertion. Virtual space tourism not only reflects the progression and metamorphoses in tourist practice and production but also has the potential to influence both the aspirations and prospects of our space futures.
Damjanov, K. and Crouch, D. (2019), "Virtual Reality and Space Tourism", Space Tourism (Tourism Social Science Series, Vol. 25), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 117-137. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1571-504320190000025007Download as .RIS
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During 2016, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida offered the public exclusive tours of Mars. Rather than launching its visitors into orbit and space-shipping them to the neighboring planet, its exhibition space was transformed into a Martian landscape. However, there was no rusty red dust covering the ground, the hazy pink skies did not appear overhead, and there was no sudden drop in temperature or atmospheric pressure. Instead, the room became part of the virtual reality (VR) installation Destination: Mars (2016). Visitors were individually fitted with a headset which enabled them to “walk into” a realistic 3D simulation of the red planet. Wearing the Microsoft HoloLens, they were able to experience an augmented or mixed reality in which a virtual rendition of imagery collected by the sensory apparatus of the Curiosity rover was overlaid upon the layout of the exhibition space, allowing them to experience the sensation of moving through an alien environment. This was enabled by the adaptation of software called OnSight, originally co-developed by Microsoft and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to support Curiosity’s operations by aiding the rover’s command in analyzing terrain and determining pathways.
The sightseers followed Curiosity’s tracks and were led through several Martian sites by a digital holographic projection of astronaut Buzz Aldrin and rover driver Erisa Hines from Jet Propulsion Laboratory; they toured the key scientific activities and discoveries that make it possible for the visitors to “be there.” Through Destination: Mars terrestrial space tourists shared an “immersive” interaction with the landscape of another planet (see Chapter 2 for discussion of terrestrial space tourism). While unique, this experience of touring places in outer space from the Earth is becoming increasingly common; this VR attraction set on Mars signposts far wider developments in VR technologies, in the practice and production of tourism and in the nature of space travel.
Destination: Mars is just one of the many virtual tours that feature outer space in their itineraries. There is an increasing host of VR packages that offer forms of tourism set beyond the globe. They span a range of destinations, proposing journeys across our solar system and beyond – from a 3D Virtual Tour of the International Space Station to StarTracker VR – Mobile Sky Map (2016), which enables its user to “dive into a 3D star field” (2016, n.p.). Generated from the imagery and data gathered through the enterprise of space exploration, these tours combine diverse virtual interfaces with equipment such as goggles and headsets, wands, data gloves, and head-mounted displays to provide immersive simulations of environments in which to move, see, and interact with virtual artefacts. A range of them can be accessed through desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and gaming consoles at home or while on move. Others are presented at public forums for group experiences such as Destination: Mars, or Lockheed Martin’s Mars Experience (2017), which transformed a school bus into a setting for a trip to Mars, its windows acting as the screens through which to experience a virtual journey on the red planet. Increasingly “out there” in their varied forms, these virtual tours not only register a popular interest in outer space, but also suggest the emergence of a distinct form of space tourism – one which harnesses the intermediation of technologies, the synthesizing possibilities of VR, and our collective aspiration toward outer space.
The proliferation of these remote space tours emerges from ongoing developments in VR technologies. Since hesitant beginnings in the late twentieth century, VR technology has grown significantly in scale. Advances in hardware and software – in particular the rise of affordable domestic headsets such as Google Cardboard, Microsoft HoloLens, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, and Oculus Rift – have brought VR to the masses, providing what they describe as “fully immersive” experiences “with realistic graphics, directional audio and HD haptic feedback” (HTC Vive, n.d., n.p.). Propelled by ever-present market forces, the consumption of virtual realities has become an everyday activity for many, with “reaches far beyond gaming and entertainment” (Scolaro, 2016, n.p.), and it is anticipated that consumer spending on VR will grow from “$108.8 million in 2014 to $21.8 billion worldwide by 2020” (Ewalt, 2015, n.p.).
The virtual tour has thus far emerged as one of the most noteworthy and popular forms of VR application; tourism industries themselves increasingly incorporate them in order to market their products, to inspire consumers, and to enhance their experience of certain destinations. However, VR is used not only as a means of attracting visitors to museums, galleries, noteworthy places and panoramas, or particular hotels and resorts, but also as a form of tourism itself. Its purview is to give a preview of a destination, and also to enable an intrinsic kind of “armchair” travel. VR tours have increased not only the overall numbers of those who can be considered “tourists”, but also the display of destinations exponentially – their synthetic worlds now even take the users to locations that they would otherwise be unable to visit, places which are expensive, dangerous, or impossible to reach. It is no surprise, then, that outer space is one of the key directions being taken by the evolving courses of virtual tourism. It is an inhuman environment, financially and logistically inaccessible to most, and thus far very few have toured it. Set in outer space, the VR tour promises the experience of traveling its expanses while never leaving the Earth. As a means of exploring the cosmos, it might thus also indicate the evolution of space travel, in general, and of space tourism in particular.
The design of these armchair tours emerges from transactions between the hard-science and creative industries which gather around the exotica of outer space to provide novel, virtual modes of its exploration. VR technologies are prominently used for astronaut-training simulations and a range of space activities such as scientific research, planning, and aerospace engineering. For example, a HoloLens aboard the ISS is used to “provide virtual aid to astronauts” (NASA, 2015, n.p.), augmenting procedures with holographic images superimposed onto objects the astronaut is interacting with and allowing those on the Earth to “see from an astronaut’s point-of-view and send them drawings and other visual instructions on how to complete tasks” (Franzen, 2016, n.p.).
NASA has developed various VR applications designed to advance and bolster space endeavors, such as systems that assist “scientists in planning rover drives and even holding meetings on Mars” and make “studying Martian geology as intuitive as turning your head and walking around” (NASA, 2017a, 2017b, n.p.). These virtual advances in outer space are increasingly finding their way into public culture. Destination: Mars (2016), for instance, was not only adapted from the VR set-up used in Mars operations, but after its time as an attraction in Florida, it was further re-developed into a freely available application – Access Mars: A WebVR Experiment (2017), which now allows “anyone with an Internet connection [to] take a guided tour of what […] scientists experience” (NASA, 2017a, 2017b, n.p.). Part of an interest in outer space and its exploration more broadly – transposed from the fields of science to the marketplace – such products have, in other words, opened up the cosmos as a public tourist domain. Combining educational and entertainment content with the novelty of virtual environments, they contribute to the gradual domestication of outer space and the socialization of its exploration – moving space tourism from the province of the very few, into the realm of the masses.
VR tours set in outer space are the outcome of ongoing innovations in informatics, media, and communication technologies that have been profoundly altering the domain of tourism. Facilitating the production, circulation, and consumption of tourist sights and experiences, these developments have not only complemented, but also increasingly constituted, the registers of travel. These technologic conditions have created a situation in which tourist experiences are no longer only contained within classic modes of travel but also exist as an experience of “simulated mobility through the incredible fluidity of multiple signs and electronic images” (Urry, 1995, p. 148). As part of this, VR augments tourism. The VR experience is equated with tourist experiences, contributing to a more general movement which conflates real and representational spaces, meaning places are not “fixed or given”, but “emerge as ‘tourist places’” when they are “assembled” or “produced through networked mobilities of capital, persons, objects, signs and information” – as “places to play” (Urry & Larsen, 2011, p. 119). At the same time, VR tours of space extend the arena of tourism beyond the confines of the globe, affording the experience of space travel for all. As part of the new socio-spatial interface that complicates distinctions between home and away, the presence and the absence, authentic and staged (Hannam, Butler, & Paris, 2014), they amplify the metamorphoses that technologic advances have conferred upon tourist modes and suggest the prospective forms they may take.
The effects of VR space tourism are many and varied, and their repercussions are yet to be established. VR itself is still an emerging medium, and extraterrestrial tours still an undeveloped manner of travel. However, our primary aim in this chapter is to review the recent and current forms of virtual space tours in their nascent stages, to chart their proliferation and growing sophistication by providing examples of their different manifestations, emphases, and the range of locations they include in their itineraries. We consider how these synthetic spaces transpose the practice of touring into outer space, explore how virtual space travel might influence the constitution of our “touristic” disposition, and suggest some of the changes that VR space tours appear to introduce into the broad motivations undergirding our desire to “go beyond.”
Outlining the range of “immersive” experiences offered to VR space tourists, we suggest that this medium not only appears to widen the stage upon which we are able to perform the role of tourist – elongating its acquisitive gaze and complicating its prerequisites of physical presence – but also contributes to the greater mapping of outer space as a tourist site. We close with a brief consideration of the potential limitations and future possibilities of virtual tourism in outer space, reflecting upon the ways in which these tours technologically extend the tourist into the spectacle of space exploration as well as reveal a social and organizational capacity to influence the direction of space tourism and also our collective aspirations in outer space – to determine, in other words, the very conditions of how we approach, arrange, conquer, or acquire, new places to travel.
Virtual Reality Experiences of Space Tourism
Accelerations of interest and investment in progressing the itineraries of space tourism and the capacity and applications of VR technologies have rendered outer space into an infinitively travelable site. While the journeys of the very few tourists who have ventured beyond the globe have consisted mostly of visits to the ISS, the affordances of VR are permitting space travel into myriad other destinations, supplying tours of popular celestial bodies such as the Moon and Mars or more exotic locations such as the planet “40 light years away” featured in NASA VR: On the Surface of Planet TRAPPIST-1d (2017, n.p.). VR technologies have the potential to change not only the entertainment industries, information consumption, and the mobility of the masses, but also the way we interact with the world. If on the Earth, virtual travel enables “transcending geographical and often social distance through information and communications technology” (Szerszynski & Urry, 2006, p. 116), set in outer space, it “transcends” the terrestrial geographies of this world, redefining the ambits of tourism and our relationship with outer space. VR space tours compound the novelties of a virtual environment and space travel; this amalgam, in which both form and content appear new and different, gives birth to a tourist who is part of a “culture of flows” and the hybrid “spaces of ‘in-betweenness’” (Rojek & Urry, 1997, p. 11). However, the question that continues to undergird “virtual tourism” (and the idea of simulated travel and movement more generally) concerns the authenticity of the experience itself; as a setting, outer space only further complicates this uncertain and undecided purview.
What we know of the experience of space travel can only be garnered from the limited records of people who can claim first-hand experience, but what we do know of outer space is that it is essentially an inhuman environment, a place in which our presence is both restricted to temporary sojourns and necessarily sustained by technology, where all humans are in effect tourists. By crafting an interpretation of outer space based upon the wealth of techno-scientific data generated through its observation and exploration, VR tours strive to simulate a realistic sense of presence “out there”, attempting to bring their audiences as closely as possible to the cosmos without having to leave the Earth. But there are limits to this, and there are as yet no “genuine” replications of inhuman space environments as VR experiences. While a VR gaming simulation like Adr1ft (2016) might realistically recreate the “nauseating” and enclosed sensation of floating in zero gravity in a spacesuit, it disregards most of the physics and atmospheric effects of outer space – which ultimately undercuts the illusion of real presence that it sets out to establish. Similarly, Destination: Mars (2016) makes it possible to “walk on Mars” in the steps of rovers without the need for oxygen or any thought given to the effects of radiation or a different surface gravity; the authenticity of the experience wavers at the realization that Mars is a place where we cannot be without technological artifice. Yet, it is perhaps also the realization of this utter reliance upon technologies that returns a certain authenticity to the prosthetic VR experience.
While travel in outer space means surrounding yourself in a “bubble” of mediating technologies, touring in VR is an immersion in a technologically created digital environment. In this sense, VR technology could be a suitable substitute for real space travel; technological necessity makes the experience of one continuous with the other. That said, VR space tours are nonetheless consistently concerned with their own presentation or performance of a “real” experience. What the VR industry categorizes under the de facto term experiences are packaged and presented as interactive real-time simulations. For example, a variety of space apps offered through Oculus like Hello Mars (2017) and its rendition of the “7 minutes of terror” landing sequence “created strictly based on NASA’s public data & research” (Oculus, 2018a), Solar System (2015) in which one “can almost feel the structure of distant planets and moons under the feet” (Oculus, 2018b, n.p.), or Discovering Space 2 (2017), which lets one “[e]xperience the mood and atmosphere of worlds far away from home” (Oculus, 2018c, n.p.) – are all (among many others) marketed as in some way “realistic” experiences. This authenticity is, however, produced through their design – the hardware and software that they rely upon becoming a necessary part of the equation, influencing questions of perception, imitation, and reality. These mimetic environments are increasing in sophistication, becoming more precise, more accurate, but also more able to trick the eyes and mind, and at the same time, they are becoming more accepted as legitimate sites of social practice and authentic interaction.
If the “touristic consciousness is motivated by its desire for authentic experiences” (MacCannell, 2013, p. 101), then the consciousness of the VR tourist complicates our conceptions of what is authentic and reopens questions of what is “real” experience. It is an experience of travel that occurs only through the simulation of presence and interaction with a synthetic environment, and while tourists might “enter” these “tourist areas precisely because their experiences there will not, for them, be routine”, they perhaps cast aside “a quest for authentic experiences, perceptions and insights” (MacCannell, 2013, p. 106). While their authenticity might be wholly “staged” (MacCannell, 2013, p. 91), VR tours nonetheless concentrate a distinct form of what Wang describes as the “activity-related situation” of “existential authenticity” (1999, p. 350). Unconcerned with originals and lacking physical substance – but also not entirely the “constructed” product of the imagination – the forms of authenticity that VR tourism navigates are related to both individual activity and technical fidelity rather than the original aura, or the symbolic “social construction” of certain “objects” (Wang, 1999, p. 352). The authenticity here instead lies in the VR experience of space itself – and the validity of a mediated experience, whereby our sense of presence is established through technology. As Wang points out, the emotive experience of something as authentic is not merely an “effect” that “necessarily entails, coincides with, or results from the epistemological experience of a ‘real’ world out there” (1999, pp. 350, 352, 351); the experience accords with particular ways of relating to and encountering things.
VR tourists in space do not wander about as if they were in a museum, captivated by the experience of being in the presence of authentic things, nor do they feel the weight of places made, constructed, judged, or authorized as authentic; rather than questions of “whether and how the toured objects are authentic”, the “existential experience” of this mode of tourism “involves personal or intersubjective feelings activated by the liminal process of tourist activities” (Wang, 1999, p. 351) themselves. As a product of “contrivance” (Cohen, 1995), the VR experience is then in part a projection of the tourist self onto the technologic possibilities of the medium – incorporation of new conducts of experiencing the world. Synthesizing elaborate “non-places” (Augé, 1995, p. 78) that convey the impression of being both “everywhere and nowhere”, VR enacts a placelessness characteristic of digital environments – the world as information exchanges and mediated spaces – an experience of “post-place.” Suggesting “the interdependencies” and “increasing convergence” between “changes in physical movement and in electronic communications” (Hannam, Sheller, & Urry, 2006, p. 4), it offers the “assemblage” (Germann Molz & Paris, 2015, p. 175) of tourist places – and new constructions or conceptions of spatial experience, that might require new notions of place. In this sense, VR itself might eventually define our experience of the extraterrestrial – a suggestion which only prompts further questions of how tourist experiences of “pre-prepared realities” might come to express our collective sense of occupation and moving in place and space.
While VR itself complicates the geographical nature of tourism, VR in outer space adds still more problematics to the idea that tourist practice involves material experience, a corporeal sense of presence. If real tourism is about “being there” – about a material, bodily experience of physical things – “to be there oneself”, as Urry and Larsen describe, “is what is crucial in most tourism” (2011, p. 21) – then the disembodied simulacra of virtual space can offer little in the way of a “real tourist experience.” In virtual tourism in outer space those things which are said to drive the urge to physically travel to particular places – such as Urry’s (2007) notions of “corporeal proximity” and “compulsion to proximity” – appear to be subsumed by the practices of digital reproduction, duplication, and the screen-based cultures and customs of contemporary information and media technologies. This is not to say that VR erases the need for physical space or replaces bodily experience with something that is purely immaterial. All forms of VR space tours necessitate some material provisions (involving the bodies of tourists and often-cumbersome equipment) and occur in certain physical spaces, but this terrestrial arrangement is only a stage itself, set to be overlaid with virtualizations of data and images designed to mingle with and manipulate the senses.
VR space tours incorporate various virtualization techniques to simulate as-immersive-as-possible environments and enhance a sense of presence. For example, Lockheed Martin’s Mars Experience (2017) includes a gigantic Martian dust storm with atmospheric effects added to the transparent HD displays that filled the windows of the moving school bus. While VR presence is still primarily evoked through sight, such experiences also involve haptic controls, vibrating grips, analog joysticks, rolling balls, buttons and triggers; while “touch controllers” provide “intuitive hand presence in VR – the feeling that your virtual hands are actually your own” (Oculus Rift, 2018, n.p.), a set of sensors track and translate the movement of the body into VR. VR equipment is hand-controlled and “hands on” (adding kinds of tactility into the activity and experience of navigation). There have been many other examples in which bodily sensation is blended with virtual imagery: experiments visually enhancing the experience of weightlessness accompanying human space travel, for instance, the EarthlightVR (2017) display, which used HTC Vive in combination with visual and tactile effects to simulate the experience of spaceflight training. VR tourisms are increasingly directed toward different forms of sensing the external world and indicate the potential to become truly multisensorial. However, their fusion between the body and technology suggests a new kind of “sensorium”, a new medium of sensory experience that suits a place of expanded optics and multiple, manipulable gravities. Encouraging an intertwining of the tourist and technology, virtual travel in space validates “accounts of tourism as embodied, multi-sensuous and technologized performances” (Muecke & Wergin, 2014, p. 228), while making possible “effects and sensations that would otherwise be beyond human experience” (Haldrup & Larsen, 2006, p. 285). Grounded in what Virilio describes as an “innovation of artificial vision,” these interpretations of outer space involve “delegating the analysis of objective reality to a machine” – and proliferate as a symptom of “the new industrialization of vision” and the “growth of a veritable market in synthetic perception” (1994, p. 59).
If authenticity itself no longer appears as an objective quality, then it too is only ever constructed. In VR, the quest for real experiences of exotic places becomes the quest for places that are well-staged (minutely stage-managed as “authentic experience”). This substitution is in part legitimated through social constructions but also in the pleasures of reflexive play and the coded “enjoyment” of digital “surfaces” (Cohen, 1995). However, as Wang describes, once something “is turned into a kind of tourist activity, it constitutes an alternative source of authenticity” (1999, p. 359). When constructed in outer space, these “alternative authenticities” are again re-framed, and through the technologies of VR, the act of substitution becomes a form of compensation, a matter of surrogate activity.
Using a prepared and prearranged choreography, VR tours offer an optical, symbolic, sensorial, and above all potentially “enchanting experience” (Bærenholdt, 2016, p. 407). This is what Bærenholdt describes as “a relational accomplishment that requires both the performance of visiting ‘experiencers’ and the affordance of the spatial design of the place and artefacts visited” (2016, p. 407). While individually negotiating their experiences, virtual space tourists themselves become involved in processes structuring the “emerging authenticity” (Cohen, 1988) of extraterrestrial destinations and ultimately “authenticate” tourist places beyond the Earth. If authenticity is performative (Wang, 1999; Zhu, 2012) and “connective” (Bærenholdt, 2016, p. 400), then the “immersion” of VR itself becomes a process of what Cohen and Cohen (2012a, 2012b) call “authentication.” This is not a matter of discerning truth, but instead, as Bærenholdt puts it, an awareness of the play of “real-fake tensions” (2016, p. 401). From this perspective, the experiences of VR tours are “authenticated” as the toured objects and sites are experienced as “real”, despite an awareness of the illusion that underlies them. A tourist in virtual outer space might “almost delight in inauthenticity”, knowing “that there is no authentic tourist experience” (Urry, 1995, p. 140), neither on the Earth nor outside it.
While tourism might transform “authentic” spaces into settings suitable for its ongoing operation, the extraplanetary environment has no “ordinary flow of life” or any “natural texture of the host society” to reflect, and thus its authenticity is one which is entirely “reconstructed, landscaped, cleansed of unsuitable elements, staged, managed, and otherwise organized” (Cohen, 1972, p. 170). While VR presents a state that is perhaps “more real than reality” (a reality beyond the mundane, an ultra-real experience composed of more than mere simulation), the tourist experience itself is not independent of the ordinary world. As space tourism, VR might be technically inflected fantasy, but as Wang puts it, “such a fantasy is a real one – it is a fantastic feeling. Despite being a subjective (or intersubjective) feeling, it is real to a tourist and thus accessible to him or her in tourism” (1999, p. 360). Because any space travel itself requires an “environmental bubble,” VR products that offer to technologically extend the tourist’s “generalized interest in things beyond” (Cohen, 1972, p. 165) are thus made part of the practice and production of tourism and recognized as genuine experiences within its registers.
Staging Tourist Sites
Virtual space tours emerge from our relative absence beyond the planet. Although the humans who venture off the Earth have only been as far as the Moon, ever-increasing portions of outer space have already been well charted and mapped, scrutinized and classified with increasing detail, including areas in which no human has yet arrived. Our progressively sophisticated digital maps of extraterrestrial space (which are virtual spaces in themselves) are inscribed with cartographic symbols, names of topographical features, celestial objects, formations and events, discovery dates and the courses of past missions, suggesting points of human interest, or at least human bearing, and marking out our exploratory ventures into space. Outer space in this sense appears as a destination already plotted with tourist itineraries, with the equivalent of brochures, postcards, and travel information.
VR space tours develop directly from these extrapolations of space exploration; they are set in a pre-emptively coded space and themselves “package” it for consumption. As such, they may afford the impression that everything has been done already – a virtual environment accessed hundreds of thousands of times might not elicit a sense of discovery or suggest the experience of exploring the untouched territory. Yet, it is in this pre-ordained process that places are marked as and become tourist destinations, complete with identifiable spots to visit, routes to follow, sights to see, and sites to consume. Through naming attractions, plotting tours, selectively presenting and manipulating inviting images of significant places, and providing celebrity guides as “points of contact”, VR tours preset outer space for all the practices and performances that tourism might involve. Incorporated into virtual realities, specific locations like craters on Mars or the Moon, technologies like Curiosity and the ISS, and figures like Buzz Aldrin, themselves become crucial, recognizable, navigational coordinates which are vital for preserving the tourist bubble in a space otherwise mostly empty of recognizable human “signs.”
Rendering outer space into a tourist site, VR tours offer new ways of looking (fresh and multiple perspectives on place) through a combination of advancing imaging and data visualization techniques and the cutting-edge optics of space exploration; they suggest new formations and reconstitutions of what is called the “tourist gaze” (Urry, 2002; Urry & Larsen, 2011). In VR, vision is penultimate, the ability to see is still equated with the freedom to move – a mobile gaze is made to move through the VR environment, but there is often the chance to choose destinations as they appear, to zoom in upon locations at will. The emphasis on sight in these journeys confers new possibilities on the embodied tourist gaze (Urry & Larsen, 2011). It is these possibilities in particular which are exploited and encouraged by VR space tourism.
Using information “disembodied” in signal transmissions and re-embodied through a gaze that is situated in place via technology, VR tours of space return elements of sensory, bodily experience to something that would otherwise remain abstract. For example, the current prevalence of “360-degree” excursions into space locations employ state-of-the-art video technology and the omnidirectional format in order to provide panoramic studies of optical vertigo such as the European Space Agency’s Space Station 360 (2016) tour of the ISS. Many of these provide the tourist an imaginary viewpoint, but often also take on the view of particular humans and technologies in space. Russia Today’s panoramic 360-degree video tours of modules of the ISS (best watched through a VR headset) are taken from the perspectives of astronauts such as Andrey Borisenko, and applications like Access Mars (2017) involves the tourist “walking on Mars” by adopting in part Curiosity’s view and using its optical apparatus to navigate. Offering perspectives anchored by particular people or devices, VR productions of tourism in space strive to make places like Mars feel both individual and familiar (to give it a human bearing). In other words, they are another way to mark or make it accessible to humans. Collecting information as a kind of experience, the gaze of the tourist is “embodied” in the VR environment, and thus these tours are able to duly deliver the tourist into the broader spectacle of space exploration.
Beyond the limited range and vision of human space activities, VR space tours are also able to provide impossible spectacles, inhuman perspectives, standpoints that are alien, and unfamiliar (even for space technologies such as rovers). For example, Titans of Space 2.0 (2016) promises to take audiences on “a ride” across an “authentic miniature Solar System” with “accurate visuals” of “over 40 celestial bodies” and the chance to “squint your eyes in the intense light of a few of the largest known stars” (Oculus, 2018e, n.p.). These tours offer the inhuman ability to fly, dart in very near, and out very far, to jump vast divides and move around huge objects. They provide a God-like omniscient vision through which one can see not only what individual technologies and missions have been able to record but also a composition of what space exploration has been able to grasp. The visual experience of tourism is thus in a way heightened in virtual realities of outer space, given dimensions, capacities, and emphasis which not only exercise, but enhance, the tourist gaze. These synthetic environments both compound the image-saturation of tourism and tourist practice and perpetuate its dependence upon spectacle. If the tourist gaze is a performative gaze, and VR vision is likewise part of a performance and if space exploration itself performs our ability to “see” beyond our planet, then the kind of performance delivered in VR space tours involves a very particular set of practices that relocate and replace the touring body “out of this world.”
VR experiences involve performing the “tourist” itself, requiring a space traveler to perform their own experience. But outer space is nearly empty of tourist activities. In reality, there is little to do in space: no hotels or restaurants to try or museums to explore. Striving for realism and similitude, however, these applications avoid elements of fantasy. They, for example, include no encounters with aliens or other life forms (see also Chapter 3). Instead, like all forms of tourism, they provide some form of structuring narrative to additionally augment a tourist experience. For example, the BBC’s award-winning Home: A VR Spacewalk (2017), which is based on NASA spaceflight training simulations, combines “a compelling narrative with multisensory technologies like haptics and biofeedback”, opening up the “emerging possibilities of interactive storytelling” (Melcher, cited in REWIND, 2018, n.p.) that “puts you at the center of the story, taking you on an emotional and personal journey while delivering beautiful, heart-stopping, and memorable moments” (REWIND, 2018, n.p.).
VR tours use varied forms of narrative to immerse the tourist into space exploration. Sometimes, they even assign specific roles and tasks such as in the “NASA approved”, “VR experience” Mars 2030 (2017), which involves “taking on the role of an astronaut” in order to traverse “Mars and collect geological samples that uncover the planet’s past” (Fusion Media Group, 2017, n.p.). Similarly, Home: A VR Spacewalk (2017) creates an experience “that’ll put you in the (space) shoes of astronauts like Tim Peake” (Svetlik, 2017, n.p.), and Mission: ISS (2017) lets the users “learn how to move and work in zero-gravity” (Oculus, 2018d, n.p.), while Access Mars (2017) and the “free drive” function of Experience Curiosity (2015) put the tourist in control of space technologies like rovers. Placing VR tourists as space explorers – whether human or non-human – these roles and characterizations indicate narrative performances designed to enhance the development of an extraplanetary imaginary. However, the narrative forms of these space tours only operate within the multiple yet “fixed” settings of outer space, and there are only certain roles available to perform.
The possibilities for action and activity in a VR space environment are determined by the particularities of its digital simulation. In other words, they are “already decided by both the technical procedures and social organization of their terrestrial ‘moorings’” (Damjanov & Crouch, 2018, p. 7). Whether it be a matter of just passing by, casually observing various nebulae and a constellation or two, or doing more interactive activities such as “docking cargo capsules, conducting spacewalks, using tools for maintenance” (Singletary, 2017, n.p.), the field of possible action has already been mapped and calculated. Even when set in the future, places are pre-plotted and pre-programmed. For example, Mars 2030 (2017), featuring “40 square kilometers of open Martian terrain, accurately mapped and modeled using NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE satellite data” (Fusion Media Group, 2017, n.p.) allows one to wander Mars with the “displays for your suit and rover” showing “biometric data and life support gauges to add authenticity to the experience” (Moon, 2017, n.p.). It includes a precise set of tasks rehearsing a performance or story of inhabiting Mars: “collect samples and then analyze them under the virtual microscope in your habitat that’s designed after an actual NASA concept for the first Mars-bound spacefarers” and then follow the steps to “beam your findings back to Earth like a real astronaut would” (Moon, 2017, n.p.). The scripted form of these interactions means that these “performances” are highly regimented by what is known about space but also by our aspirations toward space. Although these tourist experiences are staged in a pre-emptively plotted outer space and require additional inscriptions of it as a tourist site, they themselves pre-plot the future direction of space exploration, envisioning its settings, actors, and actions. While doing so, they mimic and also delimit and condition (even perhaps predetermine) the way our futures in space might proceed.
Virtual Reality Futures of Space Travel
The ability to access virtual environments which afford the sensation of “being there” in space stems from the material and social conditions underpinning the interrelated momentum of technological innovation, the evolution of tourism, and the progress of space exploration. At the same time, the extension of space travel through accessible VR technologies also transforms it into a social, everyday practice – into a form of touristic “conquest” of new domains which may itself shape the circumstances from which it emerges. VR space tours underpin, in other words, what Lefebrve calls the “historical problematic of conquests” (2004, p. 97), as it now begins to appear beyond the globe.
Through their choreography of science and technology, education and entertainment, experience and exploration, they reframe conquest as forms of mediated and momentary occupation, giving a new direction to its unfolding in outer space. If the contemporary practice of tourism is now something constituted from “a complex ‘assemblage’ of bodies, mobilities, portable technologies, concrete infrastructures, networked spaces, and virtual places in which the social and the technological are mutually determined” (Germann Molz & Paris, 2015, p. 176), then VR tourism in space extends these terrestrial “assemblages” into potentially infinite space beyond the globe. However, these applications also maintain tourism as a social practice within space that is otherwise empty of relational activity. Thus, they not only reflect terrestrial socio-technical aggregations of tourism, but also elongate them outside the globe, and in doing so also indicate the potential for different kinds of tourist, new ways of seeing, performing and feeling places, new organizations of human movement and extraplanetary mobility. The ways in which these tours and tourists are incorporated in our exploratory agendas surrounding outer space might then inform how we domesticate its technologically driven “conquest.”
Just as real space tourism is beginning to be more organized on the Earth through companies such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX – which promote and promise future tourist visits to the ISS and suborbital and orbital flights, signposting a potential mass form of space tourism – this is also true of VR space tours. Like in real space tourism, where a set of key players are already emerging, the organization, the direction, emphasis, and possibilities of the VR space tourism sector is decided by their producers – the tech companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, which develop particular itineraries and certain experiences. There are already attempts to impose familiar, “terrestrial” ways of organizing mass forms of tourism on the practices of VR tourists in outer space, undertakings to arrange and dispose its varied itineraries. For example, The Intergalactic Travel Bureau VR (2017) app suggests a traditional and frank (albeit satiric) way to order space tours: through the institution of the “tourist agency.” It is designed around a variety of tailored tours and adopts forms of organized mass tourism reminiscent of the tourist “junket” or all-in-one group vacations. This further asserts narratives of tourism into the broader experience of VR space tours, alongside certain forms of sociality. What this suggests is that the production and organization of these VR space tours might eventually become part of a potential struggle around the broader “representation” of outer space – that the rights to VR space tourism will in part involve the right to imagine human itineraries, experiences, and prospects in space. Their location outside the Earth does not preclude them from terrestrial matters of power and control. The image-politics and strategies of representation of VR space tourism have the potential to manipulate the masses’ perspectives on outer space, and thus may influence our more concrete approaches to it. Whether outer space becomes a site of “cosmic commodities” (Cubitt, 1998, p. 68), may be in part resolved as a matter of tourism or, more precisely, as part of the extension of the organization of tourism through VR space travel.
Although VR space tours are in a way a democratization of space travel, whereby the cosmos is organized and laid out as a visual, interactive story for the masses, these products are still very much made by the elite and for the elite. Their tourists are perhaps a different kind of elite. They are not only tech-savvy and “at home” at a digital interface but, perhaps more importantly, those who can afford the time and equipment (or the entry fee) needed to roam synthetic galaxies. Thus, they also imply a different kind of tourist with different tourist imaginaries and appetites. Casting the “complex assemblage” of tourism out into space even before real tourists can properly reach it, they register what Johnson and Martin call the “anticipated futures of space tourism” (2016, p. 135). Catering for both the VR elite and the “emergent” VR tourist, these space tours both widen the scope of possibilities for evolving concepts and practices, such as “personal spaceflight”, “citizen space exploration”, and also encourage a far broader vision to emerge: one that involves emancipatory kinds of space travel, formed from a more individualistic, lifestyle-oriented model. Travel in VR might sharpen and give three-dimensional form to “the imaginative visioning” of real space tourism: the imaginaries “of eventual passengers, and their mobilities, that is co-produced with industry representatives and stakeholders” (Johnson & Martin, 2016, p. 148). It extends these imaginaries of exploration and future travel through the mediation of techno-enhanced social performances of tourism. These tours enable us to envision human prospects far into space (rehearsing and reflecting the desires and aspirations encouraged and engendered by space industry stakeholders) but they also present a new instrument for the manipulation and management of human imagination and aspiration.
VR tours extend the general participation of the masses in space exploration. They help conceive it as a collective endeavor (even if this is only an “elite” segment of the masses). They do allow a far broader group of people to participate in the scientific exploration of outer space. Programs such as Access Mars (2017), which was originally designed for NASA research into the topography of the Gale Crater, enables a wholly mass-tourist-orientated “experience” of the virtual modes of space exploration used by science. This tendency toward encouraging citizen space exploration and “citizen science” is likely to evolve and will just as likely involve VR users participating even more closely in space exploration through popular strategies of “crowdsourcing” the collective intelligence to aid scientific research. The SpaceVR project, for example, has elaborate plans for further integrating VR technologies with space exploration in the near future. Starting with launching 360-degree VR cameras that will “feed footage from low earth orbit back to Earth”, they aim to create the “world’s 1st Virtual Reality (VR) satellite, delivering Cinematic, Live, Virtual Space Tourism”, in which “consumers can experience space travel in immersive virtual reality” and through which “anyone can explore the universe” (SpaceVR). While such plans are indicative of the “consumption” of space by VR, they also have the potential to both further the democratization of space exploration and heighten our collective immersion in it, potentially enabling everyone to be involved in its techno-scientific “conquest”.
While VR tours of outer space could soon occur in real time and be concurrent with space exploration, they already extend into its prospective futures. Usually, space tourists arrive at a location after it has already been surveyed by professional explorers. For example, it is only after years of occupation by astronauts who are officially designated as the “envoys” of humans in space that tourists are permitted to visit the ISS. VR tourists, however, are not only able to retrace the routes of an astronaut’s exploration, surveying the territory after it has been conquered, they are themselves also able to participate as our envoys in space. Our Martian futures, for instance, are frequently portrayed by VR tourism, anticipating various scenarios regarding our presence on the planet. Mars 2030 (2017) imagines a future astronaut “habitat”, while Mars 2117 (2017) envisions even more distant futures and projects the United Arab Emirates’ plans to “build the first settlement on Mars” through a “virtual illustration of what life might look like” (Hale, 2017, n.p.). Although both present different visions of Martian futures and perhaps anticipate different forms of its conquest, they also bestow their users with the distinction of being our envoys on the red planet. In this process, they also stake a claim to the future tourist imaginaries of Mars, to a particular image and interpretation of how our interactions with other worlds will unfold.
In addition to these future scenarios, there are more practical and immediate plans to integrate VR technologies into real space tourism. For example, in prospective suborbital tourism, spaceflight will provide the effects of weightlessness but not offer a good view (of the Earth or of space), so tourists could be equipped with VR to extend or complete the experience (Guarino, 2015). While astronauts are already using it on the ISS, perhaps in the future tourists on the ISS or elsewhere will use goggles and VR to enhance their experience. In the creation of virtual worlds, space exploration itself merges with the tourist story. Like the “prominence of maps and geographical exploration as a narrative trope in ‘cartographic fiction’” (Leotta, 2016, n.p.), VR aids in triggering the “tourist imagination” (Crouch, Jackson, & Thompson, 2005). It’s blurring between mediums and media, the superimposition of filmic imaginaries, gaming environments, science fiction, with the realities of technology and scientific practice complements, attempts to tap its symbolic potential. Yet, on the other hand, the dominant way in which VR space tours will function in the future might not be to augment human space exploration and tourism, but as a major substitute for it.
The lived experience of space travel might not only remain too expensive for most – and be so uncomfortable, risky or boring, and the fidelity and comfort of the VR travel so high – that human travel in space would be made redundant, as it could be achieved more easily by technologies. Be that as it may, the merging of virtual and real environments of space exploration continues to develop, suggesting that it may eventually become difficult to distinguish between the two. As VR is progressively made part of the space exploration through the possibilities of real-time imaging, tele-robotics and three-dimensional printing, it also extends the aspirations for space tourism and sculpts the ways in which it evolves.
Strapped to your face, VR goggles are prone to fog; sweat can build up on the insides, which become blurred and humid, and after extended use, red marks can rim strained or sore eyes. Some virtual environments are sensitive; if one moves too fast, the fracturing images cause instant headaches. The cord that connects the system can often entangle the user’s legs, tripping them up. The visual affordances of VR tourism, its “immersive potential” and ability to simulate kinds of embodiment on other worlds, are thus “brought back” to the Earth by very material bodily requirements and discomforts. In other words, they are checked by a still-uncomfortable interface between our bodies and the material assortment of VR technologies, and by the difficulties encountered in attaching, or accommodating, the apparatus adapting virtual environments to physical space. These discomforts and problematics currently appear as limiting factors in the development of the kinds of tourist practice that we have discussed here. It should be acknowledged that VR is still a developing medium and that VR tourism in outer space is still in emerging form – and thus our commentary can only be provisional. Yet, as the global market responds to the desires and needs of an already growing population of virtual space tourists, it seems plausible to expect that along with VR hardware and software advances, these forms of travel will continue to transform and develop.
While its current modes might change (and such possibilities may already be indicated through the haptic interactivity of augmented and mixed realities), it is the immersive qualities of the VR medium which appear to offer the most potent forms of change. In the enterprise of space exploration, the physical discomforts of VR appear slight. The practical applications of not only VR technologies – but also the advantages of having so many sets of eyes able to observe and record – are many and varied. VR tech has proven useful for walking astronauts through tasks and overlaying instructions and manuals, it has also encouraged a democratic, or at least demotic, participation in the observation and exploration of outer space. For example, Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Matthew Clausen imagined that through VR there is not:
In this speculation, the whole of outer space is opened up to the surveillance by the masses and exposed to the all-seeing, armchair tourist gaze. Here VR operators would be intimately involved in not only a social performance of travel and tourism but also a performance of the greater human aspirations toward outer space.
just going to be the astronaut walking around, but there will be millions of people here on Earth that are untethered from the limitations that they have, because it will be safe for them to fly above the surface and go ahead of the astronauts and actually help them gather the data. (cited in Lewin, 2016, n.p.)
Virtual reality experiences are commonly described as “intense,” and while narrative might undergird them, VR itself is not merely a genre. The novelties of the medium itself hold potential for influencing the leisure, practice, and spaces of everyday life. As Guttentag suggests, the “guaranteed experience” (2010, p. 644) of VR tourism might offer a “substitution” for physical travel. As a replacement, it would trigger a variety of potential transformations in the ways in which we define authentic experience, establish our presence in particular places, perform our ability to move through and “capture”, and how we organize the mass exploration of unoccupied territory. While much of this potential lies in new visualizations of the social interactivity facilitated by flexible networks of digital communications, VR does not have to be a “social” technology (in the narrow sense of being a platform for socializing, for seeing, and being seen). While it has that social potential, as demonstrated by various emerging online VR chat spaces, it is also a medium which invites immersive isolation (akin to an isolation tank), a respite from the social interaction of media-saturated lives. At the same time, VR is also increasingly incorporated into highly public, location-based experiences, variants of the Destination: Mars (2016), Earthlight (2017), and the Mars Experience (2017) exhibitions discussed earlier. A future of “VR parks” suggests a different direction in the application of the medium that may indicate both the establishment of new kinds of VR tourist and a series of alternate tourist routes. Alternatively, they may fade away as the novelty wanes. In either case, VR tourisms that are set in outer space appear as a product of supplementation rather than substitution.
The social potential of VR might, however, also be seen in a quite different application of VR in space travel. Rather than transporting those on the Earth into space, it could be used by both astronauts and space tourists to entertain themselves on long or monotonous missions, distract themselves from unpleasant sensations and effects, maintain social connections, and prevent isolation. From this perspective, they could themselves tour the virtual Earth from space. The implications that virtual realities might present for tourism, travel and human mobilities, in general, remain uncertain. There appear few real consequences for the virtual space tourist: no impact is made upon a local culture or ecosystem, and there is little risk of injury or death. But while VR might remove the historically negative impressions left by tourism, it might also remove its history of adventure and imaginative potential. An enhanced and easily accessible intimacy with outer space might have the reverse effect and “extraordinary” touristic experiences might become routine, standardized, and blurred with the mundane (Cohen & Cohen, 2012a, 2012b; Guttentag, 2010). As a form of mass tourism, VR might continue the erasure of “heroic travel” (Wang, 1999, p. 352), instead offering the common people an opiate of simulated images and “pseudo-events” (Boorstin, 1964) as compensation for the adventure of real travel in space. This would remain an activity solely reserved for the elite or very rich. While separated from any real experience of outer space, VR tourists could thus be made to prefer the imitation or at least left unable to assess its authenticity. Dictated by the design of these virtual realities, the touring mass could be controlled, lulled into insensibility – the “fantasy” and “enchantment” of tourism used to compensate for a lack of real travel – for the otherwise earthbound condition of the mass.
Nonetheless, VR space tourism not only reflects the progression and metamorphoses in tourist practice and production but also has the potential to influence both the aspirations and prospects of our space futures. VR technologies may “offer new resources and new disciplines for the construction of imagined selves and imagined worlds” (Appadurai, 1996, p. 3), but this also means that virtual tourism reflects upon the wider condition and transformation of human societies and suggests that new modes of perception, interface navigation, data mapping, and the manipulation of complex three-dimensional spaces will not only become part of everyday life, but be made a measure of our general disposition toward futures beyond the planet. Alongside these changes will be attempts to capitalize upon the “tourist traffic” in outer space. The codes that dictate virtual space may also become moral or social codes, a new set of rules, classifications, and borders dictating how we approach, establish, and police the presence of tourists in outer space. In the meantime, it appears that the sophistication, supplementation, and compensations of dwelling and traveling in virtual space will progress; as this technologically mediated tourist practice not only continues to fracture into wider arrangements and rearrangements of real and imagined destinations, it may also influence the design and direction of how we move on and outside our own planet.
- Introduction The Dawn of a New Era?
- Part I Histories
- Chapter 1 Human Aspirations to Expand into Space A Historical Review
- Chapter 2 History of Space Tourism
- Part II Imaginaries
- Chapter 3 Extraterrestrial Life, Stellar Civilizations, and Aliens
- Chapter 4 Space Tourism in Contemporary Cinema and Video Games
- Chapter 5 Virtual Reality and Space Tourism
- Part III Advances
- Chapter 6 Exploring Motivations of Potential Space Tourists
- Chapter 7 Current Space Tourism Developments
- Chapter 8 The Regulation of Space Tourism
- Part IV Implications
- Chapter 9 Social Relations, Space Travel, and the Body of the Astronaut
- Chapter 10 Space Tourism, Capital, and Identity
- Chapter 11 Space Tourism, the Anthropocene, and Sustainability
- Conclusion Space Travel: The Perilous Promise
- About the Contributors