2019
Spaceship illustration
Illustration by John Devolle

On a Mission to Send 'Citizen Astronauts' to the Stars

Sending everyday people into space could change the world.

BY REBECCA ROLFES

Special people go into space. In 58 years, fewer than 570 astronauts from 37 countries, most of them highly trained scientists and aerospace professionals, have traveled to space, almost entirely through government-backed programs. Soon, probably this year, the Federal Aviation Administration will certify for-profit space travel companies and, according to industry members, special people of a different sort will be able to travel into space at $250,000 each.

However, as futurist Buckminster Fuller said, “The Earth is a spaceship,” which means that we are astronauts—all of us, not just the special people.

Ortiz Ulisses Meneses Ortiz, ’16

“If we don’t democratize space, it will be the province of the ultrawealthy,” said Ulisses Meneses Ortiz, ’16, director of international affairs at Space for Humanity, a company that intends to be that force for democratization. Space for Humanity will give 10,000 private citizens from around the world all-expenses-paid trips to space so that they can be ambassadors for space exploration and help solve some of Earth’s most intractable problems.

Space for Humanity sees itself as an education provider rather than a space travel transportation provider. The company will place passengers on spacecraft manufactured and launched by others, partnering with all available providers to allow for the greatest diversity in spaceflights. Its travelers will receive leadership training before they blast off and mentoring after they return. Would-be passengers must have a reason beyond the “way cool” motivation for wanting to go. Of the 100 or so applicants to date, almost all have terrestrial projects they want to tackle when they come back.

The question, of course, is how going into space makes you better able to solve climate change or global poverty or famine, to broker peace in war-torn countries—to, in short, make humanity more humane.

The Biggest Bigger Picture

Those who have been to space talk about the “overview effect,” a cognitive shift that happens once they see the Earth from space. “The Earth is fragile and borderless. Most of the constructs that limit countries are self-made,” Ortiz said. “Space for Humanity intends to use that. The overview effect will cement in passengers’ minds how and why their project is so important.”

Upon their return, the recognition they’ve gained will “give them a trampoline” from which they can broadcast their mission and work on their larger goal, according to Ortiz. In return, they agree to be ambassadors for Space for Humanity for a time and for the idea of space travel and the for-profit space industry.

“My feeling is that if you have someone people can relate to, who comes back and becomes a role model,” Ortiz said, “it will increase the chances of that person being able to change behaviors.”

Part of my job is to convince people that space is something they can be a part of, and that they should apply.

Ulisses Meneses Ortiz

Not Like Star Wars

Ortiz grew up in Mexico. As a boy, he read science fiction, but Mexico had no space exploration program at the time. He did not see himself following in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps; astronauts were not people he could relate to. Instead, while working at Deloitte, he enrolled at Chicago Booth, with the idea of founding a company to provide cost of equity estimates for industries operating in developing countries.

He ended up abandoning the business idea, and then he discovered the for-profit space industry. “It gave me a way to get involved without a degree in engineering,” he said. He was a founding organizer of the MIT New Space Age Conference, ran a series of space talks as a co-chair of Booth Sales Club, and is cofounder of the Booth Aeronautics & Space Club. One of the speakers he invited to the club asked his feedback on the Space for Humanity website. “I shared it with a couple of friends,” Ortiz said, “and I offered my high-quality, zero-cost help. I’ve been with them since then.”

Ortiz’s day job is as transfer pricing manager at Plante Moran, an accounting and financial services firm headquartered in Wakefield, Rhode Island. In his role at Space for Humanity, he is responsible for finding the applicants who will eventually become the 10,000 passengers on Space for Humanity flights.

“I speak at conferences where 90 percent of the people are wearing NASA T-shirts,” he said. He also organizes events at business schools and reaches into countries that have no space program, looking for people with big ideas.

“Unless you’re from Russia or the United States, most of what you know about space comes from Star Wars,” he said. “Part of my job is to convince people that space is something they can be part of, and that they should apply.”

Special People, Unique Applications, Open Process 

Liz Kennick, president of Teachers in Space, wants to teach from space and help other teachers develop their curricula. Tadeusz Kocman, an electrical engineer, wants to encourage students in his native Poland to take STEM classes in order to be part of the “space society we will be in the future.” Cale Lawlor, an Australian doctor, has ideas about how to use technology and telecommunications to improve global health care in underserved countries. Matt Chaney, a former hiker, climber, and white-water rafter, wants to raise awareness of global environmental issues. Now using a wheelchair after 17 years living with ALS, Chaney joked that he’s unable to pour cocktails on the flight but he can type with his toes.

They’re just a few of the applicants who filmed short videos making the case for why they should be part of the first Space for Humanity trip, tentatively scheduled for a suborbital flight in 2021. The requirements sound simple enough: applicants must be 18 years of age, speak English, and be willing to execute a social program of some sort. Applications are reopening July 20, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. For Ortiz, finding the ones with the most potential, the most worthwhile ideas, and the ability to follow through on them will be harder.

The company will “make a first cut in the next few months,” Ortiz said. “We’ll probably interview in the low teens and then slot them for leadership training.” They’ll be looking to fill six to seven spots, depending on the spacecraft.

We think making space travel available to all will create impact on a large scale.

Ulisses Meneses Ortiz

Planetary Ambitions

A group of investors funded Space for Humanity for the first 24 months. The millions of dollars it will take to send 10,000 people into space—to train them, mentor them, and help see their ideas to fruition—will come from several potential sources. In addition to global brand partnerships and investment by the general public, said Ortiz, “high-net-worth individuals want to help communities find better ways to relate to each other.” Space for Humanity is currently working with a foundation in Hawaii to find ways to use space to foster relations between the islands and the mainland. The space industry itself is another potential source of funding. “Once we have the proof of concept,” Ortiz said, “more launches attract more media attract more sponsors. It’s a virtuous circle.”

When talking about space travel, it is impossible to avoid clichés. The desire to “aim high,” to “blast off,” to take an idea and “fly with it.” Space for Humanity’s goals are certainly lofty, beyond stratospheric. The plan is to send passengers to the moon by 2030 and to deep space by 2035. That’s just the “way cool” flying part, however.

The higher goal is to show that humanity’s divisions are arbitrary and can be overcome in ways that benefit mankind. “We’re not looking for incremental changes,” Ortiz said. “We’re looking for big changes. We’re ambitious. Space is so out there and so powerful. We think making space travel available to all will create impact on a large scale.”