Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos in July will blast off, ushering in a new era of private space travel, and raising questions about who gets to call themselves an astronaut.
Will paying customers be considered astronauts? Or will that term be reserved for pilots and scientists?
“We’re in the early stages, so it seems like it hasn’t really hit where those debates about who’s [an astronaut] have happened,” said Phantom Space CEO Jim Cantrell, who was SpaceX’s first VP of business development.
He added: “I think that sort of thing will develop over time.”
There’s also an ongoing debate over where space actually begins. A common demarcation is the Kármán Line, an imaginary boundary sitting 62 miles or 100 kilometers above sea level.
“Essentially, once this 100 km line is crossed, the atmosphere becomes too thin to provide enough lift for normal aircraft to maintain flight,” Raman Prinja, head of University College London’s Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, said via email.
But some academics, governments, and executives offer varying altitudes when asked to define where Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins. A few space-travel companies have boasted that they’re going to the “edge” of space, even though they’re flying well below the Kármán Line.
NASA, meanwhile, says space begins at just 50 miles up, meaning anyone who crosses above that is an astronaut in the eyes of the US government.
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity shuttle in May hit an altitude of 55.45 miles. By NASA’s standards, tourists who eventually soar that high would be considered astronauts. But others may disagree.
Blue Origin said the 60-foot rocket that will carry Bezos and his fellow travellers will cross the Kármán Line, which the company called the “internationally recognized line of space.”
“Having crossed over the Kármán Line into space, you will have earned your astronaut wings,” Blue Origin’s website said.
So, by Blue Origin’s standard, Bezos will be an astronaut. This is also true for the anonymous bidder who will pay $28 million to be aboard.
But Prinja and other experts said that imaginary boundary wasn’t precise – and may change in the future.
“I am reasonably certain there is no single compelling definition for ‘the edge of space,'” Edwin L. Turner, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, said via email.
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale considered moving the line, perhaps dropping it as low as 80 kilometers (in this scenario, Bezos would still be an astronaut.) And Turner said the line could eventually be defined as high as 150 km, or about 93 miles (in this scenario, Bezos would not be an astronaut.)
Turner included a more technical definition of the edge of space: “However, a reasonable and popular [definition] is that it is the minimum altitude at which an object moving with sufficient velocity could complete one circular orbit of the Earth without the benefit of further propulsion before the drag force associated with the very thin atmosphere at that altitude would cause its orbit to decay and the object to plunge back to Earth.”
With that definition, getting to space could be dependent on the size or shape of an aircraft. Another wrinkle is that the changing atmosphere may effectively move the line, Turner said.
Cantrell’s Phantom Space aims to mass produce launch vehicles to carry people to space. Its goal is to make it easy for anyone to travel out of Earth’s atmosphere, meaning anyone could be an astronaut.
“What we really want to do is to make space an everyday event, rather than a celebratory, notable, once-in-a-lifetime event,” Cantrell added.
“Billionaire’s should not exist…on earth, or in space, but should they decide the latter they should stay there,” the petition’s description said.
Some signatories gave a reason for signing the petition, which included comments such as “being let back into Earth is a privilege – not a right,” and “Earth don’t want people like Jeff, Bill [Gates], Elon [Musk] and other such billionaires.”
Another petition, called “Petition To Not Allow Jeff Bezos Re-Entry To Earth,” has accumulated more than 18,000 signatures and is quickly increasing.
Jose Ortiz, who set up the petition, said in the description that Bezos is “an evil overlord hellbent on global domination.”
“The fate of humanity is in your hands,” Ortiz also wrote.
Both petitions are aiming to get 25,000 signatures, making them two of the top signed petitions on Change.org, according to the website.
Bezos will take an 11-minute flight to the edge of space alongside his brother and the winner of the Blue Origin auction for a seat in the New Shepard spacecraft, which sold for $28 million. They’ll be strapped into a dome-shaped capsule, which sits on top of the rocket booster.
Once New Shepard reaches the Kármán line – an imaginary boundary 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface – the capsule will separate from the booster, reenter the atmosphere, and float back down to Earth with the help of parachutes.
“I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I wanted to do all my life. It’s an adventure – it’s a big deal for me,” Bezos said in a video posted to Instagram on June 7.
“This new plant by General Fusion is a huge boost for our plans to develop a fusion industry in the UK, and I’m thrilled that Culham will be home to such a cutting-edge and potentially transformative project,” the UK science minister, Amanda Solloway, said in a statement.
The BBC reports Bezos has been an investor in General Fusion for over a decade, and the company raised $100 million in its latest funding round.
Nuclear fusion is still an experimental energy source. It differs from nuclear fission, which is what modern nuclear power plants use to generate energy.
Whereas fission involves splitting atoms, fusion happens when two atoms collide and form one heavier atom. Commercially viable fusion has been highly sought after, as it would theoretically produce much more power than fission as well as far fewer radioactive byproducts.
MacKenzie Scott has given away over $8 billion in the last year, but it hasn’t made much of a dent in her net worth – in fact, her fortune keeps rising.
Scott, a philanthropist and the ex-wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, announced on Tuesday that she had given away $2.74 billion to 286 organizations. The donations were given in “categories and communities that have historically been underfunded and overlooked,” Scott said in a blog post.
The latest round of donations brings Scott’s total to about $8.5 billion. In July 2020, she revealed that she had donated $1.7 billion to 116 organizations since her divorce from Bezos in 2019; last December, she announced another $4 billion in donations to help those who were affected economically during the pandemic, including food banks and relief funds.
Despite the billions Scott has given away throughout the last two years, she remains one of the richest people in the world with a net worth of around $60 billion – since June 2020, Scott’s fortune has increased by $1.31 billion overall, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.
Prior to the divorce, Scott announced that she had signed the Giving Pledge, a committement created by Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Melinda French Gates that asks the world’s wealthiest people to pledge to give the majority of their fortune to charity. Scott revealed earlier this year that she had married Dan Jewett, a former Seattle chemistry teacher, and added him to the pledge.
Amazon shares climbed throughout 2020 as demand surged amid the pandemic. The company added hundreds of thousands of additional jobs at its fulfillment centers over the last year and opened new warehouses throughout North America.
Of the over 350,000 new workers it hired between July and October 2020, the report said, many only stayed with the company “just days or weeks.”
Hourly employees had a turnover rate of approximately 150% every year, data reviewed by the Times demonstrated, reportedly leading some Amazon executives to worry about running out of hirable employees in the US.
Amazon went on an extended hiring spree throughout 2020 as it attempted to keep up with a massive spike in demand during coronavirus lockdowns. As Americans increasingly turned to Amazon for everything from toiletries to groceries, the company repeatedly touted major hiring pushes.
One former Amazon manager who oversaw human resources efforts focused on warehouse workers compared the situation with worker churn at Amazon warehouses to the ongoing use of fossil fuels. “We keep using them, even though we know we’re slowly cooking ourselves,” he told the Times.
Amazon representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment as of publishing.
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Eisinger explained how some of America’s wealthiest people have minimized their incomes and paid zero federal income tax in recent years, argued that philanthropy isn’t a substitute for government, and called for changes to the tax system.
Here are Eisinger’s 15 best quotes, lightly edited and condensed for clarity:
1. “The ultra-wealthy are not in our tax system. They’re off in an entirely different universe, one where income is essentially voluntary. The shorthand for what they’re doing is ‘buy, borrow, die.’ You buy, or you build, or you inherit your money. You borrow against it. You don’t pay taxes on the gains. And then when you die, there are various ways that you can avoid estate tax.”
2. “The means that they have at their disposal – their purchasing power, their political power, their influence, their charitable givings – all emanate from their wealth and, more directly, their wealth growth. We thought that wealth growth is more properly thought of as income for these people. Everybody has said, ‘Checkmate, ProPublica, you idiots, we don’t tax unrealized gains in this country,’ to which we say, ‘Yes, that is the point of our article.'”
3. “If you had asked tax experts and wealth experts last week, ‘Does Jeff Bezos pay zero in federal income tax? Does Elon Musk pay zero? Does Mike Bloomberg?’ – most people would say no. That’s a pretty shocking thing.”
4. “There is a wealth tax in this country for average Americans. It’s property tax. Most people’s houses are their font of wealth, and they’re taxed every year.”
5. “Warren Buffett is really astonishing. He’s the king. He has avoided more tax than anyone in America by our measurements.” – the famed investor minimizes his income by keeping his fortune in Berkshire Hathaway stock and not paying a dividend, ProPublica reported. He defended himself to the publication.
6. “Elon Musk is outside of the regular tax system. He gets paid when he wants to get paid. He takes income at the time and place of his choosing. If you can imagine arranging your affairs so that you can control when income comes in, that gives you an enormous amount of leeway over your taxable income.”
7. “Carl was great. He was incredibly charming and was totally perplexed by the concept of needing to pay taxes. ‘If you don’t have income, you don’t pay taxes.’ He was very amusing.” – discussing how billionaire investor Carl Icahn declared $500 million of income between 2016 and 2017, but reduced his taxable income to zero by borrowing against his assets to boost his investment returns, then deducting the interest costs of the loans.
8. “What the wealthiest person in the country contributes to American society through a tax system that we all need to contribute to – that’s a little bit more newsworthy than a crotch shot.” – dismissing a comparison between ProPublica publishing details of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ tax returns and tabloids releasing supposedly intimate photos of him.
9. “We don’t have any evidence that Warren Buffett borrows. Not all these guys have exactly the same model or do all of this in lockstep with each other. But what we do know is that Buffett takes hardly anything for income, so when he talks about raising tax rates for the rich, it’s essentially irrelevant to him. It’s really irrelevant for all these guys.”
10. “Bloomberg said it’s a violation of his privacy, which was an interesting statement for a person who runs one of the most important media companies in America.” – on Michael Bloomberg’s response to ProPublica publishing details of his tax returns.
11. “We have thousands of people. We’re going to be doing stories all year on various aspects of it. And we’ll name many, many more people, but only in what we consider to be responsible ways that are in the public interest.”
12. “Warren Buffett said to us, ‘I’m going to give 99%-plus of my fortune to charity … that’s going to be better for society than paying down the United States debt.’ I would like to allocate my tax dollars the way I want, spend them on this and not that. But we collectively have a society, and we have a democracy. And the democracy gets together and makes priorities. And then we influence the democracy through the vote.”
13. “There are certain collective functions of government that charities could never do. We do need government to do some things, and government can’t do it if it’s starved, if the roads and bridges are crumbling, if we think that Social Security and Medicare are going to go bankrupt.”
14. “There are whole swaths of the tax system that just simply do not function anymore. We don’t have enforcement. We don’t have auditing from the IRS. The budget has been gutted. The wealthiest among us could be paying tens of billions of dollars more every year in income taxes – not even talking about a wealth tax -if we had a different kind of income tax system or taxation system in general.”
15. “There are two extraordinary things about death in our tax code that are great gifts to the ultra-wealthy.” – highlighting the “step-up in basis” which raises the cost base of appreciated assets when they’re inherited, and structures such as trusts that let recipients avoid paying inheritance tax.
It claims to provide an insight into how prominent billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Michael Bloomberg take advantage of “tax avoidance strategies” beyond the reach of ordinary people.
Though there is general public consensus on the illegality of tax evasion – the act of deliberately not paying taxes that are due – much more variance exists in how the public evaluates and scrutinizes tax avoidance strategies that seek to minimize the amount an individual pays through legal loopholes. There is no suggestion that the billionaires in the ProPublica report did anything illegal.
A poll taken just before the 2016 election found that nearly half of Americans agreed with Donald Trump – another wealthy individual not averse to tax avoidance strategies – who noted that paying minimal or no taxes is “smart.” But two-thirds said it is “selfish” and 61% declared it to be “unpatriotic.”
As a scholar who studies business ethics, I see these differences in how individuals view and rationalize tax avoidance as being dependent on a person’s ethical foundations. Ethical foundations are the principles, norms, and values that guide individual or group beliefs and behaviors. They can shape what people believe is important – such as fairness, care for oneself or others, loyalty, and liberty – and guide judgments about what is right, or ethical, and what is wrong, or unethical.
Philosophers have debated these ethical foundations for centuries, coming up broadly with three different perspectives that are worth exploring in the context of tax avoidance strategies.
Thinkers from Immanuel Kant to John Rawls have offered what has been called the deontological argument. This emphasizes ethics based on adherence to rules, regulations, laws, and norms. Such an approach suggests that “what is right” is defined as that which is most in line with an individual’s responsibility and duty toward society.
Meanwhile, utilitarian philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham put forward an argument that recognizes the costs and benefits, or even trade-offs, in pursuing what is right. Under this belief system, called consequentialism, behaviors are ethical if the outcome is beneficial to the greatest number of people, even if it comes at a cost.
A third perspective comes in the shape of what is called the virtue ethical foundation that is associated with Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. This suggests that what is right is that which elevates the individual’s virtues and efforts toward moral excellence – defined by both avoiding vices and striving to do good. In this way, ethical behavior is that which enables the individual to achieve his or her most excellent moral self.
On morals and money
When applied to the tax avoidance strategies of individuals, each perspective offers a unique understanding of why individuals differ on what they view to be “right.”
An individual who adopts the deontological perspective likely evaluates a public figure’s tax avoidance strategies – and that of others – with less scrutiny. As long as an individual follows the tax code, and acts legally, the tax avoidance strategies are likely to be viewed by that individual as ethical.
In contrast, a consequentialist is likely to evaluate tax avoidance strategies by also looking at how those taxes could have been used to benefit society – by paying for schools and hospitals, for example. When one individual – be it a billionaire or any other person – avoids taxes, it increases the costs experienced by everyone else while also decreasing the benefits experienced by society as a whole.
The cost to society in terms of lesser funding for programs and services supported by tax dollars may be even greater when a wealthy individual avoids taxes, given what is likely a higher tax responsibility than that of individuals with modest incomes. Thus, consequentialist individuals may well conclude that tax avoidance strategies are unethical.
An individual who adopts the virtue perspective of Aristotle might evaluate tax avoidance strategies in the context of an individual’s other virtuous behaviors. If someone avoids taxes but provides financial support to other institutions or entities that are meaningful to the tax avoider but also produce benefits for society, then the virtuous individual may view this behavior with less disdain.
For example, someone may use tax avoidance strategies and direct some wealth to provide funding directly to an academic health care center for cancer research. But if that person employs tax avoidance strategies in the absence of any other virtuous behaviors, then the tax avoidance is likely to be seen and rationalized as unethical.
So whether tax avoidance strategies are viewed and rationalized as ethical or unethical likely depends on the ethical foundations of the person judging such actions.
But when it comes to public figures and the superrich, there are additional ethical concerns at play here. Public figures are evaluated not just on their own personal morality, but also by what influence their behaviors could have on others. If the superrich avoid taxes, it might signal to the public to do the same, which could have greater consequences. The public often demands more of the superrich – and ethics are no exception. The expectation is that these individuals, as leaders in society, should create benefits for society through their behaviors. As a result, these individuals may be held to a higher ethical standard and their behaviors more closely scrutinized.
As such, the question of whether the tax avoidance strategies of the ultrawealthy are “ethical” depends not only on the ethical foundation of the individual who views and judges the behavior but also on the expectation of the ultrawealthy to create benefits for society.
Bezos can skip paying taxes on his accumulated wealth from the Amazon stock because stock gains aren’t taxed until they are realized by selling off the stock: Since those stocks represent value, but cannot be used as tender, they aren’t counted as “income” – even if they appreciate in value tremendously, like those of Amazon and Tesla.
As a result, though Bezos’ net worth increased by a reported $127 billion between 2006 and 2018, he only reported an income of $6.5 billion for those 12 years, according to ProPublica, resulting in a tax bill of around $1.4 billion.
That puts his federal income tax rate at about 21%, but his reported income doesn’t account for the massive increase in his net worth tied to stock ownership.
If you account for the $127 billion increase to his net worth that came from stocks appreciating in value over time, that $1.4 billion in federal income taxes accounts for just over 1%.
Moreover, Bezos and other stock-holding billionaires are able to turn those stocks into usable cash without having to sell: By borrowing money against their stock holdings, they’re able to lock in a lower loan interest rate than what they would pay through capital gains taxes that are applied after a stock is sold.
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Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, and two unnamed people – at least one of whom is a multimillionaire – are about to place their lives in the hands of Blue Origin’s rocket engineers.
Bezos, who founded the company in 2000, announced on Monday that he and his brother would be the first passengers on its New Shepherd rocket, along with the highest bidder for the third seat. The as yet unnamed winner of that auction bid $28 million on Saturday to go on the trip. (The money will go to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future.) A fourth person will join them as well.
The group will strap into a capsule on the top of the five-story rocket as early as July 20.
“Bezos is a risk-taker,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider. “He certainly understands that there are risks involved, and probably has a good handle on how risky it is.”
For the rest of us – who don’t have access to Blue Origin’s rocket design or risk calculations – it’s difficult to say just how much risk Bezos is taking. The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. But a few key factors offer clues.
New Shepard has flown successfully before – 15 times – but never with humans onboard. The rocket has a good test-flight record, and it features an emergency system that can jettison the passenger capsule away from a failing rocket. Plus, the whole trip is only 11 minutes long.
At the same time, however, Bezos will fly with no pilot, and probably no spacesuit. And no matter how safe New Shepard is, spaceflight is always risky. About 1% of US human spaceflights have resulted in a fatal accident, according to an analysis published earlier this year.
“That’s pretty high. It’s about 10,000 times more dangerous than flying on a commercial airliner,” George Nield, a co-author of that report, told Insider. Nield formerly served as the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator and led its Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
“In order to learn how to do this safer, more reliably, and more cost effectively, many people believe we need to keep gaining experience by having more and more of these flights,” he added. “[Bezos] obviously has made the decision that having millions of people living and working in space is something that he strongly believes in, and he wants to do his part to help make that happen in some small way.”
Skimming the very edge of space lowers the risk
If all goes according to plan on the day of Bezos’ flight, here’s what it’ll look like: The New Shepard rocket will fire its engines, spewing flame and smoke across the plains of West Texas. As it screams through the atmosphere, the force of the climb and the pull of Earth’s gravity – which will feel three times stronger than normal – will pin the Bezos brothers and their guests into their seats.
After three minutes, the rocket should separate from the capsule and fall back to Earth. The passengers will feel weightless as they clear the boundary of space.
Bezos and his companions will have just three minutes in space. During that time, they can unbuckle and float around the cabin, drifting from one window to another to savor the views of Earth on one side of the spaceship and the blackness of space on the other.
As gravity takes hold again and the spaceship begins to fall back to Earth, Bezos and his co-passengers will strap in for a high-speed plunge. They will likely feel a significant jerk as three parachutes balloon into the air to brake the spaceship’s fall.
The parachutes should carry the capsule to a gentle landing in the Texas desert, where a recovery crew will be waiting.
This type of flight is referred to as suborbital, since the capsule won’t enter orbit around Earth. Blue Origin designed and built New Shepard specifically to carry high-paying customers to the edge of space. The rocket is too small, and its engines don’t have enough thrust, to push itself into orbit.
But keeping the flight short and suborbital comes with pluses: There’s less chance that something will go wrong, and the vehicle is easier to control because its engines are smaller and the rocket is traveling slower than would be needed to reach orbit.
If Bezos’ flight goes well, the new launch system could look more attractive to future space tourists.
New Shepard is thoroughly tested and has an emergency-escape system
The most nail-biting parts of this spaceflight will probably be when the engines burn for liftoff, when the rocket separates from the capsule, and when the parachutes deploy.
“You have a high-performance piece of machinery in the rocket engine that could break, come apart, do bad things,” Logsdon said.
New Shepard has executed all these maneuvers many times before – just not with people on board. It’s flown 15 times since 2015, with three successful tests of its emergency-escape system, which would jettison the capsule away from a failing rocket.
If a parachute fails to deploy, the capsule is designed to give more thrust to its downward-facing engines to help it land safely. If two chutes fail, a crushable “bumper” section on the bottom of the capsule should absorb the impact of landing.
“The capsule is the most highly redundant and safe spaceflight system, we think, that has ever been designed or flown,” Gary Lai, senior director of New Shepard’s design, said in a Blue Origin video about safety, posted online in April. “In most cases, you have a backup to the backup system.”
Logsdon described the New Shepard testing process as “very thorough” and “slow-paced.” He pointed out that the Space Shuttle’s very first flight had humans on board.
“Compared to the Space Shuttle Program, this is a far less risky undertaking,” Logsdon said.
Flying without spacesuits could add risk, but it may be safer if someone vomits
Ever since the Challenger disaster in 1986 – when the Space Shuttle broke apart during launch, killing all seven crew members – all NASA astronauts have worn pressurized spacesuits for launch and landing.
Spacesuits would not have saved those aboard Challenger, but they could save lives if a space capsule experiences a cabin leak yet remains intact.
Blue Origin’s website, however, indicates that New Shepard passengers will wear only a jumpsuit – not a pressurized spacesuit and helmet. According to CNN, there are oxygen masks in the capsule, much like on an airplane, in case the cabin becomes depressurized. The company hasn’t specified what Bezos or his companions will wear, however.
Both Nield and Logsdon said the chance of a cabin leak is very small. So the decision to wear a spacesuit or not depends mostly on the design of the capsule. If it has especially thick skin and strong windows, and if its systems can accommodate hiccups and technical errors without endangering the passengers, then flying without a spacesuit could be safe.
When it comes to flying tourists, it may even be better to skip the spacesuit, since first-time fliers often throw up during launch or landing.
“Especially if you are not a trained and experienced astronaut, wearing a spacesuit could be riskier if you got sick,” Nield said.
If you weren’t sufficiently trained to operate the spacesuit, you could choke on your own vomit.
A fully automated flight with no pilots isn’t necessarily a safety issue
New Shepard conducts its flights autonomously.
“Its design does not allow anybody to do much flying,” Logsdon said.
That’s not necessarily more risky than a rocket that requires a pilot, as long as the passengers are properly trained on what to do in an emergency.
Still, this fully automated launch system is relatively new, and lots of things can go wrong during early flights. Rocket failures can often be traced back to small errors across all kinds of hardware and software. It is rocket science, after all.
“Until we get lots of experience, like we’ve had with millions of airplane flights over the years, then there’s going to be some learning involved. And we’re going to get some surprises along the way. And there’s going to be some more accidents or incidents in future years,” Nield said. “With cars and boats and planes and trains, people die every year. And spaceflight is not going to be any different when it comes to that.”
The winning bid for a seat on Blue Origin’s first-ever space tourism flight came in at an eye-popping $28 million during a Saturday live auction.
The winner will be joining Blue Origin’s founder Jeff Bezos on the New Shepard spacecraft for an 11-minute trip to the edge of space scheduled to blast off on July 20. The name of the winner shelling out the $28 million will be released in coming weeks, the company said.
Bezos announced on Monday he would be aboard the New Shepard’s first flight with a full human crew that will include his brother, Mark Bezos. The Amazon founder has said he intends to spend more time focusing on Blue Origin after he steps down as Amazon CEO later this year.
Bidding on Saturday opened at $4.8 million and quickly shot up to $28 million. Blue Origin opened the auction for a seat on the inaugural crewed New Shepard flight on May 5 and more than 7,000 people from 159 countries registered, the company said on Saturday. Some of those bidders will be contacted about taking a seat on future space flights, the company said.
In order to qualify for the “Astronaut Experience,” participants must meet a series of requirements set forth by Blue Origin, including the ability to deal with heights, walk on uneven surfaces, and handle up to three times the individual’s weight. The participant will fill out a long series of waivers, as well as complete a special Blue Origin training program.
Bezos and the rest of the crew will float around the cabin of the spacecraft for just three minutes before strapping in again for the descent back to the ground.
Blue Origin, founded in 2000, plans to use this launch system to carry tourists up to the edge of space. New Shepard’s goal is simple: Give paying customers the ride of their lives. Passengers will get a few minutes of stunning views out of the largest windows of any spaceship in the world.