The Super-Rich In Space

This month we’ve seen a lot of seriously rich people leave the surface of the planet and journey to the edge of space. Earlier this month billionaire Richard Branson took a flight launched by Virgin Galactic–Branson’s company–to a height 50 miles above the Earth’s surface, and yesterday Jeff Bezos, who is even richer than Richard, rode a rocket launched by his space company, Blue Origin, to an even higher destination, 62 miles up. And let’s not forget fellow billionaire Elon Musk, who hasn’t traveled above the stratosphere, yet, but whose SpaceX venture has launched far more rockets and capsules, traveled farther, and advanced space technology more than Bezos’ or Branson’s companies put together.

Bezos’ flight is interesting, and not just because one of the world’s very richest men wore a space uniform and took the risk of a potentially fatal mishap. The Blue Origin flight also was piloted by the oldest person yet to fly into space–82-year-old Wally Funk, who was part of a NASA Women in Space program back in the ’60s–as well as the youngest person, who also was first Blue Origin’s paying customer. The paying customer was 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, whose Dad, a wealthy businessman, bought a seat for him. Oliver filled in for an anonymous person who had paid $28 million for a seat on the flight, then backed out due to “scheduling conflicts.” (Really? Somebody paid $28 million to take a trip into space, and then let “scheduling conflicts” delay their departure? Those must have been some pretty serious “scheduling conflicts”!)

Blue Origin hopes to help fund future flights, in part, through space tourism sales. It has announced that it is now officially selling tickets to future flights, and that it has made $100 million in sales so far. It’s not clear how much such tickets might cost, but it’s obvious that there is a market for a ride into space among some segments of the megarich, and their kids and other family members. And while it wasn’t a particularly long ride yesterday–the CNN article linked in the first paragraph above described the trip as allowing the passengers to experience “about three minutes of weightlessness, unstrapping from their seats and floating about the cabin while taking in panoramic views” before coming back down to a landing–it’s obviously an experience you can’t find anywhere else right now.

We often bemoan the lifestyles and luxuries enjoyed by the super-rich, but in this case I’ll gladly tip my cap to Musk, and Bezos, and Branson, and Oliver Daemen’s Dad, and the anonymous person with the “scheduling conflicts.” If the hyper-wealthy are willing to help fund private ventures in space, and are doing it, in part, so they can enjoy a joy ride to the edge of outer space, I’m all for that. I’d rather see the affluent putting their money down to help pay for new technology that will help us, collectively, move forward into space than frittering it away outbidding each other for Picassos. And, if space tourism is going to become a real thing, obviously the first passengers are going to pay a lot–but by doing so, we can hope that they will help to usher in an era when spaceflights become routine, costs decrease, and tickets are reasonably affordable for the rest of us.

Watching The Launch

When I was a kid back in the ’60s, we used to be trooped into the school auditorium at Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio to watch every launch of every rocket that was taking an American astronaut into space.  Between the countdowns, and the holds, and the cryptic communications of “launch control,” and the possibility of a disaster, and Walter Cronkite urging “go, baby, go!,” rocket launches were almost unbearably exciting.  And when NASA started launched the enormous Saturn V rockets that were used to propel the Apollo missions to the Moon, which were among the loudest devices ever made by humanity, the spectacle became even more intense.

So I watched the video of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday, beginning with the rocket on the familiar Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy launchpad, heard the countdown, saw the smoke and the flames and the rocket pushing slowly and inexorably against the titanic forces of gravity to slip the surly bonds of Earth and go soaring into space, and it brought those memories all back, and produced the same kind of tingle and hairs-standing-on-end feeling that I got in those long ago days in the school auditorium.

I’m glad the launch was a success and that SpaceX was able to successfully land two of the side boosters back on Earth, although the main booster was not successfully retrieved.  It’s a huge achievement and step forward for a company that is one of the leaders of the movement toward getting us back into space.  And I’m glad that, thanks to the efforts of the Falcon Heavy thrusters, Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster and a “Starman” wearing a SpaceX uniform have been successfully thrown out past Mars, where they will orbit around the Sun forever.

But mostly, I’m just glad that I got to see a huge rocket launch again.  Deep down, I’d still love to be an astronaut.

Space Suit Chic

We’ve got a little bit of a “space race” going these days, 50 years after the first one.  This particular space race is about which commercial entity is going to be the provider of choice for both travel and delivery of space-related services — like creating working flight suits that people would wear on space voyages, and other necessary components of routine life in space.

space-x-suitLast week SpaceX unveiled the look of its flight suit to great fanfare.  Some people described the suit — which is sleek, futuristic, and basic black and white — as looking like the imperial stormtrooper outfits from Star Wars, but it clearly has a certain style.  Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, says the suit is functional, not a mock-up, and has been tested to double vacuum pressure.  Interestingly, Musk also noted that SpaceX was focused on both esthetics and functionality in designing the suit, and that is was “incredibly hard” to balance the two, while focusing on one or the other would have been a lot easier.

Earlier this year, Boeing gave us a peek at its version of a flight suit, which passengers would wear on the Boeing Starliner spacecraft that is intended to deliver passengers to places in low-Earth orbit, like the International Space Station.  Boeing’s announcement got a less less attention than the SpaceX unveiling, but then Boeing isn’t quite as cool as SpaceX.  Boeing’s flight suit, which is “Boeing Blue” in color, looks a lot more like an updated version of the Apollo suits we remember from the glory days of moon shots and lunar rovers in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

space_suit_630Of course, Boeing and SpaceX are just two of the companies vying for supremacy in the corporatization of space, and flight suit design isn’t going to finally and conclusively determine who gets a leg up in the competition.  But the disclosure of things like flight suits is important nevertheless.  It shows that companies are hard at work on the necessary nuts and bolts of spaceflight, and you can bet that for every item, like flight suits, that get public attention there are dozens of less interesting devices that are being developed, streamlined, and perfected.

The unveiling of flights suits has another important function, too:  getting people talking about spaceflight again.  When I was growing up, it seemed like just about every kid wanted to be an astronaut, and the space program was a constant topic of conversation.  In the cool occupation pyramid, “astronaut” was at the pinnacle.  The aspirational dreams of youngsters may not have made a difference in how the American space program was operated, but it provided an important core of support for NASA, and many of us still harbor those inner dreams even though the manned space program has basically had a 45-year hiatus.  If the disclosure of the SpaceX and Boeing flight suits cause kids to begin dreaming about space again, it would be a good thing for those of us who feel that our future lies out among the stars.

To Mars, And Beyond

This week, Elon Musk of SpaceX announced his plans for getting humanity to Mars.  The plans involve massive rockets, trips by 100 passengers every 26 months, and deliveries of supplies and housing — all with an ultimate goal of establishing an independent, self-sustaining colony on the Red Planet.

mars-colonial-bThere’s still a lot of details in Musk’s ambitious plans to be filled in — like figuring out how in the heck the massive rocket is going to paid for, and how they are going to get materials sufficient to keep 100 people alive for months on a planet that is basically a cold desert.  Critics think the Musk plans, in their current form, are implausible.  They almost certainly are, of course.  The key point, though, is that somebody is actually thinking about how to accomplish passenger space travel and is doing something about it.

Musk isn’t the only one who is thinking about space.  SpaceX has shown that there is commercial value in space, and Jeff Bezos, the multi-billionaire founder of Amazon, has his own space development company with plans to launch satellites . . . and ultimately, people who would colonize the solar system.  NASA, too, is proceeding with Mars mission planning.

We seem to be on the cusp of a tipping point, where talk about colonizing Mars is moving from the dreams and visions of science fiction writers to fundraising, timetables, and engineering reality.  In my view, it’s about time.  Whereas Musk thinks we need a colony on Mars to protect our species from extinction through a cataclysmic event on Earth, I think we need to get a toehold in space to change our Earthbound perspectives, broaden our horizons, and reintroduce an explorer’s mentality to our world.

It’s good to see internet billionaires using some of their cash to open new worlds and opportunities to humanity.   We may not know what’s out there, yet, but let’s find out!