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.

Living In A Time-Free Zone

It’s June 21, which means it’s officially summer.  (Those of us in the rainy, cool Midwest may be forgiven for not recognizing that.)  June 21 also means the summer solstice has arrived and therefore, in the northern hemisphere, it’s the longest day and shortest night of the year.

190617165942-watches-on-bridge2-photographer-jran-mikkelsen-jpgSome of the northernmost cities of the globe have already been enjoying days where the sun never sets.  In Sommaroy, a Norwegian island that is north of the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t set for more than two months — from May 18 to July 26.  And during that period of constant daylight, the islanders don’t exactly follow conventional concepts of time.  In the early a.m. hours, when most of us are abed, Sommaroy residents are likely to be out doing activities that we associate with late morning or afternoon.  In part, that’s to compensate for the fact that, from November to January, Sommaroy doesn’t get any sunlight at all — but the practices of the islanders during this time period also recognize that standard concepts of time, set by a daily sunrise and sunset, really don’t apply when you have 24 hours of constant daylight.

Now Sommaroy residents want the Norwegian government to recognize their practices officially, and declare Sommaroy a “time-free zone” during the constant daylight period, which would allow businesses and schools to have flexibility in their hours of operation.  Visitors to Sommaroy during this period are encouraged to acknowledge the “time-free” concept by leaving their watches on the bridge that connects the island to the mainland.

Many of us live lives that are governed, to a certain extent, by the clock.  We get up, eat, work, watch TV, and go to bed on a schedule that is derived, in large part, from the rhythms established by the sun.  What would it be like to live in a place where there was constant sun — or for that matter, no sun — and therefore no standard concept of time?  Would you still follow a schedule, or would you simply sleep when you wanted, eat when you wanted, and work when you felt you had to, without regard to the tyrannical clock?

Most of us don’t have to think about that, because we don’t live in places where there is constant sunlight, or constant darkness, for any part of the year.  But if humans venture into space, and take years-long interstellar voyages or live underground on inhospitable planets and moons where sunrise and sunset are not daily occurrences, our prevailing notions of time will be put to the test.  In a way, our time-free friends on Sommaroy may be giving us a peek into what human lives might be like in the future.

Recover, Reuse, Relaunch

Yesterday the SpaceX venture reached a new milestone:  the company took a used rocket that it had recovered from a prior mission, relaunched it into space, deposited a customer’s satellite into orbit, and landed the rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean so it can be used again, and again, and again.

falcon-9-dscovr-launchAs I’ve written before, private, commercial ventures like SpaceX are making significant progress in making space flight a common, everyday option.  Yesterday’s flight was a key development in that effort, because a significant part of the cost of space flight has been rockets that are designed, built, and used only once.  That single-use approach might have been viable back in the ’60s, when government funding was plentiful and the United States was on a national quest to be the first country to land a man on the Moon, but it’s simply not sustainable or feasible in our modern world of massive budget deficits and competing national priorities.  It’s also an approach that commercial space concerns could never afford.  That’s why SpaceX has been focused on developing technology that allows those expensive rockets to be reused.

No one should take away from the mighty, ground-breaking accomplishments of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs, and there remains a key role for governments in space exploration.  Governments will always have more resources than businesses do, and the need for scientific exploration, and the technological developments that seem to inevitably accompany it, will often fall to governmental entities like NASA.  But profit-making entities and capitalist risk-takers are adept at building on the foundation the government has laid and figuring out how to make things affordable and, not incidentally, profitable.

If tourist trips to the Moon and settlements on Mars are in our future — and I hope they are, because I still hold out hope that I might see a glorious Earthrise from the Moon some day — commercial concerns inevitably will play a huge role.  SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology is another important step forward toward a future in which the “final frontier” becomes a much more accessible place.

How Much Would You Pay For Space?

I’ve always wanted to go into space some day.  When I was a kid and Apollo missions were landing on the Moon every few months, that seemed like a real possibility.  Sci-fi features like 2001:  A Space Odyssey forecast that routine commercial travel to the Moon would be available a decade ago.  Of course, that didn’t happen . . . and now time seems to be running out.

But perhaps there’s still a chance for 50-something space traveler wannabes like me.  Virgin Galactic is nearing completion of the beautiful, futuristic spaceport shown at left, called the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, in the New Mexico desert.

The company plans on beginning passenger service in 2014.  When the spaceport is operational, would-be astronauts will board a small rocket plane tethered to a mother ship.  When the mother ship reaches a point nine miles above the earth, the rocket plane will be launched, the rocket will be ignited, the passengers will experience 3 gees of force as they zoom through the upper atmosphere until they encounter the blackness of space.  The pilot then will cut the rocket engine and the passengers will experience four minutes of weightlessness and have a chance to enjoy a view so vast they can see the curvature of the Earth.  Then the plane will reenter the atmosphere, hurtle back to Earth, and land on the spaceport’s long runway.

All this will be available to the average Joe — provided the average Joe can pony up $200,000 for the experience.  If I had millions of dollars in the bank, I’d do it.  Because I don’t have that kind of coin, however, I’ll just bide my time and hope that competition brings the price of space down to more manageable levels so that, someday, a codger like me will be able to enjoy the wonders of space.

The Importance Of Sleep

How important is it that we get a 40 winks at night?  A recent study of “astronauts” who were on a simulated mission to Mars gives us some guidance on that question.

Mars is far away, and a trip there would require astronauts to be cooped up aboard their spaceship for months, without natural day-night cycles.  The Mars500 project sought to test what the effect of such an extended time in space might be, so it selected astronauts using standard criteria, isolated them, and communicated with them solely through time lagged communications that approximated the delay in communications between Earth and a spaceship on its way to Mars.  During the 17-month simulation, tests of the astronauts were conducted — and the results now being published show how crucial sleep patterns and the daylight cycle really are.

One crew member went from a 24-hour day cycle to a 25-hour day cycle, which meant he was awake and asleep at odd hours in comparison to the rest of his crew mates — and therefore became isolated.  Other crew members began to sleep more and more, and yet another crew member became chronically sleep-deprived and struggled with performance tests as a result.  In short, if a real mission to Mars were underway, sleep issues — and their resulting mental health impact — would have been a significant problem for crew performance and cohesion.  Researchers will be looking at whether a lighting scheme that better approximates our normal daylight-night rhythms might help.

Anyone who has done much travel — or watched Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson in Lost in Translation — knows how tough the effects of jet lag can be.  Imagine if you had to deal with sleep deprivation for months, stuck with the same people in an unchanging environment, without ever seeing daylight.

Now, get some sleep!