The Next Giant Leap

Mike Minehan
27 July 2021


There are now three main arguments in favor of flying to the edge of space and beyond.

The traditional argument is the one eloquently expressed by the last Apollo astronaut on the moon, Eugene Cernan, who said, "our curiosity as a species will not allow us to remain locked to our home planet much longer. Humankind must explore, for we want to learn what lies over the hill or around the corner. Inspiration, sweat, challenges, and dreams got us to the Moon and they will get us to Mars and beyond. It is our destiny." (1)

The second argument is about off-world colonization, and is a warning from some scientists that humanity needs to protect itself from extinction by setting up space colonies. This is because of natural disasters on earth, such as meteor impact, nuclear war or habitat destruction. Some scientists are sounding the alarm, and others are already searching for off-world havens. The late astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, was a prominent advocate.

The third argument in favor of space travel is, well, fun. That is, if you have enough money. The recent jaunts by billionaires Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos to the edge of space, or thereabouts, will become an opportunity for space tourists to experience weightlessness for a few minutes, and see the curvature of the earth. Maybe even be able to claim bragging rights about being an astronaut.

NASA's Apollo Moon Program cost $25.4 billion, or around $156 billion adjusted for inflation in 2019. (2)

In comparison, you will soon be able to go for a short hop to the edge of space for the cost of tickets that will start at around 250 thousand dollars.

Well, maybe you won't be able to go, because only the very rich will be able to afford this approximately 1 hour 'billionaire's bounce'.

And space colonization? Well, it's very unlikely that you could be part of this, either.

There are obviously some issues that need to be sorted out here, especially if space travel is also meant to be a life raft for the preservation of our species. 

But back to the dream of off-world colonization, and the belief that somehow, humanity will be able to start over again, in a new, pristine environment where all our problems of, say, environmental destruction, pollution, and human-engineered disasters will be left behind.

Really? This is a more urgent question right now, because our early, tentative steps into space have already created a dangerous level of pollution. Space junk is now a major problem.

According to analysis by National Geographic, there are more than 23,000 known fragments of space junk larger than 4 inches, in orbit around our planet. And there are also many more smaller pieces that can't be tracked.

Ironically, the space entrepreneur and evangelist, Elon Musk, is himself a major culprit.

Musk has an impressive record of independently designing reusable  rockets that supply the International Space Station with cargo and crew. He's also promoting a mission to Mars. In this context, Musk is a space visionary.

But at the same time, Musk is launching a venture called Starlink, which aims to sell high speed, global, internet access by way of thousands of satellites launched into low earth orbit.

SpaceX claims that satellite internet access is a potentially $1 trillion market, and according to Morgan Stanley, if this satellite constellation succeeds, 'SpaceX's value could soar to $175 billion'. (3)

But Business Insider has a more critical  appraisal:

 This is one of the problems with space. No country, or any one single entity or person, controls it.

Not yet. Although this could change soon, as the billionaires jockey for position.

Way out in front of this new space race, is Elon Musk of SpaceXThe Wall Street Journal observes that Elon Musk 'doesn't let regulations hinder his goals', while also noting that Musk is one of the richest men in the world. (4)  Both attributes  together are powerful in terms of persuasion and influencing policy.

Musk's Tesla electric car venture is going well, too. The Wall Street Journal reports that despite a cooling in 2021 global auto sales, Tesla recorded a first quarter profit of $1.1 billion. In addition, Forbes estimates the value of Musk's Starlink at $30 billion.

The old dreams of colonizing distant planets, and the noble quest to save humanity by creating a new interstellar civilization, now seem quaintly altruistic. Even misleading.

The privatization of space for profit by the extremely rich and powerful  is the new reality. 

 

References

 

1. Cernan, Eugene, 1999, The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America's Race in Space. St Martin's Publishing Group.

2. United States Congress House Committee on  Science and Astronautics (1973), 1974 NASA authorization: hearings, Ninety-third Congress, first session, on H.R. 4567. Page 1271.

3. Silverman, Jacob, 'Elon Musk Wants to Move Fast and Break Space', Newrepublic, 20 April, 2021. . https://newrepublic.com/article/162096/spacex-starlink-satellite-internet-profit-space 

4. Pullinam, S, Elliott, R, Foldy, B, 'Elon Musk's War on Regulators', Wall Street Journal, 28 April, 2021. 

https://www.wsj.com/articles/elon-musk-tesla-spacex-regulators-crash-11619624227