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Big news, that is, for anyone mourning the demise of the TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” which ran out its string more than 15 years ago.
For anyone else anchored here on Planet Earth, the competition to be the first billionaire in space should mark a milestone in the towering vanity of the wealthy.
Everybody says that when you go to space, it changes you.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, promoting his Blue Origin space tourism venture in 2017
Both billionaires place their ventures in the context of the need to test humans’ resilience to space flight, establish the safety of their craft, and the expansion of humankind’s reach beyond our home planet.
That’s also a theme of the third billionaire engaged in this plutocrats’ space race, Elon Musk. He hasn’t been talking about taking a flight himself but does say the goal of his company, SpaceX, is to give humankind a foothold on other planets, specifically Mars.
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Let’s promptly dispense with the notion that any of these flights will add anything to our scientific knowledge, unless it’s the establishment of a new metric for how long it takes for money to burn a hole in your pocket when you have more than you could possibly need. Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, told a press conference in 2017 that he was cashing in about $1 billion in Amazon stock every year to invest in his spaceflight company, Blue Origin.
The arrangement was the first step in a PR blitz that kept the space program at the forefront of American voters’ consciousness through successes and failures, right up to the moon landing of July 20, 1969. After that, anomie set in, broken now and then by upsurges in talk of further manned voyages to the moon and a new quest to place astronauts on Mars.
The space shuttle, NASA’s follow-up to projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, never seemed to capture the public imagination as did those earlier programs aimed at landing on the moon.
The suborbital, up-and-then-back-down-again flights scheduled by Blue Origin will just barely reach the altitude generally regarded as the edge of space, 100 kilometers or about 62 miles; Virgin’s will fall about 12 miles short of that point.
As for advancing the science of space flight, it’s proper to note that the achievement of suborbital space flight was reached by the United States by the first launch of Project Mercury, with Alan Shepard aboard the Freedom 7 capsule — 60 years ago.
Since then, the practical rationale for human space flight has only receded. As physicist Steven Weinberg observed way back in 2004, “NASA administrators, astronauts, aerospace contractors, and politicians typically find manned space flight just wonderful.”
That’s still the case — in 2017, the theme was picked up by Donald Trump, though it suffered the fate of so many other ventures of the Trump White House, subsumed into Trump’s usual miasma of boredom.
The Bezos and Branson flights are quite evidently designed to pump up the appeal of their companies’ nascent space tourism businesses.
Blue Origin says its ultimate goal is to support “millions of people ... living and working in space,” but its shorter-term goal is to ferry passengers on flights of 10 minutes or so, during which they can experience about three minutes of weightlessness and perhaps get an inspiring glimpse of Earth from afar.
“Everybody says that when you go to space, it changes you,” Bezos said at that 2017 event. “All the astronauts come back with stories like that. It’s very emotional to see this Earth, to see the thin limit of the atmosphere.”
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The glamor of life in space has been part of popular culture for the better part of a century. In recent decades it has been fostered by “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” and “The Martian.”
The real danger of thrill-seeking via spaceship is that it distracts from problems here on the ground. It’s become a bit of a cliche to say that we should be spending more on the fight against global warming, but NASA projects have contributed immeasurably to Earth science — at least until congressional conservatives steered the agency away from those projects so it could spend more on interplanetary exploration.
Almost every goal cited for manned space flight, Weinberg observed, could be performed today more efficiently and more cheaply by unmanned flights.
The most spectacular gains in knowledge about Mars, for instance, have been provided by NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on the red planet on Feb. 18, about seven months after its unmanned launch. It was preceded by Spirit and Opportunity, which were launched in 2003 and landed the following year.
Those projects cost a mere fraction of what it would have taken to send humans to Mars, even if that were technically possible. The reason is that once humans are aboard, their safety becomes the paramount concern of the mission, driving up its cost exponentially.
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As I observed after Trump’s speech, the public obviously considers human participants to be indispensable, so much so that a loss of life can almost destroy a space program, as happened with the space shuttle program after two human catastrophes.
One example of the wastefulness of manned missions is the Hubble Space Telescope, which was placed into orbit in 1990 by the space shuttle. But the Hubble could just as easily been launched by an unmanned mission — indeed, as Riccardo Giacconi, the former director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, estimated, doing so would have allowed seven Hubbles to be launched for the same price of the single shuttle-launched telescope.
Manned space missions are customarily justified by the advances in science and technological know-how thrown off by the space race. That notion has an enduring allure. Two Trump advisors writing just before the 2016 election promoted the notion of renewed manned exploration by citing the “brilliant returns for our economy, our security, and our sense of national destiny” produced by past investments in space exploration.
They didn’t mention any specific economic returns, brilliant or otherwise, perhaps because they couldn’t identify any that would not have been produced by an unmanned moon program. (One of the authors was Peter Navarro, then of UC Irvine, whose later promotion of a useless remedy for COVID-19 should put his expertise in perspective.)
The vanity projects of the billionaire astronauts are endowed with a science-y veneer. Larry Connor, an Ohio apartment tycoon who put up a reported $55 million for an eight-day stay on the International Space Station, ferried there by Musk’s SpaceX, told the Washington Post he’s “collaborating with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic on research projects” and will give classes on his experience to students at a Dayton charter school.
Perhaps these project will have genuine scientific value. If so, however, they would be conducted by experienced scientists, not a 77-year-old Dayton real estate man. More likely, they’ll be like other science projects sent aloft on the space shuttle, which Weinberg acerbically dismissed as having “the flavor of projects done for a high school science talent contest.”
What about the prospects of humans colonizing or even conducting research on Mars. This has the flavor of popular science fiction. The truth is that Mars is a place irredeemably hostile to human life. The planet’s atmosphere is unbreathably thin and lacks a global magnetic field, which means that human residents would be inundated with cosmic and UV rays.
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Its surface temperatures fall as low as minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, a level approaching that of Antarctica. At the poles, temperatures can reach as low as minus 200 degrees F. The planet’s gravitational pull is about one-third that of Earth.
Mars aficionados like Musk counter these facts with hand-waving. “It is a little cold, but we can warm it up,” SpaceX says. “Gravity on Mars is about 38% of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around.” Never mind that low gravity, as experienced by astronauts on long missions, wreaks havoc with human biological systems including the heart, bone and muscles.
One underlying theme of space travel enthusiasts like Musk and Bezos is that humans need a plan B. The assumption is we’ve screwed up Earth so badly that there’s little point in trying to fix what we broke. They have the wrong end of the stick. Answers to global warming and disease are still much more accessible than fleeing Earth for space. The dream of interplanetary travel and colonization is the dream of schoolchildren, and it’s time that the billionaires grew up.
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07 July, 2021 - 06:38am
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The flight will take him to the edge of earth's atmosphere, where he will experience a few minutes of weightlessness.
Asked how his family reacted to the news that he would be on the flight, Branson said his children are adventurous, but it's clear they get that quality from him.
"As a family, our motto is, 'The brave men don't live forever but the cautious do not live at all.' And so, as a family, we love to say 'Yes.' My wife is the sort of person who would be terrified on a Virgin Atlantic airplane or a Virgin Atlantic plane. She's the last person who would want to do something like this. But she's known me since I tried to balloon across the Atlantic or the Pacific or around the world, and she still seems to love us."
Branson said his wife Joan, to whom he has been married since 1989, is supportive but practical about his incredible sense of adventure.
"I won't be going to his funeral.' That's the kind of lady she is: 'If you're foolish enough to do these wonderful things, you can do it, but I (referring to wife Joan) won't be going to your funeral," he said, laughing.
“It goes to show how quickly they can multiply.”
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