The Case Against Space Tourism

Science

The Wall Street Journal 22 July, 2021 - 12:20pm 56 views

Who is in Blue Origin?

Besides Bezos, the crew included brother Mark Bezos (left), 18-year-old physics student Oliver Daemen and 82-year-old pioneering female aviator Wally Funk. NPRJeff Bezos' Completes His Blue Origin Flight To Space

Where is the Blue Origin launch site?

If all goes to plan, the company's New Shepard rocket and capsule will take off for an 11-minute journey, launching and landing outside Van Horn, Texas at Blue Origin facilities, dubbed Launch Site One. Space.comBlue Origin to launch its 1st astronaut flight with Jeff Bezos and crew of 3 today

Why is Jeff Bezos wearing a cowboy hat?

“It's utilized as a symbol of individualism.” Bezos' particular hat, says Reynolds, is reminiscent of the one Robert Duvall wore as rancher Augustus “Gus” McCrae in the miniseries of Larry McMurtry's novel “Lonesome Dove.” The top of the hat is pinched with a downward slope, the “Gus crease.” San Francisco ChronicleDid Jeff Bezos just ruin cowboy hats for everyone?

Blue Origin: The scientific reason rockets look like dicks

Inverse 22 July, 2021 - 02:01pm

Inquiring minds want to know. We answered.

New Shepard, the reusable suborbital rocket system, looks like a dick.

But no, really, it was all the internet could talk about:

Fair enough. While most rockets are of a similar shape, New Shepard is especially, um, rounded.

But why exactly is the whole world of rocketry such a cone-waving contest? Is the shape of a rocket more business or pleasure?

Lucy Rogers, the author of It’s ONLY Rocket Science: An Introduction in Plain English and an inventor with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, says the shape of a rocket has to be aerodynamic in order to reduce drag.

“Think of a jumbo jet without wings and sitting on its tail,” Rogers tells Inverse. “Arrows, bullets, and fireworks are also generally this shape for the same reasons.”

This means that things like the nose cone have to be designed to reduce drag. In the case of the New Shepard, this means a rounded crew capsule that air can roll right off of.

Paul Freeman, a space artifact photographer, tells Inverse via Twitter that the cone design helps with efficiency.

“The exhaust needs somewhere to go hence the capsule diameter is larger than the booster rocket giving it the characteristic ‘Flesh Gordon’ look,” Freeman says.

In a statement sent to journalists, Scott Manley, a popular YouTuber, says, “They went through a lot of iterations coming up with a perfect shape that gives them the most volume, the best windows, and wouldn’t kill anyone on board, and this is the shape they came up with.”

In a short Twitter thread, Manley also highlighted some of the shape configurations otherwise considered:

There’s also the matter of the rocket body, the part that produces the thrust. Its dimensions are very specific. A squat rocket might not be able to easily take off.

“The height to width ratio is called slenderness,” Rogers explains. “You can only reduce it so far before you get issues with structural strength and efficiency.”

“Because rockets have to be slender but not too slender, they end up coincidentally looking like being in the same range, very roughly, of aspect ratios to the male anatomy,” she says.

Stephen McParlin, an aerospace consultant, says this also prevents the rocket from getting crushed in flight since the rockets have to take on a variety of speeds.

“[T]he basics are about getting the volume into the minimum cross-sectional area, then ensuring that the shock waves at each end don’t cause structural/heating damage,” McParlin tells Inverse via Twitter.

In a world without an atmosphere, a rocket wouldn’t have to be a cylindrical column and butt of such jokes.

“You would probably just make the rocket closer to a sphere, or any shape you want, such as the Millennium Falcon,” Rogers says.

A rocket is more than its cone and body.

The base of each rocket also has fins providing stability in flight. The New Shepard actually has two sets of fins:

While not all rockets have fins, they’re common on suborbital rockets, which don’t produce as much thrust due to their more limited scope. They often go up and down, rather than up and into a circle around the Earth.

Is Blue Origin the only company whose rocket looks like ... that?

Yes and no. The rocket is unusually phallic-looking, but rockets have been phallic since ... well, we’ve had rockets. Witness the Mercury-Redstone that took the first American astronauts to space:

Alan Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone 3 launch vehicle certainly looks a lot like the New Shepard in the body and fins, albeit with a differently shaped (still aerodynamic) capsule.

In fact, NASA’s first fleet of rockets had ... a lot to say. Saturn V, which ferried astronauts to the Moon, is on the far right.

NASA is currently, and increasingly, turning to the Falcon 9 and other SpaceX variants for their orbital flight needs. It, too, bears an uncanny resemblance to impolite regions. As does, frankly, the entire Falcon fleet:

Its Starship rocket gleams like car chrome, giving it a weird double metaphor:

And Rocket Lab, a recent entrant in the private space market, has its Electron rocket:

But none are quite as sausage-like as New Shepard. It has more human-like proportions and a rounded, slightly larger top.

At least the New Glenn, Blue Origin’s planned orbital rocket, is a little less overt.

According to one aerospace engineer Inverse spoke with, who did not wish to be identified by name:

Space travel for the masses? Don't be ridiculous

Al Jazeera English 22 July, 2021 - 02:01pm

The journeys were heralded as marking a new era of “space tourism”, in which untrained people could become astronauts, a title previously reserved for highly trained professional scientists and pilots, to see the earth’s curvature and enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness. Perfect for that viral Instagram photo for one’s millions of followers.

But could the idea of space tourism really become anything more than just an overpriced joyride for the rich?

The idea of travelling into space has fascinated human beings for millennia. Humanity has looked to the stars as a tool for navigation and as a source of spiritual fulfilment. Even now, research from the US think-tank, the Pew Research Center, suggests 29 percent of Americans believe in horoscopes.

In the 20th Century, as scientific discovery advanced, space travel became a symbol of political and ideological prestige, with the superpowers of that era, the US and the former Soviet Union, battling it out for space supremacy.

Both sides poured billions of dollars into a series of space programmes that created new rockets, satellites and most famously, led to humans touching the surface of the moon. It also spun a range of inventions that were commercialised for wider use, such as scratch-resistant lenses for glasses, memory foam and LASIK eye surgery.

These days, with the Cold War long over, political pressure to push forward state-funded space programmes has diminished, with governments even more reluctant to spend after the global financial crisis crippled government budgets in 2007. Thus, a gap has emerged for the private sector to step into.

For Branson, this month’s venture was the culmination of a long-held dream to embark on space tourism, having first promised to build a spaceship in 2004, with the hope of starting a commercial service by 2007. The programme faced years of delays due to, unsurprisingly, having to battle huge technical challenges, including a fatal crash during a development flight in 2014. The current pandemic has made it harder too, having forced Branson to sell $650m worth of Virgin Galactic shares over the past two years to shore up his wider Virgin business empire.

Yet despite delays, Virgin Galactic succeeded in its quest and has pushed space science forwards as a consequence. It developed a unique flight path, with a “mothership” carrying the main vehicle, VSS Unity, up 15km (9 miles) in the air before Unity was released and then activated its rockets to fly an additional 70km (43 miles) above the surface of the earth, to reach the edge of space. Unity then re-entered earth’s atmosphere with rotating wings – a technology known as feathering – to smoothly glide back down to earth without the need for a parachute. This meant no parts needed to be discarded, making it fully reusable, with the plane landing at the same location at Spaceport America in New Mexico, US, making it hassle-free for space tourists to get on and off, just like on a commercial flight.

Similarly, Bezos’s Blue Origin, which flew higher than its archrival Virgin Galactic, also utilises advanced science with a fully automated two-part rocket system, requiring no pilots at all. The launcher, which houses the rocket engine and propellant, separates after launch, flying back by itself to return to the launch pad, while the top part of the craft – the crew capsule – safely lands using parachutes. It is also equipped with a crew ejection system for added safety if any part of the launch goes wrong. Thankfully, there was no need for that on this occasion.

Both companies, after years of research and development and sustaining losses, are now finally poised to make money, with a reported 8,000 individuals already reserving tickets for Virgin Galactic flights, costing at least $250,000 each. Tickets to fly on Blue Origin are speculated to be priced at similar levels. Some 7,600 people with a lot of spare cash had registered for the auction of tickets for this week’s flight, with the winner paying $28m, suggesting there will be strong demand too, at least from the ultra-rich. Indeed, analysts at the investment bank, Bank of America estimate the total value of the space industry will balloon from $350bn to as much as $2.7tn by 2040.

However, before we get too excited, we must call this out for what it is. This is an entertainment business for the super-rich, backed by a formidable PR operation.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are suborbital space vehicles. They do not yet fly high enough to orbit earth and are therefore in a wholly different category to – say, NASA or SpaceX – founded by another very successful billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk – which has become NASA’s preferred launch vehicle, able to resupply the International Space Station or deploy new satellites.

Virgin Galactic has confirmed as much, recently replacing its first CEO, the former NASA Chief of Staff George Whitesides, who led much of the research development phase of Virgin Galactic, with Michael Colglazier, who has no space background and was previously head of Disneyland parks.

The new space tourist companies are marketing these joy rides as “bringing space to the masses”. It is true that, before this, if you wanted to fly as a space tourist, you had to broker with the Russians to pay for a seat on the Soviet-era Soyuz class spacecraft for a cool $25m, as seven people did between 2001 and 2009.

But ticket prices for Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights will still be sky-high, which makes the claim absurd. There is no doubt that seeing the earth’s curvature could be a life-changing experience but who are we really inspiring here? Emerging scientists or the children of the billionaire set? Meanwhile, despite these new crafts being relatively energy-efficient compared with older space rockets, they still burn tonnes of fuel to go up and down through the atmosphere – hardly in the spirit of tackling climate change.

Perhaps it does not matter. After all, compared with state-funded programmes, private companies have the political cover of not – overtly – spending taxpayers’ money. Virgin Galactic has funding from the Virgin Group, the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, Aabar Investment group and Boeing, alongside being publicly traded in the New York stock market. Blue Origin was funded by the sale of Amazon stock.

In contrast, the NASA Apollo programme, which launched humans to the moon in the late 60s and early 70s and the more recent Space Shuttle programme, which retired in 2011, cost US taxpayers an eye-watering $415bn in today’s money.

Private space companies are following market forces, competing against each other in a new market. The ego contest has also begun, with Bezos taunting Branson that his ship can fly higher.

This is good. Competition drives creativity, efficiencies and the development of new safety procedures, given that a launch failure would cause fatal loss of confidence for prospective customers. Having highly driven, charismatic entrepreneurs being the face of private space companies also gives it a sexiness that has galvanised the entire space sector.

However, this masks the reality that these companies have still benefitted from a sector that has been financed with taxpayers’ support. For example, the New Mexico government has invested nearly $200m in the Spaceport America facility, with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man who founded Amazon, runs a multinational technology firm that pays very little tax.

For example, in Europe, Amazon made record sales of 44 billion euros ($51.9bn) in 2020 but tax filings suggest it did not pay any corporation tax in Luxembourg, where it filed tax paperwork. And while Bezos generously thanked the workers of Amazon for helping to realise his dream of reaching space, warehouse workers on just $15 an hour might be wondering whether those profits – $8bn in net income this past quarter, a record – might be better reinvested elsewhere?

While it is a bit cringe-worthy that rich people can now call themselves “astronauts”, no doubt raising eyebrows among professionally trained, actual astronauts, we should not underestimate the science behind flying people safely under such hostile environments. Normalising space travel could provide opportunities. With Virgin Galactic aspiring to near-daily flights in the future, these suborbital journeys will provide a new platform for science, for example by providing a relatively accessible way to carry out testing in micro-gravity environments. Blue Origin is also developing larger rockets, dubbed New Glen, which aspires to compete with SpaceX on longer distance space flights and Blue Moon, to create lunar landers in partnership with NASA.

Cynics may despair at the waste of money, given there are so many other pressing issues to deal with down here on planet earth, such as human poverty. Yet perhaps space travel is a way of capturing the imagination and acting as a symbol of human advancement. Perhaps, as refinements continue and economies of scale further reduce costs, space flight might indeed become accessible to everyone, with space flights changing how people view our precious earth and provide a new way to advance science that leads to new inventions that benefit all of humanity. One can only wonder.

The space race was once decided by the wealth of nations, but now its future is determined by ultra wealthy individuals.

Space travel, once reserved for rival superpowers, is now available to anyone who can afford it.

Amazon founder set to blast off in Blue Origin’s New Shepard for a suborbital flight. Here’s what you need to know.

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