About the Author: Jordan Bimm is a space historian at the University of Chicago’s Stevanovich Institute on Knowledge Formation and a Guggenheim Fellow of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
With millions of people watching the meticulously organized suborbital space flights by
and Blue Origin, it’s tempting to conjure up the image of a new space race between rival companies and their billionaire owners. But we are a long way from the tense days of the Cold War when superpowers competed in space to showcase their technical capabilities and military might. What we’re seeing instead is a historic transformation of the aerospace landscape, away from large national agencies driven by militarism, exploration, and science to smaller private companies selling space flight experience – and visions. long-term colonies outside the world.
Just nine days apart, these flights with their famous passengers created a breathtaking spectacle. The emphasis is on flashy personalities and sweet space-themed pageantry, rather than sober assessments of what the future may hold. A quick scroll in the Twitter space shows that the thefts have polarized public opinion. Critics belittle disconnected elites for vanity-shaping their public figures while deflecting attention from their problematic wealth and the climate impacts of their business empires. Fans trumpet the flights as a giant leap towards what they see as our inevitable utopian destiny in space.
Neither is quite right. The perspective of history shows that these space ventures represent something new and important: a reconfiguration of who and what space is intended for. Rather than a single cosmic destiny, we face multiple paths to follow. We have choices about our future in space. Now is the time for all of us to consider the long term – what changes, what it means, and what might happen next – rather than quibbling over who really earned their astronaut wings.
A major indicator that a dramatic change in the space is underway is that billionaire owners are choosing to fly personally on their own systems, and early in the process. Richard Branson climbed on Virgin Galactic’s VSS unit rocket on its first test flight with a full passenger section. Jeff Bezos is on the manifesto for his New Shepherd the very first crewed launch of the capsule. Sixty years earlier, when the capsule’s namesake astronaut Alan Shepard made a suborbital flight to become the first American in space in May 1961, NASA Administrator James Webb was more than happy to witness the risky test of Earth’s security. Webb never used his power to join a space team, and at that point the idea would have seemed ridiculous. This is not the case today. Now space is a place the powerful really want to go to experience and claim a bit of the heroic aura and mystique that we attached to previous astronauts.
As the space age dawned in the 1950s, leaders viewed space through the prism of the Cold War as a strategic location for military operations. Shepard and other early NASA astronauts were military test pilots with college degrees in engineering. Committees of government experts have carefully selected American astronauts. After the triumph of the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969, the military character of space gradually took precedence over science. Think rovers exploring Mars or graduate science astronauts researching the International Space Station – space as a place for science is still the dominant paradigm.
But now Elon Musk’s Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX are adding another elite type of person to the astronaut line: not soldiers or scientists but wealthy passengers seeking the thrill of weightlessness. and a glimpse of the curvature of the Earth. Rather than the “right things”, it takes the right funds, or at least the right family and the right friends, to get to space. But the mass production of this new type of space traveler could have important effects in the long term. If the well-to-do return from these private flights converted into true believers in space exploration, they may be inspired to open their wallets – or lobby their political representatives – for more than tourism.
An interesting model is Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. Although he did not go to space, Milner’s massive investments targeted space science rather than human spaceflight. From 2015, he formed the Breakthrough Initiatives to support high-risk, high-reward space science projects. Will any of Branson, Bezos or Musk’s passengers return inspired to fund astronomy, planetary science, or alien intelligence research? Perhaps they will found rival space companies, possibly reducing the cost of a space trip to the kingdom with a ticket to Antarctica (which, at around $ 20,000, is still expensive but perhaps affordable for the unpaid).
Beyond the immediate effects of a growing population of powerful spaceflight evangelists, it’s also important to understand that Bezos and Musk in particular are aiming far beyond suborbital and orbital operations. While attending Princeton, Bezos fell in love with faculty member Gerard K. O’Neill’s now iconic utopian visions of verdant cylindrical space stations permanently housing humans out of the world. Bezos sees New Shepard as the first step in a slow but steady approach to solving what he sees as Malthusian problems of space and limited resources by shipping millions of people off Earth. Musk, on the other hand, has always been motivated by the planet Mars and the desire to establish a metropolis of one million people there as a “back-up” to humanity.
It all depends on establishing the safety and reliability of these new launch systems. An early disaster reminiscent of Challenger or Colombia would almost certainly scare off otherwise daring ticket buyers and wreak havoc with the fledgling spaceflight experience industry, along with those grand visions. But assuming all goes well, the space will retain its elite status, in the short term even if the type of elitism changes.
This recent wave of summer activity is far from the same. When NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011, there was only one way humans could get to space – Russia’s trusty but aging Soyuz rocket and capsule system. Today, 10 years later, the United States is home to three private routes to space. This fundamental transformation could bend the long arc of space history in ways we cannot yet anticipate.
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