Billionaires in space

With its unsubtle allusion to a 1980s cult classic, that’s the headline for my latest piece in Independent Australia. Key points

Nothing has changed in the basic physics that makes space travel, beyond the minimal scale achieved in the 1960s, essentially impossible. On the contrary, advances in physics have shut off every theoretical loophole that might have permitted us to exceed the limit imposed by the speed of light. Nor has there been any reduction in the massive amount of energy needed to propel even a single person into space.

The world is facing challenges that threaten our very existence, from pandemics to climate catastrophe to nuclear war. We can’t rely on fantasies of escaping into outer space. Nor we can afford a system that delivers a huge proportion of our collective income to a handful of irresponsible adventurers.

25 thoughts on “Billionaires in space

  1. ‘The Earth was dying. Killed by the pursuit of money’ — rereading Ben Elton’s Stark as prophecy
    November 5, 2020 2.59pm AEDT

    …So, Elton’s dual depictions of global environmental destruction and space colonisation by the rich were light years ahead of their time. Yet the novel ends with a weary indictment of society’s unwillingness to make environmental change:

    “Too much money was involved, it simply wasn’t economical. Nothing had been done and now the reckoning was upon them all.”

    Elton’s vision is scarily poignant when re-read today. The book exemplifies the quote by Frederic Jameson:

    “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

  2. Right on. Correct again.

    I am amazed by how childlike and unrealistic, as well as irresponsible, these billionaires are about their playtime ventures in the “space” they reach. Dare I suggest the Blue Origin rocket makes me think of the Dr. Evil rocket scenes? I am not the only one:

    It’s so Freudian-ly obvious that even Freud would have rolled on floor laughing. The way the media panders uncritically to these rich, entitled fools is nauseating.

  3. Hear, hear. Space exploration should be modest in scale, intergovernmental, pacific, and mostly robotic.

    Years ago I wrote a blog post (now lost to the sands of time) arguing that interstellar human travel is impracticable because space is full of crud (Google “Oort cloud”). Travel slow enough to detect and avoid rocks, and it takes thousands of years. Go at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, and Bezos can get to the nearest stars in a few years. but the risk of hitting a rock, and the consequences, become too high. At a relative velocity of 100,000 km/sec, a football-sized rock is a nuclear bomb.

  4. Mmmm, “our collective income”? I don’t know.

    In the fifteenth century adventurers sailed unknown seas and opened up new frontiers. Now the suggestion is to stop adventurers from challenging the final frontier, space, on the grounds that current science sees this as a dead-end and that the adventurers doing it are using “our” money anyway.

    James Wimberley, above, even argues that all such adventures should be “intergovernmental” and carried out by robots and managed, I assume, by wise politicians making sound use of collectivised resources.

    Sounds depressing to me. Where is my copy of “Atlas Shrugged”?

  5. 15th century adventurers financed by absolute rulers destroyed existing cultures. I threw “Atlas Shrugged” away after the first few pages.

  6. 15th century adventurers financed by absolute monarchies destroyed existing cultures. I threw “Atlas Shrugged” away after the first few pages.

  7. Harry Clarke: sorry about the copy of “Atlas Shrugged” you lent me. It didn’t make very good toilet paper, but it was an emergency under Galt Gulch rules.

    Is there any prospect of Bezos, Branson and Musk putting up the sort of money needed for a Moon base, a Mars round trip or an earth-orbit space station? As far as I can see, their plans – as opposed to their hype – are limited to satellite launches (the one existing commercial market), suborbital and possibly orbital space jaunts for other rich men, and maybe subcontracting for governmental space missions.

    The European voyages of discovery in the Renaissance were bankrolled by governments, starting with Henry the Navigator. The first 64 years of space exploration have also been funded by governments. Their agencies have done a pretty professional job, at a cost that has shrunk back to reasonable. “Intergovernmental” is just a policy preference of mine: the ISS and the ESA show that it’s workable, and the model can give smaller countries like Australia an affordable stake. The ESA is worth looking at. The major programmes like the Ariane launcher are à la carte, and contracts are awarded to match each country’s financial contribution. Not a recipe for ideal efficiency, but it works both technically and politically.

  8. Let’s get our history right. In the fifteenth century, conquistadors, privateers and pirates sailed seas unknown to them. They came to new frontiers and initiated processes which killed many millions of indigenous peoples and began the centuries-long processes of destroying ecologies, laying waste to lands, generating climate change and many other phenomena including, today, novel zoonosis pandemics sweeping regions and the globe.

    Good things happened too. Advances in democracy, technology, public health, medicine, education and finally a slowly improving appreciation for human rights. However, we cannot misunderstand our history so much that we can call the imperial age an adventure. It was not an adventure so much as a prolonged nightmare for many hundreds of millions including the original populations of Africa, the Americas, the Sub-continent and China.

    The fact that we misunderstand this history and the systems that caused it, including proto- and full capitalism, is the reason why today we cannot take proper actions in a timely fashion to avert crises like climate change and novel zoonosis pandemics. Nostalgia for the imperial and colonial ages will only confirm us in the thought patterns which created our modern problems.

  9. PS: There’s a reason why robot space exploration goes from strength to strength and manned exploration has stalled. The value of human life goes up, the cost of computer chips goes down. If we want to find out what’s in Europa’s hidden seas, we will send robots not humans to find out.

  10. So, in 2051 we will all realise what this means… as we buy a ticket.

    “They now see it as capturing an era more truthfully than they were able to appreciate in 1986. At the same time, a new audience has emerged who respond to the film on very different terms.”
    From “30 years on – a once maligned film comes of age”

  11. If billionaires want to go to the moon, to build bases there, and stare at millions of acres of gritty rock, they can be my guest. If they wish to spend several years on a trip to Mars, allow me to send them a free copy of “The Martian,” just in case it is a bit trickier than anticipated.

    The economics of a sustained commercial operation, on the other hand, are highly unlikely to stack up. Let’s say you were able to mine and manufacture gobs of metals from Lunar or Martian ore; then what? It’s not like there is a cheap and sustainable way of shipping it back to Earth. So, if they were to operate on a long term time scale, it seems it would be more along the lines of setting up some kind of colony; again, to what end? If it were easy to live in remote deserts, we would be. In remote deserts with little to no atmosphere, and vastly greater temperature variations, it would seem even more challenging. So what is the payoff? Apart from bragging rights?

  12. Don, I heard a spokesperson suggest as a ‘payoff’ “3hrs London to New York soon!”.

    I am just not sure how to classify & rank billionaires irresponsible adventures, in the myriad of irresponsibility, systems of support, and systems and users of said systems, and supporters. 

    I certainly would have done ‘better’ things with the money. Ha! 
    “The “false consensus effect”: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes”

    JQ said “Nor we can afford a system that delivers a huge proportion of our collective income to a handful of irresponsible adventurers.”

    Billionaires bad, politicians putrid, pundits profit.

    Crikey says: “The Morrison government announced in the budget it was wasting another $263 million on CCS as part of its fossil-fuel industry donor-drafted “gas-led recovery” plan.
    But far more than hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money is at stake.”

    + $660M on carpark boondoggle.

    + Bjorn Lomburg justifying inaction with ‘cold deaths’.

    – Lipstick, hair gel.
    – Crypto
    – Contact sports
    – Lollies
    – Linkedin
    – Elsiver
    – Amazon
    – CCS
    – profits during pandemic and what production / pollution emerges
    – News corpse @60+ % penetration in Australia (irresponsible )
    – Yatch racing / americas cup
    – Anything rentier
    – Prodigal tech bro cumlative
    – Nuclear
    – hydrogen 
    – Privatising
    – Outsourcing 
    – hol(e)tel quarantine

    May we please have an index of wastefulness and irresponsible adventurers which relates to the ‘system/s’ which support it -JQ “Nor we can afford a system…”.

    Or at least a thread to compile suggestions and then articles.

    And maybe a specific ‘sandpit on wastefullness’ too. Lots of sand flying I’d say.

  13. Space, so far, is not a demonstration of how resource rich space is but how resource rich Earth is. Mars is a wasteland, the moon is a wasteland. Asteroid resources are real enough – but the distances and difficulties, costs far exceeding returns, make it a non-starter

    There is communications and there is Earth observation; those are commercially viable space activities, selling to Earth customers. Not convinced space tourism will be, but if so, it will be built with Earth resources, servicing Earth customers. Beyond that I am struggling to see anything that can be commercially viable in it’s own right and none that derive any profitability from space resources. I think the biggest commercial opportunity is and will continue to be taxpayer funded government contracts – Earth’s biggest customers – I think Mr Musk picked a winner with that.

    Unfortunately I don’t see it leading to the realisation of any Grand Space Dreams; SpaceX will do missions to Mars if it gets government contracts – preferably on a cost plus profit basis, but probably not otherwise, beyond PR or vanity shots, only if they can do it without bankrupting the company. Aiming very high, even impossibly high, can be a winning business strategy, in this case if it delivers rockets that outcompete the competition for those contracts.

    More unfortunately SpaceX will probably profit from heightened military strategic tensions and militarisation of space. It already takes on delivery to space of classified military satellites.

    Most unfortunately I am cynical enough to think that strategic need of World Powers to stay ahead of the technology in order to stay ahead with spysats and military communications, command and control – soft weapons – and to be able to respond rapidly should agreements to keep hard weapons out of space break down has always motivated and underpinned funding of ambitious and nominally civilian space programs.

    Mars and Moon hype plus Science and even National Pride and even R&D hothousing have never been enough to get the big funding without that deeper strategic motivation.

  14. “More unfortunately SpaceX will probably profit from heightened military strategic tensions and militarisation of space. It already takes on delivery to space of classified military satellites.”

    My understanding is that SpaceX is not only doing the military stuff, it also looks like the by far most profitable business line, probably also the one with the highest revenue generation, ahead of the civil Nasa contract stuff or any private satellite launches. All quite speculative, naturally, since space x is not public listed and the military budget stuff also rather obscure. My rather bitter point here is that Space X looks like all self marketing and zero progress compared to the good old itself also far from perfect European launch program.

  15. “The most immediate lesson is that with marginal exceptions symbolised by the billionaire joyrides, humans will never leave Earth.”
    The word “never” is doing a lot of work in this sentence. Not even in ten thousand years? Not even in ten million? I wonder if one of the ways out of our current crisis is to start thinking longer term. In two hundred years, Earth could have a stable climate, a stable population and any discussion of peak anything could be long in the past. AI will have advanced enormously and robots will be doing most of the physical work. What might such a society turn its attention to? What might it discover? Surely it makes sense to assume that the next three thousand years holds as many scientific marvels as the last three thousand. If we can get to 2300, why shouldn’t we make it to 5300 or 1,000,300? What would a million years of history look like? Certainly nothing like our conception of history today. If we can overcome climate change, plutocracy and (it’s friend) fascism a future beyond imagining awaits the generations that follow.

    I’m not arguing with the primary point here, that any resources we allocate to space travel should go to science not billionaire selfies, but I wonder if we might argue it in the positive, not the negative?

  16. hix, you’ll like this one too.
    seqaugur, yes, never say never.

    A billionaires space story called… “The Retiree”
    By Venkatesh Rao
    July 22, 2021 

    “Space after all, as one much-quoted wag had remarked in the 2020s, was the new Davos.”

    “Fully assembled, the Baikal was an ungainly structure about 70m long. Khan would live in a life-support module about the size of an RV. His trip to it had been aboard a leased commercial crew shuttle. Two engineers had accompanied him to get the Baikal ready for its mission, and had already returned to earth. No, they would not be speaking to the press. Yes, a few pictures taken from the crew module would be released shortly.”

    Good ending…

  17. seqaugur – “If we can get to 2300, why shouldn’t we make it to 5300 or 1,000,300?”

    Assuming humans soon satisfactorily address doing their worst for the current planetary climate regime and its numerous ecosystems, some things that can and realistically certainly will stop us in our tracks are:

    Human nature – at societal level it isn’t modern peaceful tending per Pinker, nor is it individually premodern constructively paranoid tending per Diamond.

    Cataclysmic vulcanism.

    Super nova within lethal range.

    Loss of fitness – now statistically running overdue for any human sized animal. That is just specific taxa and ecosystem wide genetic foibles driving change in an otherwise fairly stable environment. (eg.. maybe the last European Neanderthals were taken out by genetic drift as it seems maybe will be first the remaining homo and many other species males relatively soon. Sabretooth tigers and cave bears were doing fine until genotypes they lived alongside changed due to genetic and climatic foibles.

    “What would a million years of history look like?”


  18. Without the extreme income and wealth concentration within countries and across countries, which is observable, we could be spared the spectacle of infantile (like four year olds) ‘mine is bigger than yours’ behaviour of so-called space adventurers.

    It may well be their ‘money’ but it is unambiguously our Earth, our resources. And there is something fundamentally wrong with the relationship between the distribution of monetary wealth and the distribution of ownership of resources.

  19. Just thinking last night during lockdown, how long it would take to walk from here to Proxima Centauri, our nearest solar system about four light years away.

    I sort of kept wondering.. would it be billions, trillions, quadrillions of years (even if mum packed a cut lunch, featuring last night’s roast lamb for filling and a big slab of her moist boiled fruitcake)?

    I start to “lose it” contemplating how vast the universe must be and the energy involved, that it “works” and the fact that it is even here..

  20. Proxima Centauri (sometimes called Alpha Centauri C), is 4.24 light-years from earth. It’s closer than Alpha Centauri at 4.37 light years which I always thought was the closest star to earth apart from our sun.

    This source says:

    “One light-year, the distance light travels in one year, used as the yardstick for interstellar distances—is about 5.9 trillion miles, 4.22 (not 4.24?) light years would be nearly 25 trillion miles.

    At a pace of 20 minutes a mile, it would take you 225 million years to complete 1 light year, you would need 1.15 billion years of continuous walking nonstop.

    NASA’s Mach 9.68 X-43A hypersonic scramjet, the fastest aircraft in the world, it would take about 410,000 years to cover the distance.” – Quora.

    If you were moving at walking speed relative to earth, it might even be the case that you would never reach Proxima Centauri if it were moving away from Sol at walking speed or more. It gets more complicated. “Proxima is found to be still coming gradually toward us; it will be nearest, at only about 3 light-years, about 27,000 years into the future.” – earthsky. Presumably Proxima will be moving away from us again after that… forever or just for a duration? I don’t know. Maybe you would never reach it.

    Meanwhile at the Czar’s ball in St Petersberg, as envisaged in the movie “War and Peace” by Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk, also playing Pierre bespectacled and in grey suit. (I think it’s grey but then I am red-green color-blind.)

  21. This is necessary, priceless and invaluable information, Ikonoclast.

    How are you such a genius?

    I really needed to know this, now I could get mum to put an extra chunk of her moist boiled fruitcake in the lunch box (if she were still here). It would take me longer than a billion years, because I wouldn’t be able to resist stopping for snack breaks involving that moist boiled fruit cake, but then what is time, when eternity beckons? The tea thermos would slow a person up also. The sneakers would be getting tatty by the end of it also.

    Seriously, concepts involving time and space vis a vis the universe and its functioning and existence, actually just defeat me as per imagination alone. Dust in the wind, as Kansas sang.

    Have a marvellous day and beware of low-flying cretins.

  22. I am not a genius by a long chalk. I do know how to use DuckDuckGo rather than have biased “googlies” bowled at me. 😉

  23. While anyone is on an interplanetary or interstellar journey, they could/would be exposed to hazardous radiation. The longer the journey time, most likely the bigger the cumulative dose.

    “Beyond Low Earth Orbit, space radiation may place astronauts at significant risk for radiation sickness, and increased lifetime risk for cancer, central nervous system effects, and degenerative diseases. Research studies of exposure in various doses and strengths of radiation provide strong evidence that cancer and degenerative diseases are to be expected from exposures to galactic cosmic rays (GCR) or solar particle events (SPE).”

    Adequate shielding solutions would need to be deployed. Radiation protection usually means having adequate mass between the travelling astronauts and the radiation source.

  24. Ikon, it is true I have, eh, deficiencies as to Duck Duck Go and other aspects of internet technique.
    I have become venerable.

    Am now in jeopardy of abandoning my walk because of Geoff Miell.
    I have also learned from other sources that there maybe an oxygen problem for at least part of the trudge.
    Instead, I may remain at home in order to observe Andrews gloating at Binchicken.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s