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.

15 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

    https://theconversation.com/the-earth-was-dying-killed-by-the-pursuit-of-money-rereading-ben-eltons-stark-as-prophecy-147256

    …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:

    https://www.thewrap.com/jeff-bezos-penis-shaped-rocket-launches-dr-evil-comparisons/

    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”
    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/002210317790049X

    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.”

    https://www.boilingcold.com.au/times-up-on-gorgons-five-years-of-carbon-storage-failure/

    + $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.

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