Reading, seeing, and hearing much of what was said about Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson’s flights, I now bring up the three stages of development of the nascent private spaceflight.
1) These billionaires just want to show up and spend money on frivolities.
2) All these people who go to space are rich, a great deal that has fivefold access.
3) These elites can’t stand to see poor people riding in spaceships anyway.
The reference is Arthur C. Clarke’s phrase, according to which every revolutionary idea evokes three successive stages of reaction, summed up by “it’s completely impossible”, “it’s possible, but it’s not worth it” and “I’ve always said it was a good one idea”.
In the case of private space flights, we are at the first stage. And this is even more true if the subject is billionaires in self-promotional acts. The liver decides it’s wrong, and the brain turns to explain why.
Then we hear that it’s a waste of money, that it’s an environmental threat or escapism. Perhaps the most honest of arguments is that the timing is the bad one.
None of this makes sense. Come on, one by one.
Waste of money. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s important to generate jobs for hundreds of professionals who work in these ventures. Sometimes I feel like critics imagine the guy putting a billion dollars inside the ship, lighting the rocket and sending it all into space.
Environmental concern. Good try. But has anyone checked what is used to propel the rocket developed by Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ company? Liquid hydrogen and oxygen. In combustion, they leave water as a by-product. H2O.
Ah, but water vapor is greenhouse gas. Yeah, but if you use water to produce, by electrolysis, hydrogen and oxygen for the rocket, the sum in the environment is zero. What you put back is what you take away. Ah, but electrolysis needs electricity, which may not come from a clean source. True, but that’s not a problem with the rocket, it’s a problem with our daily intake.
It’s true that not all vehicles are so clean. Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft burns a polymer with laughing gas that leaves nitrous pollutants in the atmosphere and emits CO2. SpaceX’s current rockets use kerosene, and the next generation will use methane, in both cases emitting CO2.
The key is not to vilify the activity, but to regulate and charge for carbon neutral solutions. By the way, these companies are already concerned about this. Virgin Galactic says the carbon footprint of each passenger is the same as someone in business class on a transatlantic flight. And Blue Origin points out that her rocket is even less polluting. If we feel that this is not enough for now, we must be prepared to put the entire global aircraft fleet on the ground from now on.
Next item: escapism. It seems that we have not yet completed the Copernican revolution, which began in the 16th century. It is not just that the Earth is not the navel of the Universe. It’s just that Earth is just another place. Very special, but only one place. And, in this view, there is no escapism; there is expansion of human activity.
The usual comparison is with the Great Navigations, where journeys through hostile environments lead to new worlds. There is a certain disgust with them, for the European subjugation. Okay, forget about them. But don’t forget that the “native” peoples of America and Oceania were never really natives. They are descendants of ancient explorers, who crossed the Behring Strait or promoted navigations to Polynesian islands. Was this escapism? Only in the sense of searching for new spaces and opportunities, not as an escape from reality.
The same applies to the current space advance. Nobody has the idea of destroying and abandoning the Earth, consuming all its resources, and then moving to another planet. That would be, in addition to being incredibly stupid, impractical.
The plan, instead, is to expand the human domain and, with that, in the end, save the Earth. How about enabling the occupation of space to take our heavy industries and mining to other places, leaving our planet as the environmental sanctuary it deserves to be? The idea comes from Jeff Bezos, publicly presenting his vision for Blue Origin in May 2019.
Maybe it sounds like science fiction. And it certainly will continue to be, if spaceflight continues to be stupidly expensive, to use disposable vehicles (the rule pretty much until now) and is infrequent. Breaking the old paradigm is the premise of all these endeavors.
There remains the debate about how timely they are in the midst of the pandemic. Blue Origin was founded in 2000. SpaceX in 2002. Virgin Galactic in 2004. The fact that they have matured in the midst of the pandemic for the first manned flights is incidental and refutes the hypothesis that it is a temporary vanity of magnates eccentrics who don’t know where to spend their money.
If only to enjoy an ego trip in space, everyone would have already bought a ticket with the Russians, spending a ridiculous fraction of what they invested and burning a lot more kerosene on a rocket designed in the 1950s. Instead, they decided to try to open the frontiers of space for Humanity. The day they complain that elites don’t like to see poor people riding in spaceships, the mission will be accomplished.