Alan Zendell, July 20, 2021
This morning’s Blue Horizon launch of four people into “near space,” was perfect by every standard. It went off precisely on time, going straight up, as advertised, to a maximum altitude of seventy miles, flying a perfect parabola after the engines shut down. The booster made a vertical landing exactly where it was intended to, two miles from where it took off. The occupants in the mostly glass capsule, designed for optimum viewing, got to experience three minutes of weightlessness, floating around and whooping with joy before they strapped in for the descent back to Earth.
Coming down, the capsule and its passengers were in free fall until it reached the altitude at which an airliner would be in its final landing approach, when its main parachutes deployed (perfectly.) The numbers displayed on our television screens said it touched down in the west Texas desert at a vertical speed of 15 mph, about as fast as you’d hit the water from an eight-foot diving board. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the event was that the whole thing took less than fifteen minutes – an entire space mission viewed on live TV in a quarter of an hour without commercials.
The passengers were the world’s wealthiest human, Jeff Bezos, his brother, Mark, eighty-two-year-old Wally Funk, an early female aviator whose dream to become an astronaut was derailed by her gender, and eighteen-year-old Oliver Daemen. Bezos’ launch followed on the heels of Richard Branson’s rocket plane flight to much nearer space, and not to be outdone, Space X’s Elon Musk, a much wealthier billionaire than Branson will soon make his own visit to suborbital space.
The billionaires’ space race raises questions, chief among them, “Why?” We hear a lot about ego trips, the privileges of wealth, and importantly, whether it has value for average people or is just a publicity stunt to market a space tourism industry. A brief ride like the one Bezos took this morning currently costs $250,000, and the Washington Post reports 600 people have already reserved tickets. Imagine what trips to orbiting resorts will cost and who will be able to afford them.
What does all this mean to you and me? First, it’s fun. This morning’s brief flight was great entertainment, in part because of its brevity; no tense waits for a ship to achieve orbit or re-establish communication, no long days in orbit or traveling to the vicinity of the moon. Everything happened so quickly, there wasn’t time for worrying or nail biting. And who, watching, didn’t ask, “Would I have the courage to climb into that capsule?”
In case we didn’t notice, (I’m sure most people watching didn’t,) an astrophysicist who was assisting Anderson Cooper on CNN’s coverage, said the real significance of the test flight was to showcase the astounding level of scientific and engineering expertise America possesses. Bezos, Branson, and Musk are all investing their own money, but they capitalized on the billions of dollars of investment by the government to get our space program where it is today. The question of whether to invest more, even private funds, is a valid one that has a complex answer.
This morning’s launch was done in total transparency with the entire world watching, a huge risk that reflected Bezos’ confidence in his people. It did a lot to enhance our prestige internationally, and there were some notable subtleties. Ground control was just a moderate-size room staffed by four people, and the whole Texas launch complex could fit into a small corner of the one at Cape Canaveral. That, combined with the re-usability factor foreshadows a new generation of space exploration that won’t bankrupt any treasuries.
Still, millions of people ask why do it at all. There are traditional answers, all valid, like building industries in orbit that can benefit from the lack of atmosphere and weightlessness. Like the early space program, technology spinoffs will quickly find their way into consumers’ shopping carts. Remember the world before Tang and styrofoam? We don’t even know what we’re missing.
But the most compelling reason to make space travel and exploration routine and cost-effective is the long-term survival of humanity. We’ve all thrilled to disaster movies and novels that depicted the end of life on Earth: nuclear war, out-of-control pandemics, monsters unleashed from the thawing permafrost. They’re all science fiction, but some, like possible asteroid impacts are based on solid science. Astronomers and astrophysicists are nearly unanimous that such a catastrophic event is inevitable, whether it occurs tomorrow or ten thousand years from now. When it does, humanity will need somewhere else to live.
This is not a new idea. Almost ninety years ago Edwin Balmer and Phillip Wylie published the novel, When Worlds Collide. In 1950, Immanuel Velikovsky published Worlds in Collision, which despite the similar title was a scholarly study of ancient history and archaeology. Velikovsky effectively argued that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a near collision between Earth and another planet-sized body that shifted Earth’s axis of rotation by sixty degrees; that is, much of what used to be near the equator suddenly found itself in Siberia.
We know these things happen; we also know most asteroids capable of such devastation are discovered accidentally when they come close to Earth’s orbit. We could wake up any morning to the news that we’ll all be dead by Thursday. That sounds like a damn good reason to establish self-sustaining habitable colonies off Earth ASAP.