Maybe you’re as surprised as I have: is there any point to rocketing rich people into space like Jeff Bezos and “Star Trek” actor William Shatner?
Wendy Whitman Cobb, the Air Force’s political scientist for space, says yes. Our conversation challenged my thinking about space projects, such as from Bezos and Elon Musk, who envisioned a distant future from Earth.
If you plan on “Middle Life CRISIS” when Bezos touched the space last year or asked why Musk’s SpaceX company attracted so much attention, today’s newsletter is for you.
Whitman Cobb, who has a Ph.D. Political science says that tourism was the first step in changing space travel from extraordinary to ordinary. And she believes hobbyists in the orbit are a stepping stone to something worthwhile – including settling for Mars, as Musk imagines, or the colonial space to support as many people and industries as possible on the earth, as Bezos wishes.
To me, these sounds like billions of deceptive ideas. But Whitman Cobb’s optimism is a useful point for regular warners in this newsletter that technology is not a magical solution to our problems. Whitman Cobb agreed, but also said that technology has sometimes done magical things in space exploration.
For the past decade or so, corporations such as SpaceX, Bezos’ Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and New Zealand based Rocket Lab have tried to become great players in space flying. Companies are always working with governments on space travel, but now they are more involved in taking astronauts, hobbyists, satellites and luggage into space.
There is debate about the appropriate role of governments in comparing corporations to space, but Whitman Cobb believes that these companies have made root space operations cheap and easy. This frees NASA to dream big on projects like pursuing moon colonies and exploring deep space.
SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have also led astronaut travels. They are a joy for the little ones, but Whitman Cobb said they helped bolster space travel and create excitement for exploring beyond our planet.
“The more ‘ordinary’ people we see fly into space, the more people will see it and possibly be excited,” he told me. “This public opinion is important for many things that these companies and the US government are doing in space.”
(Whitman Cobb said those ideas were his, not the US government’s, which employs him. He also said he did not receive funding from commercial space companies.)
The ultimate goal, though, is far from tourism. Musk and Bezos conceptualize moving people or polluting industries into space or creating a Mars civilization. I worry that there is an excuse to ignore the problems on the planet.
Whitman Cobb understood why I asked why they were careless, but he also did not want us to lose sight of the potential benefits of dreams. The history of space research, he said, is a cookie and not necessarily for high-minded dreamers to be worthwhile and helpful.
In the 1960s, the American mission to the moon was moved to the Soviet Union with a desire to prove American superiority. Nevertheless, nationalist space missions have always helped to accelerate the development of the small electronic products that we use every day, improve health technology and even give us memory foam. The commercial space flight has reduced the cost of space access over the past decade and enabled novel ideas such as small-scale satellite Earths to map it over.
Whitman Cobb said that the latest technology that commercial space companies have created for space flight could likewise extend to other areas helping us.
A self-described space jack, he also said that the fear of space was a worthy goal. “It also covers an itch, so to speak, finding the desire of humanity, discovering and understanding the world around us,” he said.
I asked Whitman Cobb whether she wanted to stay on Mars. “Absolutely,” he replied. “Probably not forever.”
I’m not giving up all my doubts about rocket tourism or the billionaire space concepts. When corporations play a big role in the space, they can combine inventions rather than benefit them to the public. Space tourism also damages the environment, and it is unclear how much space travel and trade is worth. We know that technologies, even assistive ones, are lacking.
Whitman Cobb wants us to doubt that with enthusiasm. The history of space travel, he said, shows that selfish dreams can benefit us all.
Before we go…
More Earth Musk News: He gets into hot water for his toilets. Recently, Musk also bought a large chunk of Twitter stock. Nobody knows what he is doing, reports my colleagues Mike Isaacs and Lauren Hirsch. On Tuesday, Twitter said Musk will be joining the company’s board of directors.
What does an Ulsterist do with a cryptocurrency fate? Sam Bankman-Fried, co-founder of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, is one of the world’s richest people and believes in doing a very good job of using scientific reasoning. Bloomberg News tells us about 30-year-old banker Freud and asks: “Does anyone who wants to save the world collect money and power as much as they can, or does this pursuit spoil it? (A membership is required.)
Related: Ezra Klein, interviewed by my colleague Diane Olson in The Times Opinion, a video essay warning about the dangers of cryptic ideology and culture.
How to recycle your gadget properly: It is not uncommon for batteries in electronics to start fires in landfills and recycling centers. The Washington Post explains how to safely dispose of your gadgets and batteries. (A membership is required.)
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