As space-bound billionaires compete for airtime, and nations set their sights on Moon and Mars landings, a familiar question is raised: why? (And did they make it?)
Back in the 1960s, a good proportion of Americans didn’t think it was a good idea to go to the Moon: 47% of them thought it wasn’t worth the government’s money, which would be better spent on their home planet.
In 2019, on the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Moon landing, New Scientist addressed its own historic opposition, and its claims that the Apollo missions were exercises in “prestigious prancing”. The article finished by questioning whether humans would ever again walk on the lunar surface.
“So did we have the last laugh, or will we see people step onto the Moon again within our lifetime?” they wrote. “Only time (and public opinion) will tell.”
Cue the new space race! Nations are lining up to send spacecraft to the Moon, and planning crewed missions – even on to Mars. And a succession of billionaires are launching themselves into space in a new competition that raises the same questions: is this just a flagrant waste of money, or a vanguard move?
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson went first (or did he?), pipping Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos by a week and a bit. Filling out the rich-list triumvirate is Elon Musk, who will soon reportedly fly on Branson’s craft, rather than with his own SpaceX ship.
The three have copped some heat. A Guardian headline read: “Bezos blasted for travelling to space while Amazon workers toil on planet Earth.” An article in The Conversation declared the race to space “the ultimate symbol of capitalism’s flawed obsession with growth”. Slate asked why Bezos’ rocket looked like a phallus…
US Senator Bernie Sanders suggested there might be a problem with “an economic system which sees a handful of billionaires grow their wealth massively during a pandemic, and zoom around space in rocket ships, while millions of people struggle to keep a roof over their heads in the richest country on Earth”.
Musk fought back against the criticism, tweeting: “Those who attack space maybe don’t realise that space represents hope for so many people.”
These public spats, though, don’t tell the whole story.
What’s it worth?
Musk, Branson and Bezos have become an integral part of Space 2.0, and Space 2.0 has become an integral part of life – including for Australians.
Space, for decades now, has been a critical part of Australia’s military, its communications networks, and more.
James Brown, chief executive officer of the Space Industry Association of Australia, likens it to air travel in the early days. Rich people subsidised it until it became ubiquitous enough to be accessible to all – and indispensable.
“I get the criticism,” he says. “But I think it comes from those people who view space as a luxury or a frivolity, not as something that’s essential. They ask: why are you doing this when there are problems to solve on Earth?
Cue the new space race! A succession of billionaires are launching themselves into space in a new competition that raises the same questions: is this just a flagrant waste of money, or a vanguard move?
“But space is so essential – you can’t afford to view it as a luxury at all. Beyond the hype and PR stunts, these are three of the shrewdest business people in the world.”
It’s not like Formula 1 racing, he says, which the world can do without. We can no longer get by without space. Our very phones depend on it.
Brown also points to estimates that the Apollo missions had an impressive return on investment – as much as $17 for every $1 spent. This comes from the ‘spinoff’ and ‘spillover’ effects, where ambitious projects fuel technological developments that spread into other uses and industries.
Space tourism alone could be worth $8 billion by 2030.
Brown points out that it’s not about sending people up and down, but point to point. Think London to Sydney in 90 minutes.
“We’re at the first inflexion point, making it okay for non-astronauts,” he says. “Now it’s about making it cheap. Air travel is subsidised by the billionaires and millionaires up the front – this is just an extreme example. I’m really excited to see how quickly it develops.”
And the investment from the US will give Australian investors and people looking to transition into the space workforce more confidence, he says.
But as more people snap up tickets to space (at a cost of up to $28 million a trip), there’s another worry.
Space flights emit 100 times more CO2 per passenger than airline flights. They also use a large range of propellants – including liquid hydrogen, nitrogen and nitrous oxide – which shunt up to 300 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere, according to one report. And it’s not clear yet what effect those gases will have, even as Virgin Galactic estimates it will soon reach 400 launches a year. (How many electric cars would Musk’s Tesla have to sell in order to offset the number of SpaceX launches?)
Meanwhile, space junk presents a very real problem in orbit. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have reusable rockets, but plenty of other private enterprises don’t.
And if that debris does come back down to Earth, it could be polluting the oceans when it ends up in the Spacecraft Cemetery.
A possible counter-argument to all this rampant burning of fuel is the Overview Effect. Seeing Earth from space has long been reported to instil a sense of responsibility for the planet into space travellers. Australian-born former NASA astronaut Andy Thomas says: “It turns you into an environmentalist. You get an appreciation of the finite resources represented by the Earth.”
Bezos was chasing that effect. “Every astronaut, everybody who’s been up into space, they say that it changes them,” he said on his return. “And they’re kind of amazed and awestruck by the Earth and its beauty, but also by its fragility. And I can vouch for that.”
What even is space?
Bezos and Branson bantered a bit about who had the biggest flight. Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceplane went to 86 km in altitude, past the NASA-recognised limit about 80 km above mean sea level. Bezos’ Blue Origin New Shepard craft reached 107 km, above the 100 km mark that’s recognised by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), an international record-keeping body for aeronautics, as the Kármán line, or the start of space.
According to Jonti Horner, an astronomer at the University of Southern Queensland, the point where space starts is “one of those questions that’s a bit like saying, ‘When are you old enough to drink?’ or ‘When are you old enough to drive?’ Every country has their own version of an answer”.
Horner suspects that the main thing driving the ‘where does space start?’ discussion is probably a legal thing: “You know, at what point does it stop being your territory and start being space?” he says.
The Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law, may state that space itself is free for all to explore and use, but sovereign airspace above nations is a different matter. There are different laws governing ‘space’ and ‘air space’, and there is no international law defining an edge of space. COPUOS, the Committee on Peaceful Uses Of Outer Space, has been grappling with the issue since 1966 and they still haven’t settled on an answer.
All of the definitions, Horner says, are “equally as good as each other and equally bad as each other.
“Now that we are in this era of commercial space tourism, suddenly people want to know where [the boundary] is because they want to know that what they did was really good enough.”
Australian National University astronomer Brad Tucker says the question is both interesting and tricky.
“If we solely try to use, say, the atmosphere (as a measure), well there are not clear boundaries. If you use the edge between the mesophere and thermosphere, there is not a clear boundary or line. It doesn’t all of a sudden change,” he says.
But space is so essential – you can’t afford to view it as a luxury at all. Beyond the hype and PR stunts, these are three of the shrewdest business people in the world. We can no longer get by without space. Our very phones depend on it.
“Using gravity (as delineation) is also hard since gravity technically goes on forever. Earth’s gravity affects the Moon, Jupiter, and even further.
“The closest physical thing you could probably use is the height at which you can complete an orbit around the Earth. At this height, you are going around the Earth, as opposed to sub-orbital (like Virgin Galactic), which can’t quite go all the way around the Earth in a loop. However, this height changes regularly as the atmosphere changes from density variations and even storms from the Sun.”
Tucker says it’s a matter of just choosing a height. “This is why the 100 km mark kind of makes sense. It is near the orbital height, and it’s a nice round number that we can all remember! However, since the US is anti-metric, 50 miles is a nice round number near it as well.
“The easiest solution, to me, is for the US to adopt metric!”
What else was different?
Both boys’ toys are about 18 metres long, and reusable.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard has a pressurised crew capsule on top. It’s “spacious” and “environmentally controlled for comfort” and every passenger gets a window seat. And they are all passengers – it’s fully autonomous, so no pilot. After some weightlessness time, the capsule falls back to Earth and lands safely under parachutes.
There are ring and wedge fins and drag brakes to help the booster get back. Its engine slows the booster down to about 8km/h for a controlled landing, with the help of its landing gear.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity takes off from a runway, with a mothership carrying the spaceship up – it looks a little like two conjoined planes carrying a baby between them. Then the spaceship launches from the mothership and the passengers have some weightlessness time before the pilots takes the ship down to land on the same runway from which it took off.
So, um, why did Bezos’ look like a phallus?
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, told The Guardian that it’s perfectly fine to have a rocket where the crew capsule is wider than the booster because it provides more room for those inside. And the ridge near the top is to accommodate a fin that helps on re-entry.
“They can’t not have noticed,” McDowell says. “You’ve got to imagine there was a meeting where someone went, ‘Do you really want to fly looking like this?’ But I’m guessing an engineer got up and said, ‘This is what the math says. This is the optimum configuration. So this is what we’re gonna fly’.”
Tory Shepherd is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist who has covered Space 2.0 for The Advertiser.