Space tourism is not just a joyous ride

You may have wondered, as I did: does it make sense to launch rich guys like Jeff Bezos and Star Trek actor William Shatner into space?

Wendy Whitman Cobb, a BBC space scientist, says yes. Our conversation sparked my thoughts on space projects, such as those of Bezos and Elon Musk, imagining a future far from Earth.

If you screamed “MIDDLE LIFE CRISIS” when Bezos touched space last year, or asked why Musk’s SpaceX company got so much attention, today’s newsletter is for you.

Whitman Cobb, who has a doctorate. in political science, said touring is the first step in transforming space travel from unusual to routine. And she believes that amateurs in orbit are a place to prove worthy ambitions – including the settlement of Mars, as Musk imagines, or the colonization of space to support more people and industry than is possible on Earth, as Bezos seeks. .

To me, this sounds like an escape from the fantasies of billionaires. But Whitman Cobb’s optimism is a useful counterpoint to this bulletin’s regular warnings that technology is not the magic solution to our problems. Whitman Cobb agrees, but also said that technology has sometimes done magical things in space exploration.

To take the past decade back, corporations such as SpaceX, Bezos’ Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and New Zealand-based Rocket Lab have tried to become bigger players in space flight. Companies have always worked with governments on space travel, but are now more involved in transporting astronauts, enthusiasts, satellites and cargo into space.

There is debate about the appropriate role of governments against corporations in space, but Whitman Cobb believes these companies have made space tasks cheaper and easier. This frees NASA from dreaming of big projects such as chasing moon colonies and deep space exploration.

SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have also led space pleasure cruises. These are joyous walks for a few, but Whitman Cobb said they have helped improve the safety of space travel and generated enthusiasm for searching beyond our planet.

“The more ‘normal’ people we see flying in space, the more the audience will see it and get excited about it,” she told me. “This public opinion is key to many things that these companies, as well as the US government, are doing in space.

(Whitman Cobb said those views were hers, not those of the U.S. government that hired her. She also said she did not receive funding from commercial space companies.)

However, the ultimate goal goes far beyond tourism. Musk and Bezos envision the relocation of people or the pollution of industries in space or the creation of a civilization on Mars. I am worried that this is a pretext to ignore the problems on Earth.

Whitman Cobb understood why I asked if these were reckless delusions, but he also didn’t want us to lose sight of the potential benefits of dreaming. The history of space exploration, she said, has deceptive and not necessarily arrogant visions that become feasible and useful.

US missions to the moon in the 1960s were driven by a desire to prove American superiority over the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, nationalist space missions have helped stimulate the development of the dwindling electronics we use every day, improved health technology, and even given us memory foam. The boom in commercial spaceflight over the past decade has reduced the cost of access to space and enabled new ideas such as small satellites to map the Earth from above.

Whitman Cobb said the advanced technology that commercial space companies have developed for spaceflight could also flow into other areas that help us.

A self-determined space maniac, she also said that awe of space is a worthy goal. “It also scratches the itch, so to speak, of humanity’s longing to explore, discover and understand the world around us,” she said.

I asked Whitman Cobb if she would like to live on Mars. “Absolutely,” she said. “Maybe not forever.”

I do not dismiss all my doubts about rocket tourism or the space fantasies of billionaires. When corporations play a big role in space, they could store inventions instead of making them useful to society. Space tourism is also harmful to the environment and it is not clear how much space travel and trade are worth. We know that technologies, even useful ones, have drawbacks.

Whitman Cobb wants us to have this skepticism along with the excitement. The history of space travel, she said, shows that selfish dreams can benefit us all.


  • More news for Earthbound Musk: He went into the hot water for his tweets. Musk also recently bought a large stake in Twitter. No one knows exactly what he’s doing, my colleagues Mike Isaac and Lauren Hirsch said. On Tuesday, Twitter announced that Musk would join the company’s board of directors.

  • What does an altruist with wealth in cryptocurrency do? Sam Bankman-Fried, co-founder of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange, is one of the richest people in the world and believes in using scientific reasoning to do his best. Bloomberg News tells us about the 30-year-old Bankman-Fried and asks: “Should someone who wants to save the world first raise as much money and power as possible, or will persecution ruin his path?” (A subscription may be required.)

    Connected: Ezra Klein, a colleague of mine at the Times Opinion, interviews Dan Olson, a video essayist who warns of the dangers of crypto ideology and culture.

  • How to properly recycle your gadgets: It is not uncommon for electronics batteries to ignite fires in landfills and recycling centers. The Washington Post explains how to safely dispose of your gadgets and batteries. (A subscription may be required.)

Enjoy breakfast with these piglets, pickles, me and dominoes.


We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think about this newsletter and what else you want to explore. You can contact us at ontech@nytimes.com.

If you still do not receive this newsletter in your inbox, please register here. You can also read previous columns On Tech.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.