Billionaire Spaceflight

I watched Jeff Bezos go to space this morning. An eleven minute ride that cost a purported $28 million to buy a seat at auction. After they landed, the people covering the event (which was being broadcast by Bezos’ company) called the four people who had gone up “the latest American astronauts,” or something like that, which struck me as an ill-fitting description. What, exactly, had these people done?

Bezos had paid to fund the whole thing, true, but the entire Apollo program cost around $100 billion in today’s dollars. Bezos has twice that, so he’s got the wherewithal to fund things better than NASA did back then. He also has the benefit of doing it all fifty years later, with technology that’s much more advanced than anything that was around back then. Does that make him an astronaut, or a passenger?

The flight was guided completely by artificial intelligence. The vehicle is totally autonomous, from what I gathered. It rockets up more than 60 miles into the air, then jettisons the rocket that got them there. It guides itself back to land on the ground, and the capsule floats down later on. I don’t believe the people in the capsule did anything other than look out the window. Does that make them astronauts? Was Laika an astronaut?

I don’t mean to dismiss the feat. These sort of trips (like the other one Branson did a week or so ago) mark an important turning point in the way we interact with space. If a bunch of millionaires want to use their money to buy tickets on rockets, thereby funding more efforts to develop more things in space, then that seems like a pretty good way to get it done. As these trips become more commonplace and more accessible, it brings other things more into reach as well.

The Space Race was funded by fear. Fear that the United States would fall behind the USSR, both militarily and technologically. But once that competition was over, with the US coming out “victorious,” the public goodwill behind the program just wasn’t enough to sustain it. There hasn’t been money to support it from government coffers, so (realistically) if we’re going to keep expanding our reach and exploring, it appears ventures by companies is the way to go. How will that affect the ultimate end product? No idea.

I’ve seen a number of comments about people mad at Bezos, or disparaging him for doing something that wasn’t a big deal. Wasting his money where there are so many other immediate problems that need solving. But I don’t see it that way. The remarkable thing about these feats isn’t that someone successfully went up to space and back in a short 10 minute journey. It’s that multiple companies are far enough along now that voyages like this are possible. I’m very excited to see where things head from here, and I can think of many worse ways for Bezos to spend a chunk of change. In the long run, I think these efforts might well pay off in ways we can only dream of for now.

Of course, I’ve also seen plenty of comments saying they think the whole thing was a hoax, and that Bezos never really went up at all. To me, those comments are a constant reminder of how much we need science in our lives. Logic. Reason. Some people appear to have given up on it entirely, preferring to believe anything that’s more convenient for them. (Why it’s more comfortable to believe the earth is flat and we’ve never been to space is beyond me, but stressful times cause different people to react in very different ways.)

Would *I* go to space right now? I don’t think so. I certainly wouldn’t want to spend that sort of money (if I had it available.) I’m just super comfortable with other people spending it. In a way, it’s like the lottery, except I don’t have to worry that people who don’t have sufficient funds are being essentially taxed to line the pockets of the few (and pay for some local needs of the many). I am mindful of the potential impact these sort of flights will have on the environment, but I also believe they’ll lead to potential solutions to the those same problems. The fact that they aren’t carbon neutral right at the beginning seems to me to be a poor reason not to do it.

But maybe I’m just way too much into space exploration.


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