Billionaires blasting off: Space tourism isn’t just joyriding
Whitman Cobb, who has a Ph.D. in political science, said that tourist jaunts were a first step to transform space travel from outlandish to routine.
Maybe you’ve wondered as I have: Is there a point to rocketing rich guys like Jeff Bezos and the “Star Trek” actor William Shatner into space? Wendy Whitman Cobb, an Air Force political scientist for space, says yes. Our conversation challenged my thinking about space projects, like those from Bezos and Elon Musk, that imagine a future away from Earth. If you screamed “MIDLIFE CRISIS” when Bezos touched space last year or asked why Musk’s SpaceX company has attracted so much attention, today’s newsletter is for you.
Whitman Cobb, who has a Ph.D. in political science, said that tourist jaunts were a first step to transform space travel from outlandish to routine. And she believes that amateurs in orbit are a proving ground for worthy ambitions — including settling Mars, as Musk imagines, or colonizing space to support more people and industry than is possible on Earth, as Bezos aspires to.
To me, those sound like the escapist fantasies of billionaires. But Whitman Cobb’s optimism is a useful counterpoint to this newsletter’s regular warnings that technology is not a magical fix to our problems. Whitman Cobb agrees, but also said that technology had sometimes done magical things in space exploration.
To rewind the past decade, corporations such as SpaceX, Bezos’ Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and the New Zealand-based start-up Rocket Lab have tried to become bigger players in spaceflight. Companies have always worked with governments on space travel, but now they’re more involved in carrying astronauts, enthusiasts, satellites and cargo to space. There is debate about the appropriate role of governments versus corporations in space, but Whitman Cobb believes those companies have made rote space tasks cheaper and easier. That frees up NASA to dream big on projects such as pursuing moon colonies and exploring deep space.
SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have also led space pleasure cruises. Those are joyrides for a tiny few, but Whitman Cobb said that they helped hone the safety of space travel and generated enthusiasm for searching beyond our planet.
“The more ‘normal’ people we see fly into space, more of the public will see this as possible and be excited by it,” she told me. “That public opinion is key to a lot of things that these companies as well as the U.S. government is doing in space.”
The ultimate goal, though, goes far beyond tourism. Musk and Bezos imagine moving people or polluting industries into space or creating a Mars civilization. I worry that is a pretext to ignore problems on Earth. Whitman Cobb understood why I asked if those were reckless delusions, but she also doesn’t want us to lose sight of the potential benefits from dreaming. The history of space exploration, she said, is of kooky and not necessarily high-minded visions becoming doable and helpful.
The U.S. missions to the moon in the 1960s were driven by a desire to prove American superiority over the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, nationalist space missions helped spur the development of ever-smaller electronics that we use every day, improved health technology and even gave us memory foam. The past decade’s boom in commercial spaceflight has lowered the cost of space access and enabled novel ideas like small-scale satellites to map the Earth from above it.
Ovide is a tech writer with NYT©2022
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