Are Private Space Adventures A Shared Disaster?

Salvatore Babones does not approve of Virgin Galactic’s space tourism project:

If two words can capture the extraordinary redistribution of wealth from workers to the wealthy over the past forty years, the flagrant shamelessness of contemporary conspicuous consumption, the privatization of what used to be public privileges and the wanton destruction of our atmosphere that is rapidly leading toward the extinction of nearly all non-human life on earth, all covered in a hypocritical pretense of pious environmental virtue … those two words are Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic, billionaire Richard Branson’s space tourism venture, is charging $200,000 a seat for a few minutes of weightlessness and a view from outer space. The firm has so far taken in $70 million in deposits from 536 passengers, according to an August 1 report from Reuters.

Call me old-fashioned, but I personally find it morally offensive that some people can afford to spend $200,000 on a three-minute experience when others can’t afford food. Food first, luxury yachts second and $200,000 suborbital flights last. That’s my motto.

He’s right to be pissed off. A world where some can afford $200,000 for a ten minute suborbital flight where billions starve is at best unfair and at worst insane. Whether this particular luxury is making things worse for the poorest of the poor is another question.

Babones’s main point is that private spaceflight pollutes, creating greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. His secondary point is that very wealthy people are assholes who prefer private luxury over the public good. He adds these values and calculates that private space flight will boil us all alive in the cauldron of global warming. And, yes, he has a valid concern.

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan had a different take on the power of wealth when applied to private space travel, at least,  he did at the time he wrote Contact. In the pages of that book he noted several crucial points:

First, space travel is expensive. The limitation of such a thing to government bodies was a natural result of the ability of a government to amass the capital, labor, and knowledge to create such an industry. Only the wealthiest got the chance to head where only scientists, pilots, or military officers had gone.

Second, environmental repair is expensive. Same reason.

Third, space travel is subversive. The words of those who have flown in orbit are consistently spiritual and instructive:

 ”It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”–Neil Armstrong

“I see Earth! It is so beautiful!”–Yuri Gagarin

“I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets.”–John Glenn

“We can continue to try and clean up the gutters all over the world and spend all of our resources looking at just the dirty spots and trying to make them clean. Or we can lift our eyes up and look into the skies and move forward in an evolutionary way.”–Buzz Aldrin

Fourth, private space travel exposes the people with the greatest levels of wealth to the subversive experience of Earth as a very tiny blue dot in the cosmos. As a result, this  “Oh, Shit!” moment came home to the class of people with the resources to repair the environment and stimulated them into action.

Therefore, space travel for the wealthy was a good thing. (One hopes.)

The bad news is that Contact was a work of fiction.

It will be fascinating to see which line of thinking pans out. There’s every reason to imagine that it won’t go as well as Carl hoped, but it probably won’t be as bad as Babones fears. With 11 million potential clients worldwide, only a few hundred have signed up for the tours.

But . . . those few hundred customers are the ones in the best position to incorporate the spiritual aspect of space flight into their world views. And, since the wealthy tend to gravitate toward each other, they have access to plenty more resources, and can direct those resources toward Earth-healing projects of their own.

We shall see.

America Chooses the Lesser Path

Shuttle Mission STS-135 is officially over. Space Shuttle Atlantis is home. She and her sisters are now grounded. We are done.

I've read a few counter-arguments to that position, but they all fall short of convincing me this is not the end. NASA isn't dead, they say . . . they've just shut down what is arguably the most successful manned space program in history. Humans will still travel to Mars and beyond . . . in 20 or 30 years. Cargo will still be lifted into orbit . . . by private corporations and other nations. Fine. That's not the point.

 NASA TV is now broadcasting landing replays and will most likely have extensive shuttle history coverage for today and the next few days, interspersed with astronaut and flight crew interviews and press conferences, if you're interested or if you want to catch up on anything you may have missed. That's not the point, either, although it is fascinating stuff.

The point is this: for the first time in my life I feel like a member of a dying civilization. For the first time I feel as if the American people have actually chosen to melt down the keys to the universe that they spent half a century collecting. As if we decided that it was just too much trouble to keep going. As if we have chosen the lesser path.

I'm not going to even dwell on the obvious practical shortcomings on this decision. NASA no longer has room to employ over 8,000 people, and they're going to get their pink slips and hearty handshakes and go off to do . . . something productive, I hope. These are 8,000 of the most dedicated, highly trained, talented individuals our society has produced. Letting them go is wrong. It's worse than wrong, it's cutting our entire society's nose off to spite its face. Those people are some of the best trained in the physical sciences in the world. If nothing else they need to be sent into other jobs where they can employ their engineering, design, organization, and technical acumen.

I'm not even going to mention the five hundred or so individuals who have bled, sweat, and died to earn the title astronaut. I don't think I have to. When I was in grade school, if you didn't want to grow up to be an astronaut at some point, there was something wrong with you. Granted, the reality was quite different–astronauts were chosen to be human Guinea pigs, TV celebrities and PR tokens as much as crew*–but we were kids, and we all dreamed of going into space on holiday some day, even as we knew that other future-dreams like teleportation and flying cars were just silly.

We have chosen ignorance over knowledge, consumption over production, banality over creativity. Worse, we have chosen to integrate the lesson that anything we aren't already doing cannot be done, when even a cursory examination of our history tells us exactly the opposite.

I don't know what happens after this. I have a vague sense that someone else will pick up where we chose to leave off, and I wish whomever does so all the luck in the universe. And why not? It will be theirs for the taking.


*Susan Faludi documents these aspects of the Gemini and Apollo programs in her book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.

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