Maybe you’ve wondered like me: Is there any point in launching rich guys like Jeff Bezos and “Star Trek” actor William Shatner into space?
Wendy Whitman Cobb, Air Force political scientist for space, says yes. Our conversation challenged my thinking about space projects, like those of Bezos and Elon Musk, that imagine a future far from Earth.
If you shouted “MIDLIFE CRISIS” when Bezos hit space last year or wondered why Musk’s SpaceX company got so much attention, today’s newsletter is for you.
Whitman Cobb, Ph.D. in political science, said tourist getaways were a first step in turning space travel from weird to routine. And she thinks hobbyists in orbit are a testing ground for laudable ambitions – including settling on Mars, as Musk imagines, or colonizing space to support more people and industries than he can. is possible on Earth, as Bezos aspires.
To me, it sounds like billionaire escape fantasies. But Whitman Cobb’s optimism is a useful counterpoint to this newsletter’s regular warnings that technology is not a magic bullet for our problems. Whitman Cobb agrees, but also said technology has sometimes done magical things in space exploration.
Looking back over the last decade, companies such as SpaceX, Bezos’ Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and New Zealand start-up Rocket Lab have tried to become bigger players in spaceflight. Companies have always worked with governments on space travel, but they are now more involved in transporting astronauts, enthusiasts, satellites and cargo into space.
There is some debate over the appropriate role of governments versus corporations in space, but Whitman Cobb thinks these corporations have made rote space tasks cheaper and easier. This frees NASA to dream big on projects such as pursuing lunar colonies and deep space exploration.
SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have also conducted space pleasure cruises. They’re rides for the few, but Whitman Cobb said they’ve helped make space travel safer and generated excitement for research beyond our planet.
“The more ‘normal’ people we see flying in space, the more the public will see this as possible and get excited about it,” she told me. “That public opinion is key to a lot of the things these companies as well as the U.S. government are doing in space.”
(Whitman Cobb said those opinions were her own, and not those of the US government, which employs her. She also said she has not received funding from commercial space companies.)
The ultimate goal, however, goes far beyond tourism. Musk and Bezos imagine moving people or polluting industries into space or creating a Mars civilization. I fear this is an excuse to ignore the problems on Earth.
Whitman Cobb understands why I asked if these were reckless illusions, but she also doesn’t want us to lose sight of the potential benefits of dreaming. The history of space exploration, she said, is made of far-fetched and not necessarily lofty visions that become attainable and useful.
American missions to the Moon in the 1960s were motivated by a desire to prove American superiority over the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, nationalist space missions have helped spur the development of ever-smaller electronic devices we use every day, improved health technologies, and even given us memory foam. The commercial spaceflight boom of the past decade has lowered the cost of accessing space and enabled new ideas such as small-scale satellites to map Earth from above.
Whitman Cobb said the advanced technology being developed by commercial space companies for spaceflight could also trickle down to other areas that help us.
A self-proclaimed space geek, she also said fear of space was a worthy goal. “It also scratches an itch, so to speak, of humanity’s desire to explore, discover and understand the world around us,” she said.
I asked Whitman Cobb if she wanted to live on Mars. “Absolutely,” she replied. “Maybe not forever.”
I don’t dismiss all my doubts about rocket tourism or billionaire space fantasies. When companies play a big role in the space, they might hoard inventions rather than share them with the public. Space tourism also harms the environment, and it’s unclear how much space travel and commerce is worth. We know that even the most useful technologies have drawbacks.
Whitman Cobb wants us to have that skepticism alongside excitement. The history of space travel, she said, shows that selfish dreams can benefit everyone.
More Earthbound Musk news: He got himself in hot water for his tweets. Recently, Musk also bought a large chunk of Twitter stock. Nobody really knows what he’s doing, report my colleagues Mike Isaac and Lauren Hirsch. On Tuesday, Twitter announced that Musk would join the company’s board.
What does an altruist do with a fortune in cryptocurrency? Sam Bankman-Fried, co-founder of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, is one of the richest people in the world and believes in using scientific reasoning to do the most good. Bloomberg News tells us about Bankman-Fried, 30, and asks, “Should someone who wants to save the world first amass as much money and power as possible, or should the pursuit corrupt him along the way?” (Subscription may be required.)
Related: Ezra Klein, my Times Opinion colleague, interviewed 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 batteries in electronic devices to start fires at landfills and recycling centers. The Washington Post explains how to dispose of your gadgets and batteries safely. (Subscription may be required.)
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