Space tourism is not just about horseback riding

You may have wondered like me: does it make sense to throw rich guys like Jeff Bezos and 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, such as those from Bezos and Elon Musk, that envision a future far from Earth.

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

Whitman Cobb, who has a doctorate. in political science, he said that tourist trips are the first step in transforming space travel from unusual to routine. And she believes that amateurs in orbit are a testing ground for valuable ambitions – including inhabiting Mars, as Musk imagines, or colonizing space to support more people and industry than is possible on Earth, as Bezos aspires.

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

To rewind the past decade, corporations such as SpaceX, Bezos ’Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and New Zealand start-up 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 carrying astronauts, enthusiasts, satellites and cargo into space.

There is debate about the appropriate role of governments in relation to corporations in space, but Whitman Cobb believes these companies have made tasks in space cheaper and easier. This frees NASA from dreaming big dreams about projects such as searching for colonies on the moon and exploring deep space.

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

“The more ‘normal’ people we see flying into space, the more the public will see what is possible and get excited about it,” she told me. , work in space. ”

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

The ultimate goal, however, goes beyond tourism. Musk and Bezos imagine moving people or polluting industry into space or creating a civilization of Mars. I worry that this is an excuse to ignore the problems on Earth.

Whitman Cobb understood why I asked if these were reckless misconceptions, but she also doesn’t want us to lose sight of the potential benefits of dreaming. The history of space exploration, she said, has silly and not necessarily high-minded visions that are becoming feasible and useful.

The American missions to the Moon in the 1960s were driven by a desire to prove American superiority over the Soviet Union. Yet nationalist space missions have helped spur the development of the smaller 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 above.

Whitman Cobb said the advanced technology developed by commercial space companies for space flights could also leak into other areas that help us.

A self-proclaimed space nerd, she also said that awe of space is a worthwhile goal. “It also, so to speak, improves 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 replied. “Maybe not forever.”

I do not reject all my doubts about rocket tourism or space fantasies of billionaires. When corporations play a big role in space, they could pile up inventions instead of benefiting the public. Space tourism also harms the environment, and it is not clear how much space travel and trade are worth. We know that technologies, even useful ones, have their drawbacks.

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

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

  • What does an altruist do with cryptocurrency wealth? Bankman-Fried himself, co-founder of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange, 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 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 the search ruin it along the way?” (Subscription may be required.)

    Related: Ezra Klein, my colleague at the Times Opinion, 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 electronics batteries to cause fires in landfills and recycling centers. The Washington Post explains how to safely dispose of your devices and batteries. (Subscription may be required.)

Enjoy breakfast with these pigs, Pickle, Winnie and Domino.

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