Billionaire Boys

Jeff Bezos finally launched his giant penis-ship and got to take a ride into space. Richard Branson beat him to it by a week, but the one-upmanship is in full force. Branson’s craft peaked out at about 50 miles (80 km) above the earth’s surface (mean sea level). In the US of A that’s the dividing line between space and not-space. If you go above 50 miles, you’re an astronaut. In the rest of the world they use the so-called Kármán Line which is about 62 miles up (100 km). Bezos made sure his capsule crossed the 100-km boundary. Twenty kilometers isn’t much, about twelve miles as you can see, but it is a bone of contention. You have to figure these guys need something to argue about. When you have enough money to build your own rocketships there can’t be many things left you haven’t done or paid someone to do for you.

I suspect Elon will get in on the act soon and ride a rocket-powered Tesla Model S into space and do a couple of laps around the earth for good measure.

I was seduced by space flight when I was a boy. I was nine-and-a-half when Neil and Buzz walked on the moon and have been a science nerd ever since. I think space exploration is important. I want NASA to operate rovers on Mars and send satellites to Saturn and beyond. There’s so much to learn about our distant neighboring worlds, and so much they can teach us about our own origins.

Sending people into space is an entirely different thing. Unmanned spaceflight is all about the science. Crewed spaceflight is all about the crew—how to keep them alive and functioning at a high level. It’s an enormous barrier to actual exploration. There’s no way human crews could possibly do anything close to what the rovers can do on Mars. It takes too much energy, equipment, and time just to keep the people alive, especially if you expect to get them back home in one piece.

Space exploration is best left to robots. The distances are too great and the environment too unforgiving. Remember that it took the LARGEST ROCKET EVER BUILT to send three guys to the moon for a few days. The moon is only 250 thousand miles away. Mars, at its closest, is 40 million miles away. Next time Elon spouts off about his plans for Mars, just think about those figures and you’ll realize he’s full of shit.

Space travel is what humans are going to do. Some humans, anyway. We aren’t heading out to colonize new worlds on spacefaring arks anytime soon, if ever, so we’ll have to be content with space vacations. They are a bit on the expensive side. The Russians have launched a few space tourists up to the International Space Station. I’ll bet the view is great! Bezos and Branson opted for sub-orbital flights, which are much easier. The ISS is about 250 miles up and it takes quite a bit more thrust to push a rocket into orbit than to just blast it up and let if fall back down.

I’ve no idea whether space travel will actually become affordable. It doesn’t seem likely. But it is going to be a thing. There are a lot of people in the world who have a hell of a lot of disposable money laying around and they are desperate for exciting new adventures. You can’t get a much more exciting new vacation destination than space!

Humans have been launching things into space for decades. The technology is not new. The math is all worked out. These Billionaire Boys—Musk, Branson, Bezos, and their ilk—have the benefit of that vast storehouse of knowledge and experience. They aren’t pioneers. They are building better rockets. They are new and improved rockets, but they are still rockets. They still have to overcome the same physical barriers to get into space. They still have to light off a giant fucking firecracker and blast themselves off the earth. The Vikings made it to North America in a sailboat. Sail power brought people to the Americas for the next 800 years before steam took over. And even with that improvement, a steam-powered boat still had to ride the waves. It took another 100 years before air travel made the journey fundamentally different than it was before.

There is no fundamental breakthrough on the horizon. Humans are still prisoners of their biology and geology. We aren’t going to “beam” anywhere. We’ll have to settle for remote sensing, and even that is subject to the law of physics, namely the speed of light. A radio wave is a light wave and that speed limit means a minimum delay of five minutes when communicating with Mars, for example, and that’s one-way. Space travel is not going to change in our lifetime. There just might be a little more of it.

If these fellows want to spend their billions on their space toys they could at least try to be “green” about it, and I don’t mean “greenbacks.” If they want to be pioneers they can build their rockets with carbon-neutral and net-zero technologies, and power them with green fuels. If you think cars and air conditioners have a big carbon footprint, you’re right. Now think about the carbon footprint of a space vacation industry. Maybe they are already doing such things, and if so, good on them. I know Elon talks a good game, he’s certainly a great salesman, but I don’t know what kind of green commitment his companies actually make. Same for Bezos and Branson. I don’t think Amazon trucks burn natural gas or run on Tesla’s batteries. I don’t think Virgin jets burn bio-diesel.

Maybe they should start there.

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