We once marvelled at Neil Armstrong. Now space is a playground for the rich | John Harris

Nasas greatest feats were a triumph for mankind. History will be less kind to todays space pioneers, says Guardian columnist John Harris


The promised journey is from Earth to the edge of space, rather than London Euston to Crewe, but the story of Richard Bransons company Virgin Galactic still has echoes of a bad passenger experience on his trains. For the best part of a decade, his potential customers have been waiting for an experience that was meant to arrive in 2011, with only one certainty to hang on to: the tickets are eye-wateringly expensive. The price for Virgin rocket travel now apparently hovers at around 250,000, and reports suggest that among those patiently waiting to climb aboard are Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

Now, though, there may finally be a breakthrough. Even if he said something very similar in 2017, Branson claims that the rocket-powered craft known as VSS Unity is weeks, not months away from reaching the all-important altitude of 80.4km (264,000ft) above Earth which means that the first paying passengers should be experiencing weightlessness and marvelling at the curvature of the Earth not too long after. As and when that happens, the feat will be framed in terms of a win for him over the two other tycoons who are spending an inordinate amount of money on private space flight: the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with Blue Origin, and that increasingly accident-prone visionary Elon Musk, the brains behind the electric car firm Tesla, and Space Exploration Technologies Corp, better known as SpaceX.

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I am a child of the 1970s, when the first space age was slowly drawing to a close. In those days, fired by the deep rivalries of the cold war, space exploration and travel were collectivist endeavours, and the monopoly of the two super-powerful governments that had unique access to the necessary funds (in the case of the Apollo programme, which put people on the moon, well over $100bn [76bn] in todays prices). As is portrayed in the new Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, American astronauts were apparently modest and unrufflable men, chosen for precisely those qualities. At the space races peak, the teams that oversaw their amazing journeys dissolved into a sea of respectable haircuts and short-sleeved shirts, so anonymous that the names of some of the key people in charge the Nasa administrator James E Webb, or the agencys deputy associate administrator, George E Mueller have been all but lost to history. In retrospect, this represented the ultimate triumph of the postwar bureaucratic state, before the early 1980s began the era in which it was endlessly dismantled.

The stupefyingly pointless spectacle of a mannequin in one of Elon Musks cars orbiting the Earth. Photograph: SPACEX/EPA

While the idea of state-led space travel may yet be decisively revived by China, the new space race in the west is something almost surreally different: a competition between rich, often knowingly flamboyant entrepreneurs, whose motivations are open to speculation. For sure, some of their innovations are genuinely useful: witness SpaceXs reusable rockets. But too often, there is a telling gap between these peoples professed ambitions, and the anticlimactic stunts that currently earn them the biggest headlines something perfectly symbolised by Musks talk of colonies on Mars, and that stupefyingly pointless spectacle of a mannequin in one of his sports cars, launched into space back in February, and then stranded in orbit. Such spectacles, perhaps, are a distraction from rising questions about how exactly private space flight should be regulated, both because of its dangers (in 2014, a pilot was killed while testing one of Virgin Galactics space-planes), and the rising sense that some elements of the new space race are built on a very earthly kind of greed. The latter is evidenced by the companies that have plans for asteroid mining, prospecting on the moon and, by way of a punchline provided by a Japanese firm called ispace Inc, projecting adverts on to the lunar surface.

Tellingly, the roots of a lot of what is happening lie in the thinking of small-state libertarians who hoovered up the work of the US author Ayn Rand, and saw Nasas retreat from space exploration as decisive proof of the uselessness of government. A good example is Peter Diamandis, who has worked with Branson on space flight and founded the X Prize Foundation. His first big act was the awarding of $10m to the people who in 2004 took a privately built craft called SpaceShipOne just beyond the Earths atmosphere. In 1994, he drafted a charter for early work on private space flight. Throughout all of history, he wrote, the greatest accomplishments of the human race have been instigated and acted upon by the individual or the small group never have the masses brought about innovation.

In this vision, it seemed, space travel was to be the preserve of a self-conscious elite largely untroubled by governments and less interested in exploring new frontiers on our behalf than in leaving the rest of us behind. And so, perhaps, it is proving. Blue Origin will reportedly soon be offering brief trips to the edge of space for up to $300,000 a throw. As soon as 2023, SpaceX will transport the Japanese retail tycoon Yusaku Maezawa around the moon, a privilege for which he has paid an undisclosed sum. The US company Axiom Space is working on a private space station it claims will be launched in 2022. The people in charge promise a microgravity laboratory where educators, scientists and researchers conduct life-improving research, but the most remarkable part of the plan is a proposal to take high-worth individuals into space for eight days, at a cost of $55m each.

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You can only wonder: in place of Armstrongs first small step, what will that give the rest of us to marvel at? The revelation that rich people experience weightlessness too?

Richard Branson in front of Virgin Galactics SpaceShipTwo in 2016. Photograph: Mark J Terrill/AP

Even if they are not up there with the colossal amounts spent by Nasa in the 1960s and 70s, the sums of money going into the new space race are still mind-boggling. Virgin Galactic came into being thanks to an initial $100m of funding from Bransons Virgin Group, and subsequently received around four times that amount from a sovereign wealth fund based in Abu Dhabi. Bezos is funding Blue Origin to the tune of at least $1bn a year; SpaceX is reckoned to have an annual turnover of nearly $2bn.

Meanwhile, an emergency is happening back on boring old planet Earth: the growing crisis of climate change, dramatically highlighted by the recent IPCC report that warned we have no more than 12 years to avoid an ecological catastrophe. Many of the new space entrepreneurs, including Branson and Bezos, are funding some research in this field; Musks electric cars are an undoubtedly worthwhile contribution. But if the same people have a shared vision of innumerable private rockets leaving Earth whenever there is enough business, it may be worth bearing in mind the volume of carbon emissions that will entail, and the much-reported view of a California-based rocket engineer called Martin Ross, who says: We now understand that the climate and ozone impacts of rocket exhaust are completely intertwined. Besides, an even bigger question surely cries out for an answer: if the Earth is burning, why is so much money being frittered away on sending cars, pop stars and bond traders into orbit?

We may now be faced with a kind of space exploration that doesnt hold out any of the romantic promise of yesteryear, but simply reflects the kind of terrestrial injustices to which the new spacemen perhaps give far too little thought.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

Original Article : HERE ; This post was curated & posted using : RealSpecific

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