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Private space - not the final frontier, just the next one

21 July 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

You might be surprised how many businesses are already in space

Star Trek made the line that space was the final frontier famous. It is true. Everything humanity has ever done is contained on a tiny speck floating in space.

Carl Sagan called it the pale blue dot based on the image from the Voyager 1 spacecraft that was taken in 1990 when the craft had traveled about 6 billion kilometers from Earth, the picture of the galaxy included Earth which was no more than a pale blue dot on the image. Less than an hour later Voyager would shut down its camera never to take another image.

It took all of human history to get us to having the first person breach the bounds of gravity and orbit the Earth just once in 1961. Yuri Gagarin represented the first living thing that had taken billions of years of evolution to determine how to rise high enough above the Earth to remain there.

Douglas Adams described flying as throwing yourself at the ground and missing.

This month two separate private companies demonstrated that 60 years after humanity’s successful attempt at missing the Earth and 52 years after we went even further to land on the Moon, that space was going corporate.

Most nations, including South Africa, have space agencies. A smaller group have satellites in orbit and a select few have citizens that go to space.

While the trips by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin don’t compare to the milestones already mentioned, they are nevertheless very significant to how space becomes the next frontier beyond the creative writings of Gene Rodenberry.

Who is in space

The most expensive structure ever created is passing overhead once every 90 minutes with typically 7 humans on board. The International Space Station has permanently had someone on board for the last two decades.

It has been the best illustration of human cooperation that for the most part has united even adversarial governments. Space travelers understand that you can’t see borders from space.

41 nations have had a citizen go to space, for South Africa the first and only so far was Mark Shuttleworth in 2002 although we might be able to claim Elon Musk when he deicides to join his billionaire buddies in the years to come.

The most recent nation to have a citizen join the club was the United Arab Emirates in 2019.

The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was not about the first private person to go to space, but in 2001 Dennis Tito was the first person to pay to go to space. Although a Japanese journalist, Toyohiro Akiyama, was the first non-astronaut to get to space

The oldest now and the youngest were on board the trip with Jeff Bezos on 20 July 2021. Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk was 82 and Oliver Daemen at 18 is the youngest. When Daemon is the same age as Funk, 64 years would have passed, more time than has elapsed since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the Moon.

© NASA taken on 7 December 1972, 29 000 km from Earth by the Apollo 17 crew, it was the first full lit image of the Earth from space and has come to be known as the Blue Marble image.

Why go to space

Humans typically do things for three reasons. To avoid death, out of obligation to someone or something more powerful than them or to get something valuable in return.

The Space Race was triggered by the cold war between Russia and the USA. But appeared to be settled after the moon landings.

The race may be starting up again thanks to China beginning to assert itself as a dominant space faring nation.

Data is a new currency and you can see lots from space so that is one reason.

Missions to the Moon and beyond will need supplies and materials. If those can be created or collected in space it would make it cheaper and easier to expand further.

For many other materials needed for our modern lifestyles, harvesting those resources from space may prove more economical than current methods.

Finally going to space may be a way to save us from natural disasters that nearly wiped out life on Earth in the past. The same asteroids that could supply us with important materials could one day threaten to kill everyone.

How private is space

13 companies have businesses that are based on going to space, many more are based on building and supplying those companies and in the next decade there is likely to be a significant increase in new businesses looking to service new sectors and others to fund them. Space investment funds, indexes and stocks.

We can expect space related companies to become like the original commercial fleets that benefited from European colonisation, shipping new and valuable cargoes from around the globe back to Europe. The risks were big but so too were the rewards.

We already have a UN agency for Outer Space Affairs, but we can expect to see it become a lot more active. We will need to have a way to apply laws and regulate work practices.

And one day when the first human is born off planet we will need to determine which nation they belong to. Do they pay taxes or vote or have the right to travel to any country on Earth?

Space is now only for rich tourists

While the two new services that were tested are aimed at space tourism with SpaceX looking to offer trips around the Moon and the original Space Adventures still operating.

For many the idea of the super rich getting to go to space is an indicator of how unequal the world is. Some have thought that the privilege should be heavily taxed. Not for leaving but for returning.

But there is a potentially important positive that can come from the super wealthy going to space, becoming less selfish.

Those that have been to space talk about how the experience has a deep impact on how they view the world. Rather than a collection of countries and regions, it becomes a single thing. I have found that travel allows me to appreciate the diverse wonders of the world, but also how good it is where I live. The same thing appears to apply to going to space. Rather than appreciating just where you live, you come to be grateful we have the world in the first place.

If the world’s elite are to use their wealth for something other than amassing more wealth, a trip to space may be just the thing to get them to begin to use it to protect the planet and change the business practices they employ.

It may one day be a requirement for anyone that exceeds a certain wealth or will take high office or is to be appointed a senior business position to be sent to space.

And given our past, we can’t rule out that those that don’t work in the interests of protecting the planet, might be consigned to spend the rest of their days at some distant outpost off world.

21 July 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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