Rocket Doc Notes for Week of July 18, 2021
Feedback from Billionaires in Space
There has been a lot of media comment following the Branson and Bezos spaceflights earlier this week. I thought I would enclose a few of the more interesting ones and give you my view (in Parenthesis) Letter to the Los Angeles times – July 15, 2021 To the editor: The United States is experiencing a spiritual crisis as we witness attempts by billionaires to become gods by going into space while millions of people live in squalor on earth. The choice to race to space or transform people’s lives on Earth is the choice between inflating one’s sense of self or incorporating others into one’s sense of self. It’s the difference between separating oneself from others and connecting to others. We don’t know who we are anymore. We have unmoored ourselves from the practice of values-driven living. This is the stuff of Greek tragedies. To the editor: I found it ironic that Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson’s trip to space was described in generally positive terms in the same print edition that described dire wildfire conditions and severe drought brought on by climate change resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels. Noticeably missing from the article was information on the amount of fuel to be consumed per person on these joy rides for the uber-wealthy. This figure should then be converted to something the average person can understand, such as the number of miles a person could drive given that same amount of fuel and the average car. Space tourism is the last thing we need at this point in the planet’s history.
These are both knee-jerk reactions to something they don’t really understand and resent because of all the money spent. The money spent by Branson and Bezos, while billions, would not make a 0.01% dent in income inequality or global warming. Meanwhile, it demonstrates progress is being made in obtaining the space resources we are eventually going to need to finally solve the problems they are so worried about.
(CNN) July 18, 2021 - Weather and technical conditions permitting, a spacecraft will Tuesday be launched vertically from a location southeast of El Paso. It's expected to reach an altitude of 66 miles (106 km), leaving no doubt that it crossed the boundary between the sky and outer space -- assuming everything goes well, of course. This launch will be particularly interesting for one reason: Jeff Bezos, the enormously wealthy founder of Amazon, as well as his own space company, Blue Origin, will be on board Bezos is not the first billionaire to make such a trip of course. On July 1, a spacecraft called VSS Unity carried Sir Richard Branson, billionaire and founder of Virgin Galactic, the company that made the space capsule, into space. (Technically there is some dispute about whether Branson reached space. The accepted international boundary of space is called the Kármán line, and it is an altitude of 100 km or about 62 miles. However, America defines the demarcation altitude as 80 km, or about 50 miles Branson reached 85km, approximately 53 miles. Why do we care so much about billionaires taking trips to space? After all, people have been heading to space for 60 years, since Yuri Gagarin took the first trip. Unlike Branson and soon-to be-Bezos, he actually orbited the Earth for nearly two hours at a maximum altitude of 203 miles (327 km). And, of course, the past 60 years has had many successful manned missions into space, performed by countries including the US, the Soviet Union (now Russia), and China. The interest comes from the fact that what we might call commercial space exploration, or "space tourism" seems to be coming of age. What was once reserved for the very few is now like a Disney park ride for the super-rich. Branson's space company plans to eventually launch about 400 space flights per year, with a price tag for each individual's ticket being upward of $250,000. Blue Origin's business plan has not been released publicly, but early reports suggested that it will also charge in the ballpark of $200,000 for its suborbital flights. Blue Origin also has a plan for lunar flights and other options, but it is taking a slow but sure approach. He is missing the main point. Branson and Bezos rode first because they wanted to show it was safe. This guarantees the next flights at $250,000 will be full and that will continue until the millionaire market is depleted and then price will drop as required to keep the flights full. As the flight rate increases the cost per flight will drop and the price per flight will decrease as needed. The point of space tourism is to first make money, but also to increase flight rates and demonstrate reliability so we can move on to orbital hotels and space business parks. Eventually this path leads to mining the moon and colonizing Mars. Then, of course, there is Elon Musk, who has not announced any plans to be a passenger in his own spacecraft, but has reportedly put down a deposit for a future Virgin Galactic trip. Musk is also a billionaire, who got his start at a company that ultimately became PayPal. He has since invested in or been a leader in many industries, including with the car company Tesla, growing his fortune. In 2002, he formed the company SpaceX, an aeronautical company with an ambitious program designed for commercial space flight. SpaceX is far ahead of both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin in terms of orbital flight. The company has received contracts from NASA to resupply the International Space Station since 2012 and has brought crews to the station, since 2020. Of course, this raises the question: What is the value of the commercialization of space flight, including such ambitious projects as the establishment of a manned base on the Moon or Mars? Personally, I have publicly questioned the viability of such missions at a reasonable cost. While nobody can dispute how such grand goals can enthrall the public, a manned mission to Mars is prohibitively expensive, and I don't ever see Mars being colonized. If we want to find places for people to live, we could "colonize" remote areas of Canada and Siberia far less expensively. Here he demonstrates his economic ignorance. No one was flying coast-to-coast commercially in the 1920s because the airplanes and infrastructure didn’t exist and if would have been prohibitively expensive with the infrastructure that existed then. But that all changed in twenty years. We are in space transportation right now where the airlines were back in the 1920s. Just wait. But for other tasks, commercial space flight is very attractive. NASA is developing a heavy lift vehicle called the Space Launch System, which NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine guessed each launch will cost $800 million per rocket for a bulk order and $1.6 billion if NASA purchases just one. In contrast, SpaceX's heavy lift vehicle called Starship is much cheaper. Musk has quoted a price of as little as $2 million per launch, although David Todd, an analyst at Seradata estimates a somewhat pricier cost of $10 million. My own analyses estimate a Starship cost of $10 to $12 Million per launch. Either way, the much-reduced cost of using SpaceX to launch objects into space is obviously attractive. It means that scientists can spend more on the scientific instrumentation in their satellites. And, as a scientist who is enthralled by what NASA has done over the years, I can't help but notice that a reduced launch cost could lead to many more interesting science missions. It would take some engineering to have Musk's newest rocket called "Starship" launch astronomical observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope or the James Webb Space Telescope, but it's certainly possible that it could launch either. The Hubble is the world's flagship astronomical observatory, and the Webb is its nominal replacement. No argument here. But Starship is a very powerful launch vehicle, outstripping the thrust of Saturn 5 rockets that sent men to the Moon. Starship can lift over 100 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO). In contrast, the Space Shuttle (which carried the Hubble telescope aloft) could lift only 29 metric tons to the same orbit. SpaceX clearly has the capability to lift satellites and telescopes into space. And SpaceX's earlier platform, called the Falcon 9 has already proven itself. For instance, the Transit Exploration Survey Satellite, a mission looking for planets around other stars was launched using the SpaceX Falcon rocket, as was the Jason-3 satellite, which is a climate-monitoring orbital platform. And there are plans in 2022 to use SpaceX rocketry to launch the Psyche mission -- a probe to study a metallic asteroid. All of these launches would have been more expensive using NASA rocketry. Space-X cans show a profit launching the same satellites for one half the cost of its competitors because their vehicles are mostly reusable. The real bottom line is that the commercialization of space will reduce launch costs and that has benefits for anyone needing to lift an object above the Earth's atmosphere. My interest is in launching satellites carrying telescopes that can survey the cosmos and those that can monitor the wellbeing of our planet. I'm not as interested in the Disney rides on steroids -- perhaps because I will never be able to afford such a trip -- but if those launches generate income for the companies to devise better and more economical rockets, I'm all for it. It's obvious that commercial space flight has advantages for a vast range of customers and the three existing companies will compete to generate revenue. That helps all of us, perhaps by one company being more efficient than the others. And it's always possible that another company may take up the torch and win the commercial space race. Let the competition begin. Amen. The Daily Mail - By JOHN HUMPHRYS ON SATURDAY PUBLISHED: 17:58 EDT, 16 July 2021 Let’s try to swallow our envy that billionaires get to cruise the cosmos while most of us can’t even manage a week in Crete. If they choose to engage in a game that only billionaires can play, why should people like me get all sarcastic about it? It’s their money, isn’t it? Well maybe it is, but it’s our world. And that’s why I care. Remember what Neil Armstrong did in July 1969? Of course, you do. He became the first human truly to ‘slip the surly bonds of earth’ and fire the imagination of the entire world by setting foot on the moon. Like most of us of a certain age I can remember precisely what I was doing: waiting for my lovely daughter Catherine to be born in a hospital in Cardiff. The matron (they really were fearsome figures in those days) gave me a choice. I could either wait for the caesarean section to take place or I could go to the pub next door to watch the moon landing. No chance of the husband being at the birth back then. Her strong recommendation was the pub. So I did. Catherine swears she’s never held it against me. Nor did her mother. But who will remember the dawn of the age of so-called space tourism? Only, I suspect, that tiny group of people rich enough to benefit from it. But that’s not the reason for my cynicism over the Branson/Bezos caper. And, yes, that’s what it is. A caper. An utterly pointless exercise in inflating egos that already dwarf the size of the average planet. And don’t believe their boasts. It advances the cause of space exploration not one jot. If you believe that Space Tourism doesn’t advance the cause of Space Exploration, then you can stop reading and delete this blog right now. True, the passengers will get a wonderful view of our planet, but we are already blessed with the greatest space photograph ever. It was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 when they were 18,000 miles from Earth and has probably been reproduced more than any other image in history. Fifty years later, it is impossible to see it without a deep sense of awe. I doubt we will learn anything from these 11-minute jaunts that we did not learn decades ago. And we are finding out more all the time from increasingly powerful space telescopes. Voyager 1 entered interstellar space almost exactly ten years ago. It is an unimaginable 14 billion miles away and is still transmitting data back to Earth. But let me correct myself. We will learn something if, God forbid, the grotesque notion of space tourism succeeds. It will provide yet more proof of the arrogance and skewed priorities of mankind. Let me offer you one terrifying example of that from this past week. Scientists confirmed on Wednesday that the Amazon rainforest is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it is able to absorb. A billion tons a year. It doesn’t get much more serious than this. For millions of years the Amazon has been a vital carbon sink, absorbing emissions that are now threatening the very existence of our precious planet. But for decades, humans have been deliberately destroying the forest, felling its ancient trees and setting fires to clear land to grow cheap beef or soya. That vast and wonderful forest that has been helping protect us since the dawn of civilization has now become a threat to us. If you have been reading these blogs, you know I take Global Warming very seriously, and current efforts are not going after the real problem, which is the burning of fossil fuels in the developing nations to generate the energy they need to raise their standard of living. Jeff Bezos, trying desperately to whip up enthusiasm for his space jaunt, has said to see the earth from space ‘changes your relationship with humanity’. Really? You don’t need to go to space to see the Amazon burning. That should tell us all we need to know about our relationship with humanity. Perhaps I am too cynical. Many applaud those scientists who assure us that if we redouble our efforts we can ultimately colonize another planet somewhere out there. That is simply nonsense. It took billions of years to create the biomes that make this planet the perfect environment for millions of different forms of life to exist and enable us humans not just to survive but to thrive. It is also profoundly immoral. We show our gratitude for this gift by saying: Umm … we seem to have screwed up this planet but, not to worry, we’ll find another one so we can screw that one up too. In my wilder fantasies I imagine a colony of ants, the lowliest of species, discussing the behaviour of humans in whatever language ants employ. Ants have been around for 160 million years and will doubtless survive despite whatever we do to this planet. Odd, isn’t it, they will say, humans seemed to be so much smarter than us but … And then they’ll go to work on another anthill. The ancient Greeks, as ever, had a word for it. Hubris. It means excessive pride or arrogance. And in Greek drama it was inevitably followed by nemesis. Or downfall. And yet there is hope. The polls tell us young people especially are distinctly unimpressed by space exploration. In a recent survey in the States, it came 25th out of 26 priorities. They want scientists to concentrate on climate change. Bezos would do well to contemplate that as he blasts off in a few days and contaminates our fragile atmosphere with yet more carbon. Even the richest man on the planet needs a home to return to. This is just rhetoric to sell papers. Mr. Bezos fully understands we will eventually need space resources to finally eliminate the burning of fossil fuels. Come to think of it, I may have made a big mistake attacking Bezos. I am on the verge of serious wealth myself. All I’ve got to do is find the stamp album I lost 50 years ago. I was reminded of it by the news this week that the world’s rarest stamp is returning to Britain to go on display in London. It’s the British Guiana 1 cent Magenta and it’s described as the Mona Lisa of the stamp world. Stanley Gibbons paid £6.2 million for it at auction last month, which makes it the most valuable manufactured item ever: 2.5 million times more valuable than 24-carat gold. The reason I’m pretty confident is that I bought lots of stamps from Stanley Gibbons in my collecting days. You could get a whole bag of them for a pound, no small sum when my income as a paper boy was fifteen shillings a week. Most were rubbish, but there were one or two that earned a place in my album and I distinctly remember some from British Guiana. So if you’re reading this, Jeff, I’m prepared to give you first option. Now where the hell did I put that album … ? This is such a strawman argument I probably should not have included it. Jon Talton: Human spaceflight in the hands of billionaires is no 'giant leap' [The Seattle Times] BY Tribune Content Agency — 12:31 PM ET 07/23/2021 Jul. 23—The optics, as the consultants say these days, were awkward. The richest man in the world rocketed into the upper atmosphere of Earth in a phallic-shaped spaceship on the anniversary of the day that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon in 1969. To put a fine point on it, Armstrong and Aldrin were civil servants, albeit elite ones as American astronauts. Armstrong, the Apollo 11 mission commander, made around $221,890 a year in 2021 dollars. Aldrin's salary was $137,491, also adjusted for inflation. Famously shy (and spectacularly competent) Armstrong especially never sought to profit from his notoriety. Bezos, by contrast, is worth about $204 billion. Armstrong and Aldrin were the first humans to land on another world, capping the space race with the Soviet Union. It was a great adventure, a national undertaking. Bezos' craft, built by his Kent-based Blue Origin, traveled 66 miles above the planet's surface in a voyage that lasted 10 minutes in the company's inaugural human flight. NASA's mighty Saturn V rocket lifted the Apollo craft nearly twice that far just to enter orbit. Apollo then began a 953,054-mile journey, including orbits, to the moon and back in nine days, the culmination of a decade-long program. Armstrong famously proclaimed, "One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." On the lunar surface, he and Aldrin placed commemorative plaques for the three Apollo 1 astronauts who died in a launchpad fire and two Soviet cosmonauts who died in accidents. Miniaturized goodwill messages from 73 countries were left, too, on a small silicon disk. Bezos hopes to ignite a boom in "space" tourism — even though 66 miles is barely space, but to be fair, he wants to reach orbit and beyond in future flights. Want a seat? Pricing isn't disclosed but is estimated at between $300,000 and $500,000. Blue Origin has sold nearly $100 million in tickets to wannabe tourists, according to Bezos. All this at a time when so many here on Earth are struggling to get by. I don't need always-tetchy social media to feel a twinge of outrage. "Space travel isn't a tax-free holiday for the wealthy," U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon, said afterward. "We pay taxes on plane tickets. Billionaires flying into space — producing no scientific value — should do the same, and then some!" Armstrong’s moon landing cost approximately $125B in 2021$. Bezos spent approximately $8B in 2021$ and his contribution to human welfare will probably prove to be greater than Neil’s’, because it is a commercial endeavor not controlled by Congress. Most of you are probably aware that the New Shepard burns LOX and LH2 so the only exhaust product is water. To be sure, many of the most famous business titans were worthy of people's antipathy. Financier John Pierpont Morgan said, "I owe the public nothing." Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite. Steve Jobs was a cruel father to his daughter Lisa. The divorce of Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates is revealing the dark side of Microsoft's co-founder. Bezos could be worse. I also tire of the Seattle left's hating on Amazon, a company that grew here organically to become the city's largest private-sector employer and huge taxpayer. This was a gift to Seattle, while more than 240 localities were willing to give big incentives to win HQ2. In a better World, companies like Walmart, Amazon, and the big banks would be broken up
The workforces would be unionized. Amazon never would have gotten its years of tax advantages over brick-and-mortar stores. But in the world as it is, I'm happy that Amazon's headquarters is here.
Then we face the cognitive dissonance between social-media anger and consumer behavior. Amazon is America's second most-admired company, according to Fortune magazine's latest rankings (Apple is No. 1). The reader should know that while I support independent bookstores, Amazon sells my books, too.
I wonder how many of Bezos' critics on Twitter Tuesday bought something from Amazon this week.
As for Blue Origin, its New Shepard rocket (named after astronaut Alan Shepard, who became the first American to travel into space in 1961) carried a booster that landed after releasing its payload. That reusable stage is an advance over NASA's early rockets. Bezos hopes future launch systems can go to the moon and farther.
"We're going to build a road to space so that our children and their children can build the future," he said. "This is going to take decades."
He has competition.
Earlier this month billionaire Richard Branson was part of a crew that flew a Virgin Galactic
ship 53 miles into the atmosphere. The company hopes to take paying customers next year.
And both Bezos and Branson are behind Elon Musk, close to Bezos in the wealth race, whose SpaceX is ferrying astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX also uses a recoverable first stage.
Bezos also faces questions. Blue Origin was founded in 2000 to help accomplish his vision for spacefaring humanity. He invested about $10 billions of his own money in the company.
In Ars Technica, Eric Berger wrote, "So after he returned from his spaceflight on Tuesday, what I most wanted to know is whether Jeff Bezos is all-in on space. He has the vision. He has the money. But at the age of 57, does he have enough years or willingness to ensure Blue Origin's success? Or will he leave Blue Origin to flounder and instead mostly retire to his half-billion-dollar yacht after a suborbital joy ride?
"The jury is very much out."
I know enough people on the Bezos space team to know he is in it for the long run.
And little of this is inspiring. It's mostly about the Benjamins.
Aldrin, the last surviving member of the Apollo 11 crew, maintains a lively Twitter presence (@TheRealBuzz). This week he tweeted, "Where were you 52 years ago today? #Apollo11 Magnificent Landing" along with the NASA photo of the crew — including command module pilot Michael Collins who orbited the moon — and the official plaque.
On July 11th, he tweeted, "Happy launching today Richard. May you have clear skies and smooth sailing! (Nice shirt Elon!)." It was reacting to a photo of Branson and Musk.
But no tweet for Bezos.
NASA has bold aspirations to resume manned spaceflight. This includes Boeing
and other contractors — like Project Apollo days — working on reusable spacecraft and heavy-lift rockets for missions to be moon and beyond. Unlike Project Apollo, NASA is long starved for funding.
The nation that landed humans on the moon was dependent on Russia for years to reach the orbiting international station after the space shuttles were retired. Now we're dependent on billionaires for the most tangible and immediate results.
China still sees space exploration as a national project, and it has big plans to build its own space station and send people to the moon.
It's not how those of us old enough to remember Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Sea of Tranquility thought history would play out.
Yes, those of us old enough to watch the lunar landing have seen what NASA did with our dreams and monies. It is time to let the private sector take over the development of space.
Thanks for Reading,