Hello! In this month’s Tech Trek, Amber tells us the ins-and-outs of commercial space travel, and Maggie gives us a rundown of the 2001 tech-thriller Antitrust.
Explore: The New Space Age
Would you like to explore strange new worlds? Seek out new life and new civilizations? Do you want to boldly go where no one has gone before? I’m talking about space, people. Do you want to go there? If you do, then I’ve got great news for you. Space tourism—that is, commercial space travel—is starting to seem less like fodder for sci-fi TV shows and movies, and more like something that could actually happen in our lifetime. But before you head for the stars, you’ll probably want a primer on recent developments. So, here’s a space tourism FAQ for anyone who has that intergalactic wanderlust.
What prevented space tourism before now?
Space tourism just wasn’t feasible. It cost way too much. In the late ’50s—the beginning of the original space age—space travel was enabled by disposable launch vehicles that could only be used once after they’d taken off, and it cost thousands of dollars per pound to send a vehicle into orbit. And even today, rocket stages, which thrust the rockets into space, are still typically single use and cost millions of dollars, making the very idea of commercial space flight impractical.
Reusable rockets are the key. Beginning in 2015, we saw Blue Origin and SpaceX launch rockets that made controlled descents onto landing pads. As Technology Review points out, if this is something that can happen regularly, and if rockets are able to be refueled repeatedly in the same way commercial airliners are, the cost of these flights could be drastically lowered.
Who’s leading the charge in space tourism?
A bunch of rich men. Namely, Amazon head honcho Jeff Bezos, Tesla technologist Elon Musk, and Virgin guy Richard Branson. The three are the founders of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic, respectively.
What do these companies do?
Blue Origin creates “ground-breaking spaceflight systems.” Their website advertises an Astronaut Experience that will take passengers into space at a speed faster than Mach 3 and allow them to experience weightlessness. They’re also developing the super-powerful BE-4 rocket engine.
According to the SpaceX website, they “manufacture and launch advanced rockets and spacecraft.” Ultimately, though, they want to make it possible for us all to live on other planets. Their spacecraft have taken cargo to the International Space Station, and they were the first private company to recover a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit.
Virgin Galactic is committed to creating “the world’s first commercial spaceline” and “making space accessible to more people.” Like SpaceX and Blue Origin, the company isn’t strictly focused on this goal. It builds rockets that will launch micro-satellites into space and that could do anything from providing internet service to people around the world to collecting weather data.
So what’s the deal with mega-rich entrepreneurs and space?
In 2014, TIME writer Jeffrey Kluger chalked the fascination up to hubris and a desire that these men have to get the “biggest, coolest, most impressive toy imaginable.” But really, who knows how a zillionaire space enthusiast’s brain works? I certainly don’t. What I can say is that Bezos, Musk, and Branson all seem very passionate, at least, and sincere about space travel. Musk, in particular, has all of these grand, humanitarian plans about colonizing Mars. He’s said, “the future of humanity is fundamentally going to bifurcate along one of two directions: Either we’re going to become a multiplanet species and a spacefaring civilization, or we’re going to be stuck on one planet until some eventual extinction. For me to be excited about the future it’s got to be the first option. It’s got to be: We’re going to be a spacefaring civilization.”
Have there been any accidents during the testing phase?
Tragically, yes. In, 2014 Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise crashed in California’s Mojave Desert during a test flight. A device that was supposed to slow the space plane down deployed early, resulting in the death of copilot Michael Alsbury.
SpaceX has also had some pretty high-profile accidents. Fortunately, none have been fatal. In June 2016, their Falcon 9 rocket crash-landed into one of the company’s drone ships. Musk later explained on Twitter that a depletion of liquid oxygen propellant caused the engine to shut down. Just a few months later in September, another Falcon 9 rocket exploded. It was carrying a $200 million Facebook satellite that would have helped expand global internet access.
From a layperson’s perspective, the engineers and scientists who make all of this possible are working with massive crafts that are extremely powerful, launched by rocket boosters, and traveling to incredible distances. So much can go wrong, and it’s a testament to the intelligence of these engineers that something catastrophic doesn’t happen after every launch. Space travel is just inherently dangerous; this has always been true, and I imagine it will always be true. It’s up to the agencies (like NASA) and companies that are launching spacecraft and the people who choose to pilot or ride in them to decide whether it’s worth the risk.
When is the first commercial space flight set to launch?
Virgin Galactic has set and then reset start dates over the last nine years. But Blue Origin’s president, Rob Meyerson, says his company is on track to start flying their “test astronauts” into space by 2017, and commercial flights will start in 2018. Meanwhile, Musk announced in February that SpaceX would be sending two people on a trip around the moon sometime in 2018.
How deep into space will we get to go?
There isn’t any exact demarcation of where Earth ends and space begins, but it’s commonly accepted that when you reach an apogee of 100 km you’re in space. Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic say their crafts will make it a little above 100 km. And of course Musk’s crew is set to go to the moon, which is about 238,855 miles away from Earth.
You, if you can swing the $250,000 upfront fee for a ticket on a Virgin Galactic flight, or the several-million-dollar fee some believe SpaceX’s moon trip will cost.
And those are the basics. When the topic of space tourism comes up, there’s all this talk about democratization of space travel—and maybe that will be a reality one day—but the first civilian astronauts are going to be wealthy. I mean, I suppose it makes sense—even with a reusable rocket, the cost to travel into space is still astronomical (pun intended). Musk has told reporters that the cost of his moon flight is about the same as a trip to the International Space Station, which is about $35 million. Someone needs to foot the bill, and it’s going to have to be someone with a lot of disposable income.
Amber, would you go to space if you could?
I love outer space, planetariums, and science-fiction. Growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. Star Trek, Star Wars, and stars (in general) are three of my favorite things. That being said, no, I wouldn’t go. The idea of looking down on the Earth from that far up is really exciting, and the development and evolution of the technology that makes space flight possible is mind-blowing. But I get claustrophobic on public transportation, there’s no way I’m going to be able to fly in a rocket. I’m just being real. —Amber
Movie of the Month: Antitrust (2001)
Antitrust is the dumbest movie that thinks it’s smart. Like, I’m pretty sure this movie thinks it’s as clever as The Social Network or Snowden. It’s about a villainous, thinly-veiled Bill Gates who is violating antitrust laws and creating an evil computer monopoly.
Back in the ’90s, people were convinced that Microsoft was an evil empire bent on world domination, and the film is loosely inspired by Gates’s real-life run-ins with antitrust law. But in real life, Bill Gates never surveilled and murdered rival computer programmers to preserve his product’s market share. Which brings us to the plot of Antitrust. An idealistic young programmer named Milo, played by Ryan Phillipe, is hired by Shadow Gates to work at his company N.U.R.V., which stands for Never Underestimate Radical Vision. OK, movie! That definitely sounds like a real computer company. So N.U.R.V. is on deadline for its flagship product, which seems to be…I dunno…a global texting plan? Apparently it’s really important. Antitrust is one of those computer movies that assumes the audience is really stupid, so most of the tech talk is just like, “Blah blah blah, ones and zeroes, reconfigure the main frame, scalable user interface, the compression is awesome!”
The N.U.R.V. company is a tech stereotype come to life. Bean bags and lava lamps abound, and rows of surf boards are mounted on the walls. Everything is “cool” and “hip.” There is only one female coder in the entire movie (played by Rachel Leigh Cook), and she turns out to be an evil spy working for Shadow Gates. Her character’s entire purpose in the film seems to be to support the myth that female coders are all cold-hearted, stick-up-their-ass bitches, and that the tech world would be better if it could just be cool, chill visionary dudes, and the girls would stay at home.
Despite all this, the movie does contain a strong message about the importance of preserving open source software so that companies can’t control us with proprietary technology. It turns out that Shadow Gates has been stealing open source code for N.U.R.V. and then murdering the code’s creators. Like, he’s just been having programmers killed left and right and no one notices? So in the end, there are some shenanigans, and the young idealistic programmers vanquish the evil Shadow Gates in the most anti-climactic scene in film history. Seriously, watch this clip where the characters just…stand awkwardly in a room while televisions across the globe broadcast footage of Shadow Gates speaking unintelligible sentences.
Linux.com (an open-source operating system) said of the movie: “Antitrust is probably worth a $7.50 ticket on a night when you’ve got nothing else planned.” Which is probably the highest praise this movie was ever going to get. —Maggie ♦