Manawatu Standard

Space, now the buyable frontier


Peekaboo missions into space have generated much interest, though not so much admiration. Many see them as spectacula­r achievemen­ts of vanity; the work of billionair­es more endowed with the folding stuff than the Right Stuff.

Adventuris­m is one thing, but it is hard to see the flights as anything other than a stark reminder of the massive inequaliti­es around us.

People down here are aching for the day we can again travel beyond our own national horizons. Pandemic concerns and the climate crisis cloud our earthbound perspectiv­es.

So the thought of billionair­es ascending 88km in their own special theme-park ride doesn’t register as a high achievemen­t. Or a particular­ly high-minded one for that matter.

Even astrophysi­cist Neil degrasse

Tyson, a man with a fully functionin­g sense of educated wonder, seems to have found himself short of emotional lift-off as he assesses recent developmen­ts.

So often a handy guide when it comes to keeping a sense of perspectiv­e, Tyson would have us bear in mind that, relative to a standard schoolroom globe, Mars is 1.6 kilometres away, the Moon 10 metres away, the Internatio­nal Space Station just 1cm.

And Sir Richard Branson has risen fully 2mm on his space mission.

He also notes that if Jeff Bezos stacked his net worth of about US$200 billion into dollar bills and stood atop them, he would be twice as high as his Blue Origins rocket launch went.

Still, who are we to judge? When we each become billionair­es, having no doubt paid our fair whack in taxes and treated our employees a tad better than Bezos’ Amazon workers, we may feel entitled to invest as we please, in this time of aching human need. Invest, mind you.

Let’s bear in mind that these squirts through the stratosphe­re are far more commercial­ly than scientific­ally intrepid.

Tyson and many others believe government­s are better suited than private operators for longterm space exploratio­n, priorities and investment. However, it would be folly to assume we could, let alone should, proceed without serious engagement with the commercial world.

Spacex’s Elon Musk was extending a familiar private-enterprise complaint about government spending when he argued that US government contractor­s were ‘‘building a Ferrari’’ for every launch when it was possible a Honda Accord might do the trick.

Much as sci-fi sensibilit­ies have primed us with expectatio­ns of Moon communitie­s, Mars outposts, or perhaps satellite societies orbiting a polluted and increasing­ly uninhabita­ble planet, the reality is that government­s have hardly been the pioneering figures envisaged back in the glory years of the late 1960s.

In any case, activity closer to home is unassailab­ly important right now, let alone in the near future.

Whoever has mastery of the domain of satellites has incredible power over life on Earth, from the most invasive aspects of spying to the most valuable guidance of agricultur­al planting, monitoring of refugee movements, firefighti­ng and flood defences.

These billionair­e trips are less about reaching for the stars than commercial­ising the spacial hinterland around our own planet. It’s an endeavour more demanding of scepticism and scrutiny than wide-eyed wonder.

Whoever has mastery of the domain of satellites has incredible power over life on Earth ...

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