Escape Velocity: The Road To Space
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Pioneering civilian space tourists are blasting off. Who will come next?
By Liam Jamieson and Charu Sudan Kasturi
Mark the date. British billionaire Richard Branson today blasted off in his Virgin Galactic spaceship on a course for the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. It marks a brave new world for commercial space tourism, ranking among orbital milestones going back to 1957, when the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik 1 satellite to begin the space age.
Nine days from now, on July 20, the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, is set to take off too, on a spacecraft produced by his company Blue Origin. Until now, only the Russian government space agency Roscosmos had taken civilians on paid excursions. But with their closely-timed trips, Branson and Bezos are telling the world they’re ready to bet their lives on the success and safety of their own commercial expeditions. And they’re not alone. Today’s Sunday Magazine takes you on a ride with pioneering civilian space tourists, introducing you to lesser-known innovators transforming the space industry. You’ll sip on zero gravity red wine, check out the space agencies of tomorrow and peek into distant galaxies via the world’s most stunning telescopes.
Strap on those seatbelts. It’s time for liftoff.
the 62-mile-high space club
The veteran aviator, 82, is to fly with Bezos on his New Shepard spacecraft on July 20, having been denied a place in space by NASA because of her gender even after she proved she could qualify for the pioneering 1960s Mercury program. She’ll be the oldest person to go to space, surpassing John Glenn, who was 77 when he flew on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. That’s apt, since Funk outperformed Glenn during the Mercury 13 shadow astronaut trials that showed women also had the right stuff. But the explosion in space tourism that Branson, Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk are hoping for isn’t about correcting historical wrongs. “There’s a real economic incentive for these companies to succeed,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, associate professor at the U.S. Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, tells OZY.
Unlike Branson and Bezos, Musk hasn’t announced exactly when he plans to (temporarily) leave planet Earth. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to. One of the world’s richest people, the Twitter-happy Musk once said he wanted to die on Mars. Luckily for him, he has the money to try to fulfill that death wish, if he means what he says. And even if he doesn’t reach the red planet, he can always hop aboard a SpaceX tourism spacecraft, which will start trips later this year. Until then, he can look to pad his significant wealth by ensuring that SpaceX grabs a dominant share of the burgeoning space tourism industry, which is expected to be worth $3 billion by 2030.
Almost nine months after Apollo 11 launched, she was born at NASA’s Guam base to one of its contractors — a coincidence, she likes to joke, that points to her being a celebration baby. Now, that family history is coming full circle: Proctor, a geology professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, is part of the team of four non-astronauts scheduled to spend three days orbiting Earth on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft in September.
It’s a script made for Hollywood. Tom Cruise was poised to shoot the first ever film in space by traveling to the International Space Station with help from Musk and NASA in October. Now he will have to beat 36-year-old Russian superstar actor Peresild to it. Russia is sending up its own crew on a Soyuz spacecraft in early October, also to shoot a film, and Peresild will be on board, playing the lead. Like the Cold War, much about the missions — and the film scripts — is under wraps. Unlike the Cold War, Russia might just win this time.
The 45-year-old Japanese fashion retailer could become the first person to go to the moon in half a century when he leads a SpaceX lunar ride of private citizens in 2023. Maezawa, who owns Japan’s largest online fashion retail platform, Zozotown, is also an art collector. And the billionaire is selecting eight artists through a competition and offering them a fully paid trip with him to circle the moon. “The commercial success of space tourism depends on the vanity of billionaires, Hollywood stars and others who want to make a statement,” Ajey Lele, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, tells OZY. “Luckily for the industry, there are enough such people.”
Next Up, Asia
If for some reason the 2023 mission fails to launch, Maezawa might find an alternative ride closer to home. A Japanese company is building a space port on an island in Okinawa prefecture with the aim of sending tourists toward the stars in 2025. Its target audience? Wealthy Chinese who can each cough up $141,000 for the ride. Meanwhile, Indonesia has expressed interest in serving as a space port for launches, says Lele, adding that India could loan out its famed, low-cost launch infrastructure to tourism firms that don’t want to build their own rockets. “Space tourism is finally becoming a reality, and everyone wants a piece of it,” he says.
Don’t get ahead of yourselves. A vacation up in the stars will remain beyond the reach of most of us for a while. A Virgin Galactic ticket, for instance, costs between $200,000 and $250,000. And unlike SpaceX flights, which reach the Earth’s orbit at about 248 miles, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin spacecraft will only take you to the edge of space and back, about 62 miles from Earth. Still, more than 700 people have already signed up for Virgin Galactic flights. And costs could start coming down as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic develop more sophisticated reusable spacecraft, suggests Whitman Cobb. “The costs are coming down with better use of the technology,” she says. “Perhaps a greater portion of the public will have the opportunity to take advantage of [space trips].”
the secrets out there: stunning space science
Lasting only a millisecond, a fierce pulse in radio waves called a fast radio burst (FRB) was detected by two ground-based radio telescopes in April 2020. It was the first time humans had encountered an FRB from within the Milky Way galaxy. They’re detected on a daily basis, but have often traveled a distance of billions of light years. The April 2020 find, however, had traveled “only” 30,000 light years, opening up greater opportunities to study the fleeting phenomenon. So where do these FRBs come from? Are they communication signals transmitted by intelligent life? Hardly. Experts believe they are “plausibly produced by magnetars [an exotic neutron star with a powerful magnetic field] which are known to emit sporadic flares,” leading astrophysicist and the first person to detect an FRB Duncan Lorimer tells OZY.
Nothing may be more secretive than the substance that, despite making up about 80% of all matter in the universe, is nearly impossible to detect and isn’t directly observable by scientists. The ability to detect dark matter could transform how we understand the universe, which is why sleuthing scientists such as Tracy Slatyer have devoted their careers to learning more about this mysterious “substance.” She has carefully combed through telescope data for the slightest sign of dark matter: the signature glow its particles emit when they collide. Read more on OZY.
It’s called Earth’s twin because of its similar size, mass and composition, but that’s where the comparisons end. Our solar system’s most inhospitable planet couldn’t be more different from our own, with crushing atmospheric pressure and lead-melting surface temperatures. All but forgotten for a decade, there is a renewed interest among scientists looking for answers about the mysterious planet — most notably: Why is it so different from Earth? With three new missions to the planet announced last month — Nasa’s Veritas and the Davinci+ probes, and Europe’s Envision satellite — scientists hope that uncovering truths about Venus can help in our search for habitable planets in other solar systems.
Space makes you heartless . . . well, almost. Scientists have found that long stints in outer space can shrink and atrophy the heart, and light workouts in zero gravity don’t really help. Researchers observed this phenomenon with American astronaut Scott Kelly, and believe it is due to the critical role gravity plays in keeping our hearts healthy, by ensuring that blood keeps circulating.
But spending significant amounts of time in space has its upsides too. At least for bottles of wine. A dozen bottles of fine French wine, which spent 438 days in outer space before being returned this year, are now the subject of a detailed study into how the properties of the wine would change when exposed to microgravity. Initial tests suggest wine does age well in space: taking on more of a brick-colored tint, with floral notes enhanced in the taste.
Falling costs are making it easier for developing countries and smaller companies to launch their own satellites. Ndaba is the co-founder of Astrofica Technologies, a Black-owned South African satellite manufacturer that’s serving the continent’s growing demand for access to the cosmos. Space has been Ndaba’s calling since she first saw a photo of a rocket engine in a textbook her grandmother gave her. A generation from now, South African students might well find Ndaba’s photo in their own textbooks.
Growing up in the 1980s, Fonseca devoured classic sci-fi films from E.T. to Aliens. Now his eyes are set on the future of Brazil’s space industry, established in 1960 but still small compared to those in the U.S., Russia, China, India and Europe. His startup, Airvantis, works with the International Space Station on experiments dealing with low gravity. It has also served as an incubator for Brazil’s first proposed commercial lunar mission, an ambitious project that could see the country’s space program one day rank among the world’s leading extraterrestrial initiatives.
The 37-year-old Indian engineer is challenging the giants of the private space industry — by promising something Musk and Bezos can’t. Her startup, Astrome, is building satellites that carry transponders with 11 times the capacity of those now commonly used, which could revolutionize internet access in remote parts of the world. Read more on OZY.
Rocket DIYer Mads Wilson is shooting for the stars through his organization, the Copenhagen Suborbitals. The name may sound like an a capella musical group, but he and his all-volunteer Danish team hold grand ambitions, having launched several unmanned test rockets since 2011. With innovations in tech developing rapidly and costs falling, Copenhagen Suborbitals is just one of several emerging DIY groups jostling for a spot in the new startup space race. Read more on OZY.
Latin America Unites
Individually, these countries know they don’t possess the resources to become a major space power. So in October, they banded together to launch the Latin American and Caribbean Space Agency (ALCE in Spanish). Mexico and Argentina, both ruled by left-wing governments, are driving the initiative. But Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru and El Salvador are on board for the takeoff too. Can the ALCE mimic the success of the European Space Agency, a grouping of 22 European nations that serves as that continent’s unified effort to compete in the space race?
Africa Comes Together Too
It’s not only Latin America binding together. The African Union declared in 2019 that Egypt would be the hub for a continental African Space Agency. The move comes at a time African nations are increasingly moving toward deploying satellites of their own, as they look to advance their tech capabilities for everything from weather predictions to crop management. Experts estimate that by 2024, at least 19 African nations will have sent a satellite into orbit. That’s compared to 11 countries — Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Sudan — that had launched satellites as of 2020.
When Hurricane Dorian hit South Carolina in 2019, help came from Portugal, where a startup employed satellite imagery to help counties in the U.S. understand what could be done to better prepare for the future. The legendary seafaring nation is now venturing further into cosmic exploration. Portugal launched its space agency in 2019 and is building a space port on the Azores Islands. It’s knee-deep in a race to tap into a growing market for small satellite launches. Read more on OZY.
The United Arab Emirates might seem an unlikely player on the global space stage. But the small Middle Eastern nation has sent up several satellites, including one that started orbiting Mars in February. Its program is led by 34-year-old Sarah Al Amiri, a computer engineer and the youngest leader of a national space effort in the world. As space tourism becomes more achievable, the UAE’s influence will only grow: Virgin Galactic has signed an agreement with the UAE (which is a major investor in Virgin) to make the country a port for future launches.
Eye in the Sky
Nestled in the lush green limestone mountains of southwest China, a giant saucer the size of 30 football fields is exciting the world’s astronomers. The curved telescope, named FAST, is the most powerful ever created. Inaugurated last year, it’s our best bet at tracking down extraterrestrial life and black holes — that’s if China can keep the hordes of tourists away.
Mapping the Solar System
The Vera C. Rubin Observatory being built by America’s National Science Foundation atop a nearly 9,000-foot mountain in northern Chile is looking at the big picture — a very, very big picture. It will prepare the most detailed map yet of the solar system and explore how the sky is changing, studying billions of distant galaxies.
How about time travel? That’s effectively what the Square Kilometre Array telescope hopes to do. Coordinated by 10 nations and with antennas and dishes in South Africa and Australia, it’ll have thousands of receiving stations over two continents, searching for answers dating from back when stars began to glow. But first, the countries involved are aiming to raise $1 billion for the project.