It was astonishing to read newspaper stories and journal articles from 1964. It was like, wait a minute, these criticisms were there then.
I don’t know if you saw the movie First Man about Neil Armstrong?
Yes, I did.
In the movie they played the song “Whitey on the Moon.” Again, very relevant today in the kind of criticisms I hear: inequality and disparities in this country. Before it was, “How can the government do it?” Now it’s, “How can these billionaires be spending their money going into the space? Why aren’t they being taxed for spending money on other things?”
Okay. So very briefly, the United States is a big country. We’re capable of doing even three or four things at once, not just one.
We’re very wealthy.
And we’re very wealthy. And in the ‘60s, going to the Moon cost about $20 billion. There are three individual years of the Vietnam War, each of which cost more than the entire race to the Moon. So we could clearly afford to go to the Moon. That’s not a question. Whether it was the right use of money is a separate question to whether we could afford it. So in the ‘60s, we tackled poverty, women’s rights, civil rights, voting rights — in dramatic ways. Economic inequality and gender inequality fell dramatically. The number of black Americans who voted for Lyndon Johnson compared to voting in the election of Kennedy and Nixon, I believe it was two times the number because of the passage of civil rights and voting rights. So we actually made progress on all those things. We didn’t fix them, and those problems still dog us.
What’s happening now is completely different. I think it is completely misleading to call what Elon Musk at SpaceX and Jeff Bezos at Blue Origin and, to some degree, Richard Branson at Virgin Galactic are doing a “billionaire space race.” Musk and Bezos are in business to change the business of space, to create a space economy. Just the way that Bezos created Amazon, their goal is very simple: They want to take something that has historically cost $100 million and bring the cost down to a $1 million. What used to cost $100 million to launch to space will now cost $1 million. And when you do that, as you know, you completely change what’s possible.
A hundred million dollars is the kind of decision that even big companies would hesitate to make. “Do we need to do this? Is it the only way to do this? What if it blows up?” There are individual news organizations to this day — the networks, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post — that can spend $1 million a year to keep a correspondent in a dangerous place. A million dollars to go to space completely changes the landscape. Those people may be in an ego race. They may think of each other as rivals in that way, but this isn’t philanthropy and it isn’t indulgence. Bezos expects Blue Origin to become a going business. I’ve been to Blue Origin, and I’ve interviewed Bezos a bunch of times on this topic. He expects there to be a Thursday afternoon launch to orbit on a Blue Origin rocket before too long. If you miss this Thursday, they’re going to launch again next Thursday, just like the Southwest Airlines 3:00 flight from Dallas to LaGuardia.
Elon Musk is five years ahead of Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk and SpaceX and that crew are doing something as a company that only three nations in the world have done: send human beings successfully to space, flawlessly fly rockets to orbit, to the Space Station and back. So I think, and I sometimes sound a little too enthusiastic, that we are absolutely creating a space economy. We’re creating a new kind of economic platform. And we don’t know, just like in 1998 it wasn’t clear what the internet was going to unleash. But it has literally reached into everything from real estate to now we see these rocket launches from the perspective of the rocket as they’re going up. Everything is touched by it. I think 10 years from now, there will be dozens of people living and working in space and they will be creating economic value. Some will be paying their own bills. And I think 20 and 30 years from now, this moment that we’re living in now will look like the beginning of this remarkable transformation in which space becomes a much more tangible economy.
I had Sara Seager on the podcast earlier this year and I expected her to say that as a scientist she would prefer for NASA to take the lead. But she was thrilled at the advances being made by the private sector. So even people who are doing pure research are glad Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have decided to invest in space.
Absolutely! And I think NASA is doing the wrong thing right now. The paperback of my book has a new chapter, and I make this argument in that new concluding chapter. This is a most exciting moment in space, but Musk and Bezos are showing that the private sector can handle the operational aspects. It’s not simple or easy or low risk to fly a United 757 from JFK to Heathrow. It’s demanding and complicated and dangerous, but the government creates a structure to support that, and then the private companies do it every day. And it’s very clear that the operational aspects of space can be done by the private sector, and we’re just at the beginning of that. I think NASA should be doing today, exactly what it was doing in the 1960s.
We need spaceships that have artificial gravity. Every space ship in a TV show or a movie has artificial gravity, right? But we could have spaceships with artificial gravity. It’s “just” an engineering problem. (Just in quotes.) That’s what I want NASA to be paying attention to. Something no one talks about: If you’re going to Mars, those people who go to Mars are going to be 100 percent autonomous. The quickest radio exchange between here and Mars is nine minutes in each direction. There’s no mission control for a mission to Mars. The mission control is in the spaceship. It’s those six or eight or ten people solving their own problems and occasionally consulting mission control for some guidance. But we’ve never had an autonomous space mission.
I did a story on life on the International Space Station when they’d only been up there 18 years. I was curious what it was like to live and work in space. When those astronauts wake up every morning, there’s a spreadsheet on their laptop from Houston telling them what they’re going to spend the day doing in six-minute increments. Well, teaching astronauts to be autonomous, to make their own decisions, take their own risks, have all their own information, 3D printers for spare parts — all that stuff, and teaching NASA to let go: those are hard problems. I want NASA working on those kind of breakthrough problems.
We need to figure out how to pick crews that are going to get along. The astronauts keep diaries, and some of them that are mailed to an industrial psychologist confidentially. The number one complaint the astronauts have about life on the space station is too much meddling from Houston. “They don’t know what our life is like.” The number two complaint is about their fellow crew members. So there’s a lot that NASA could be doing. And I don’t need NASA to be developing the SLS launch system and the Orion capsule. It’s pretty clear we have big problems, and I’d like them to tackle those.
Do you see that changing all over the next five to 10 years?
It would take somebody bold, but I think a new leader for NASA could do that. We’re about to launch the James Webb Telescope finally. I think that’s going to be great. Right now there’s a company which I’m sure you’ve heard of called Planet Labs that photographs the entire surface of the planet every day. Every backyard, every shopping center, every desert, every coastline: the central courtyard of the Vatican, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Every part of the world is photographed every day to one square meter resolution using their satellites. And I think that company has only had $500 or $600 million in total funding. And they are using just what you said, these incredible technological developments, and they’re making money. They sell their understanding of the planet to people.
And so I think the companies, I hope, will show NASA how unnecessary it is for NASA to do everything. We don’t have the government run airlines. And so I hope that the dawn of this era of — we call it private, but the corporate space economy, will prod NASA to say, “You know what? We need a bigger reach.” Now, I think going back to the Moon and thinking about going to Mars is helping NASA do that. But NASA needs a shakeup. There was a report a month ago about NASA’s effort to design and fabricate new space suits. They have spent $420 million in the last nine years, and they don’t have any space suits. They don’t have a design. They don’t have a contractor, and they’re expected to spend another $600+ million to get one test spacesuit and two operational suits. They will have spent $1 billion to get two space suits. That’s not even 1960s Apollo era. That’s sort of Space Shuttle-style thinking. Elon Musk, when that report came out, simply tweeted at NASA, “Would you like help with this problem?”