To boldly go where no billionaire has gone before
Captain kirk in space, vanity space jaunts and an exciting new telescope
Hello fellow beings in 1G gravity well of Earth,
Its the last quarter of this year. I feel like things are turning a corner post covid finally - I sense optimism. Roads in Bangkok are jammed again and street food stalls are bustling (the ones that managed to survive). Long lines in front of Gucci stores. There’s even talk of international travel opening up across the board.
While we’re contemplating how to travel to the next city, billionaires have been shooting out of Earth. It seems to me that there is a lot of rockets flying about these days. And I am both annoyed and excited by this.
Captain Kirk goes a bit above Earth 💨
Eat twice a day without trouble
Shit once a day without much trouble
Sleep at least a few hours every night
Be mobile, even if slowly
That’s my personal to-do list for when I turn 90. The 90 year old William Shatner, though, tore up through the atmosphere in a rocket to stare at Earth from Space.
Imagine forces of up to 6G at that age. Chris Boshuizen, who flew alongside, described it as being equivalent to a “stone slamming into a body of water.” People have tended to black out at times in 5G. It feels like a sinus from hell, as your blood pools in your head and your heart struggles to pump as normal. You are not going to be holding the biryani you ate before boarding in your stomach.
Galloping around the cosmos is certainly a game for the young. But as Wally Funk (82) and now William Shatner (90) have shown a whole new definition of breaking gas when old by literally shooting through the gas around us on earth that we call an atmosphere.
I harbor a fantasy to see the blue orb of earth from some height in my lifetime. But just the other day I felt debilitated with a bad sinus and I can’t even read in a moving cab without feeling like throwing up. Space level G forces seem a little more than I can handle.
Unless…..cue the rousing music and the usual training montage that they show in movies and I should be ready in about 3 minutes.
Space is profound 🌌
Earth is a tiny little thing floating in infinity. You may think it’s a long drive to the airport from where you live but that’s just peanuts in the context of space. It breaks your mind how big Space is.
And so this tiny Earth spins around a ball of fire and around itself, like clockwork, every second, hour and day. So much spinning. No wonder it all gets a little light headed and crazy down here.
At the beginning of this year, I stood on an empty beach in Koh Samui, and watched the waves as the sun set in the horizon. One small man, on a planet, watching it spin away from that ball of fire. Cold winds picked up and the temperature dropped several degrees. In these moments (often staring at a sunset over the whitespace of a sea) I disconnect from the mundanity of the real world and feel a profound sense of the strangeness of life on Earth and the enormity of things around us we still don’t fully understand.
The sun, the great ball of fire that’s critical for life, is also a literal fusion bomb of radiation and fire. Every second, the sun produces the same energy as about a trillion 1 megaton bombs, enough to power our civilization for 500,000 years. Without Earth’s magnetic field we’d all fry in the radiation, cooked to death.
I just read Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, where humans have colonized the solar system (a truly white man’s vision of the future) including Mercury. Think about Mercury. It’s three times closer to the sun than we are. During the day, the sun would appear 2.5 times larger than on Earth but then you are not going to be sticking around to find out because:
It gets to about 430 degree celsius in the day (that’s a few degrees hotter than even Chennai)
It receives radiation directly from the Sun which pretty much puts any sunbathing plans out of the question.
If you travel about a 100kms from Coimbatore, you can be in Ooty. There, in the cool hills of spectacular Nilgiris you can contemplate the fact that if you go the same distance vertically (into the sky), you breach our breathable atmosphere. That’s all we got - this thin layer of gases around the planet that creates a safe bubble for us to breathe.
I’ve seen the photos of Earth from space and have been seized by the panic of the thin halo of whispery nothingness above our surface being the only thing between us and Earth becoming a lifeless hellscape.
So, I believe the teary eyed Shatner when he says that shooting out over the atmosphere and looking down at Earth was the “most profound experience” he’s ever had. It must feel unnerving, scary and just incredible. That’s all we got - one blue planet and a thin layer of air above and some magnetism to keep all of our history and species alive.
“Honey, how about a trip to the ISS this weekend?”
Everybody in the world should experience this, said Shatner after the trip. A good sentiment but one that’s probably a few tens of millions of dollars away from access for everyone except maybe 500 people in the world right now.
Space X, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic are all going to be doing quite a few trips through the atmosphere. It’s going to cost anywhere between $200K to $450K for a trip. Space Perspective, a Florida based company, promises to start carrying people in a capsule beneath a balloon to a height of 100,000 ft (about 30 kms above earth) from 2024. From there, presumably between selfies and photo ops, the tourists will have some type of ‘profound’ experience’. Tickets cost only $125,000.
We are entering the age of watching a few dozen filthy rich take the most expensive per kilometer trip in rockets on a regular basis, come back, oblivious to the display of such rarefied decadence that only enormous wealth can buy, and say that they had the most profound experience ever. For the remaining 7 billion and odd members of our species, the profoundness has to come from high resolution photos we would get to stare at on our screens.
I have nothing against these trips but let’s be honest. Billionaire space tourism is an act of vanity. It’s a huge money sink (Bezos has put in several billions of dollars into it). It doesn’t help change humanity’s perspective (as Bezos claims) in any way - we’ve watched forests being razed and animals going extinct and nothing changed. It is very likely that we are all just going to be gleeful apes in space who come back to fling feces at each other.
A bloody big crisis here 🌊
Meanwhile, Prince William: "We need some of the world's greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live,"
I think irony shot itself into space never to be found again. Let’s start with his title first - a ‘prince’ in 2021. It represents a vestigial system of historical oppression and plunder that would be in trillions from around the world. He should just keep his mouth shut and go back to hunting fowls or whatever they do with their time.
Still, there is a point to be addressed. Most people’s problem is that there is a real crisis here on Earth that needs all of this money if we are to survive as a species. The Amazon rainforest, the largest sink of carbon for Earth, recently became a net emitter of carbon dioxide thanks to incessant deforestation. The tipping points of climate change are all starting to tip. Down below in the forgotten continent of Antarctica, the ice sheets are beginning to collapse. It’s already becoming inevitable that the place I type this from (Bangkok) will be under the sea in the next 100 years along with Jakarta, Miami, Venice and a host of other cities around the world.
We’re living through what is possibly an extinction level event, albeit played over a few decades. Ideally, all these big heads with big monies should be spending their time and effort solving this.
Yet. Yet. I believe space tourism is another step in how humans innovate. More importantly, I believe space tourism is just a wallpaper for setting up a viable lattice work for more to come.
We need the resources, energy and space that space offers. For all of his pathology, I think Elon musk is correct when he says the future of humanity is inevitably multiplanetary. The early rocket trips, however vain will help drive down the economics of a supply chain to space that is needed to start putting factories on the Moon, orbital energy sources, mining asteroids, and maybe even setting up a science and military outpost on Mars in the next 100 years.
Maybe I’ve been watching too much of The Expanse. We’ll need a route to space one way or the other. But this is not going to help us solve the mysteries of space or the answers to big questions.
The truly exciting space exploration though is happening elsewhere.
The James Webb Telescope 🔭
The James Webb Telescope comes with a promise that seems rather audacious, ‘change the way we look at our universe’. While the glamour of celebrity space hopping occupies our collective attention, a more exciting space action is about to play out hopefully before the end of the year. The project was supposed to cost a billion dollars and launch by 2010. Here we are in 2021, with more than $10 billion sunk in, waiting for the mirrors to go up..
But, it just might be worth it. Hubble, our eyes in space, has served us faithfully for 30+ years but James Webb is 100 times more powerful. Unlike the Hubble which stuck close to Earth, Webb is going out into the system, carried by Ariane 5 to a cool 1.5 million kms away to sit there to be our eyes to stare into the universe. 1.5 million kms seems far but in space terms, it’s less than 5x the distance of our moon from Earth (Mars is 392 million kms away). Once there, Webb is going to put up the mother of all shades to block Sun’s light from polluting its visuals as it begins to spy deep into the soul of our universe. And it’s going to look far!
More about the telescope itself: https://www.jwst.nasa.gov/content/observatory/ote/backplane.html
Telescopes are time machines. Our universe is about 13.8 billion years old. The only way we can see it is from the light that comes back (including infrared and other electromagnetic radiation). But nothing travels faster than light and so when we peer at an object (say, a star) that’s a billion light years away, we are actually seeing something that happened a billion years back.
If Hubble was looking back into our universe (in time) to the days when our galaxies and stars were toddlers, the James Webb telescope is going to look at the time when they were born - so much closer to the big bang and giving us a peek into how all this came to be.
In 1995, scientists set Hubble to spy into a piece of space the size of a pinhead and what came back was the now famous image called the Deep Field.
In the above image each light point isn’t a star. It’s a whole Galaxy. Think about that for a moment. Each one there is a whole Milky Way with billions of stars. Many of those stars could be like the Sun with a system of their own including multiple planets, moons and rocks hurtling around them. All of that in one light dot there. And all of those galaxies in just a pin prick area we happened to capture. Hubble redefined just how Space is teeming with galaxies and stars.
With Webb, we will go as far as 250 million light years from the Big Bang to see the first stars that winked into existence. Not just that, exoplanet scientists will use Webb to determine which ones have water, Co2, methane - signs that point to the potential for life. There’s just going to be a whole lot of infrared eye candy to stare at.
Space exploration is necessary ✨
We live in a blue world, spinning around a burning reactor in a dark void which is filled with trillions and trillions of similar systems.
How did it all come to be? Are we really alone? We’ve been trying to answer these questions from the very beginning of our sentient existence. I’d go as far to say that our very crude attempt to answer these questions is why religions exist in the first place - a placeholder until we know more. Our biggest answers have come not from LSD trips but actually other humans staring into space and wondering how everything works.
And the James Webb telescope is a powerful new eye for us to stare into the void of our existence and attempt to understand it. Hopefully what we see there gives us more answers but as it often does, is very likely to raise more questions.
Could be worse,
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