Why do the world’s two richest men want to get off the planet so badly?
Elon Musk of Tesla and Jeff Bezos of Amazon have more than $350 billion in combined wealth and preside over two of the most valuable companies ever created. But when they’re not innovating on Earth, they have been focusing their considerable brain power on bringing a multiplanetary human habitat to reality.
For Mr. Musk, it’s through his other company, SpaceX, which has become an ever bigger player in the private space-technology arena. On top of satellite launches and other rocket innovations, the company announced it will send its first “all civilian” crew into orbit at the end of the year, in a mission called Inspiration4. SpaceX has already carried NASA astronauts to the International Space Station and is planning to transport more, as well as private astronauts, for a high price.
Most ambitiously, Mr. Musk has said that SpaceX will land humans on Mars by 2026. To do that, the private company will use a chunk of the close to $3 billion — including $850 million announced this week in a regulatory filing — that it has raised over the last year to finance this herculean effort.
While Mr. Musk might not be the first human to go to the red planet, he once told me that he wanted to die there, joking, “Just not on landing.”
Mr. Bezos, who is stepping down as chief executive of Amazon this year, is expected to accelerate his space-travel efforts through his company Blue Origin, whose tag line reads, in part, “Earth, in all its beauty, is just our starting place.”
Like SpaceX, Blue Origin is working on payload launches and reusable orbital launch vehicles, as well as on moon landing technology, to achieve what Mr. Bezos once called “low-cost access to space.” Blue Origin executives said recently that the company is close to blasting off into space with humans.
Mr. Bezos’ most extravagant notion, unveiled in 2019, is a vision of space colonies — spinning cylinders floating out there with all kinds of environments.
“These are very large structures, miles on end, and they hold a million people or more each,” he said, noting they are intended to relieve the stress on Earth and help make it more livable.
It’s probably good for space innovation that two billionaires are slugging it out and attracting all kinds of start-ups, investments and interest to the area. But all of their frantic aggression has been overshadowed of late by two spectacular efforts by NASA.
The two NASA missions delivered this week the kind of awe-inspiring moments that make one look up from the wretched news spewing out of our smartphones toward the stunning celestial beauty of the endless universe.
The first was the batch of images from amazing high-definition cameras on the Perseverance rover, a car-size autonomous vehicle that touched down in the Jezero Crater on Mars last week. The photographs are so sharp that you can zoom in close enough to look at the holes in the rocks on the surface and even get a pretty good sense of the dirt itself. The larger panorama is just as arresting, a desert scene that is breathtakingly alien while also feeling quite familiar.
I found myself staring at the scenes for an hour, marveling that I can see the details of an elegant wind-carved boulder from a distance of 133.6 million miles. The $2.7 billion Mars mission includes a search for signs of ancient Martian life, sample-collecting and the flight of a helicopter called Ingenuity.
But the imagery from Mars was quickly topped by an even older NASA mission to Jupiter by the Juno space probe, which entered the planet’s orbit in 2016. It did some very close fly-bys recently that are yielding perhaps the most stunning photos that we’ve ever seen of the planet.
Color-enhanced by citizen scientists from publicly available NASA data and images, the images show delicately swirling jet streams that look like a painting of quicksilver created by some space-faring artistic genius. I wish I could be riding on Juno myself to see up close the vast cyclones gather and the angry clouds seethe.
It was just a year ago that Juno sent back another image of Jupiter, looking like the best marble ever made, which NASA titled “Massive Beauty.”
Perhaps the fact that life on Earth feels so precarious at this moment explains, at least in part, why Mr. Bezos and Mr. Musk want to find ways to get off it.
But it’s important to keep in mind that these two men are just two voices among billions of earthlings. It is incumbent on the rest of us to take more control of how we are going to move into the brave new worlds beyond our own gem of a planet.
We have handed over so much of our fate to so few people over the last decades, especially when it comes to critical technology. As we take tentative steps toward leaving Earth, it feels like we are continuing to place too much of our trust in the hands of tech titans.
Think about it: We the people invented the internet, and the tech moguls pretty much own it. And we the people invented space travel, and it now looks as if the moguls could own that, too.
Let’s hope not. NASA, and other government space agencies around the world, need our continued support to increase space exploration.
I get that we have enormous needs on this planet, and money put toward space travel could instead be spent on improving lives here on Earth. But the risk to our planet from climate change means we have to think much bigger.
Keep in mind a hidden message that NASA engineers put onto the descent parachute of the Perseverance rover. The colors on the chute were a binary code that translates into “Dare mighty things.”
Coming from across the vast and empty universe, it was a message not meant just for Mr. Bezos and Mr. Musk. It was actually meant for all of us.
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