Weightlessness training. Photography by Ralph Morse via Getty

How space got its buzz back

It’s been 50 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing and space tourism is blowing up. Welcome to the new-age space race.

Yusaku Maeza­wa wants to go into space but he doesn’t want to do it alone. The Japan­ese bil­lion­aire, own­er of online fash­ion retail com­pa­ny Zozo, has bought all the seats on the first pri­vate trip around the moon. The return fares in Star­ship, the space­craft designed and built by fel­low bil­lion­aire Elon Musk’s aero­space com­pa­ny SpaceX, have set Maeza­wa back an undis­closed sum (the first space tourist, Den­nis Tito, paid $20 mil­lion to get to the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion in 2001). But the 43-year old is used to pay­ing his way. In 2017, he forked out $110 mil­lion for a Basquiat. 

So mon­ey isn’t the issue. But who will join Maeza­wa might be.

Maezawa’s #dear­Moon project wants to take six to eight cre­atives with him on a lunar hol­i­day. He pays for the trip and they find inspi­ra­tion 238,900 miles above earth. Maybe some­one comes back as the next Basquiat or makes a movie about the expe­ri­ence. Easy!

The prob­lem: so far, no one seems quite as pumped as Maeza­wa about a fash­ion mogul’s art adven­ture in space. He asked Damien Chazelle dur­ing a press jun­ket encounter, seem­ing­ly arranged to pro­mote the Hol­ly­wood director’s moon land­ing biopic First Man and Maezawa’s real-life expe­di­tion. Oh, that’s very kind of you,” replied Chazelle, who looked ambushed by the billionaire’s direct invite. I’ll think about it. Dis­cuss with my wife.”

Even Musk him­self wasn’t exact­ly all-in when, at the announce­ment event for #dear­Moon Sep­tem­ber 2018, he revealed Maeza­wa had offered him a gold­en tick­et. As far as me going, I’m not sure,” he said at the event at SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, Cal­i­for­nia. “[Maeza­wa] did sug­gest maybe me going on this trip. I don’t know.”

It does help that influ­en­tial peo­ple like Elon Musk are talk­ing about Mars – because it doesn’t seem ridicu­lous if he’s actu­al­ly [talk­ing about] mak­ing it happen”

The South African born tech entre­pre­neur, who made his name as co-founder of Pay­pal (the sale of which to eBay in 2002 see Musk pock­et $165 mil­lion) and is also famous for being the chief exec­u­tive of Tes­la, the boyfriend of Grimes and beefer-in-chief with Azealia Banks, isn’t quite as ambiva­lent about pro­pelling oth­ers to infin­i­ty and (near­ly) beyond. Just a year after putting Maeza­wa into space, SpaceX hopes to go much fur­ther, send­ing car­go and then crew to Mars. And the nev­er-know­ing­ly-under­am­bi­tious Musk – whose net worth is esti­mat­ed at a cool $19.2 bil­lion – doesn’t want to stop there. His vision is of cre­at­ing a mul­ti-plan­e­tary species”. He wants to put humans on Mars, per­ma­nent­ly. Musk has tweet­ed that he hopes to do this by 2028. He’s also said his Twit­ter account is com­plete non­sense’ so don’t put that date in the diary just yet. 

Grand plans and celebri­ty star­dust of the sort Yusaku Maeza­wa has yet to secure are key planks of the new space race. Sir Richard Bran­son was light years ahead on both fronts when he report­ed­ly got Justin Bieber and Leonar­do DiCaprio (among 600 oth­ers) to fork out $250,00 each for a space flight with Vir­gin Galac­tic. The first 90 minute trips to just above the Earth’s atmos­phere have yet to launch but Bran­son announced in July that his com­pa­ny was going pub­lic, a fresh sign that space is open for pri­vate business. 

The rich­est man on earth, Ama­zon founder Jeff Bezos, also wants to take peo­ple to the moon by 2024. His com­pa­ny Blue Ori­gin is inter­est­ed in space tourism but the big­ger goal is to colonise space using some of Bezos’ report­ed net worth of $164.1 bil­lion. Enor­mous spin­ning cylin­ders will be our new home from home, sus­tain­ing human life and engi­neered to repli­cate the best bits of life on Earth, like a sort of Dis­ney­land you can’t leave. Bezos puts it in slight­ly more roman­tic terms. This is Maui on its best day, all day, all year long,” he said, accord­ing to The Guardian. No rain, no earth­quakes. Peo­ple are going to want to live here.”

Orbit­ing the three big spenders are a host of star­tups for whom space is the new wild west. Some of their ideas are prac­ti­cal: Cal­i­for­nia based Made in Space is devel­op­ing 3D print­ing for space to relieve rock­ets of bur­den­some build­ing sup­plies. Oth­ers have their eye on the one per cent with cash to flash in space. An eight-day stay on the Axiom Spaces pri­vate space sta­tion with rooms by French design­er Philippe Star­ck, panoram­ic views and wifi includ­ed, will set you back $55 mil­lion. Mean­while, UK start up Aster­oid Min­ing Com­pa­ny wants to drill less­er plan­ets for gold and sil­ver. Every­where you go in it, space is blow­ing up. 

The space rev­o­lu­tion was sup­posed to have already hap­pened. In 1961, Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy announced America’s inten­tion to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. won the race against the U.S.S.R. when NASA astro­nauts Neil Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans on the moon. Their lunar touch­down, on 20th July 1969, was a defin­ing moment in human his­to­ry, as cur­rent­ly cel­e­brat­ed in the 50th-anniver­sary celebrations.

The event cap­ti­vat­ed the entire plan­et. Over one mil­lion Amer­i­cans camped out at Cape Canaver­al in Flori­da to watch the launch. An esti­mat­ed 600 mil­lion were glued to tele­vi­sion sets world­wide. Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon called the one-small-step pio­neers to con­grat­u­late them while still in space. 

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Buzz Aldrin, 1969. The astronauts are practising placing lunar samples in the Lunar Sample Return Container at the Manned Spacecraft Centre. Photograph via Getty

Between 1969 and 1972 NASA put a fur­ther ten men on the moon. But then, instead of a space rev­o­lu­tion, the out­er lim­its fell off the radar. The Cold War end­ed, tak­ing the polit­i­cal will. NASA tried to keep Con­gress and the Amer­i­can public’s engaged with the mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar project in var­i­ous ways. It once con­sid­ered putting Sesame Street’s Big Bird up in a shut­tle but he was too big. The space agency hoped to retain the public’s imag­i­na­tion with the dream of send­ing ordi­nary cit­i­zens into orbit. Then in 1986, the Chal­lenger shut­tle, car­ry­ing the first teacher in space, Christa McAu­li­ffe, broke apart 73 sec­onds after launch. All sev­en crew were killed. NASA’s space shut­tle pro­gramme was ground­ed for three years. The agency didn’t send anoth­er civil­ian into space for 22 years.

Since 1986, NASA has sent rovers to Mars, a flight to Plu­to and estab­lished the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, where astro­nauts have lived since 2000. After the space race, this multi­na­tion­al project in which the U.S. teamed up with Rus­sia (14 oth­er nations were also involved) marked a step-change in galac­tic rela­tions. It remains an incred­i­ble feat: the largest human con­struc­tion in space (at 357 feet end to end, it’s one-yard shy of an Amer­i­can foot­ball field), it is home to an inter­na­tion­al crew of six at a time, trav­el­ling at five miles per second.

ISS is due to be retired in 2028 but its sig­nif­i­cance is yet to be ful­ly realised – it plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in mon­i­tor­ing cli­mate change, is where sci­en­tists first evi­denced dark mat­ter (which may unlock some of the mys­ter­ies of the uni­verse) and has also been an impor­tant test­ing ground for the human body in space (we age quite dra­mat­i­cal­ly up there, unfor­tu­nate­ly). But ISS’s noble work just doesn’t cap­ture the public’s imag­i­na­tion the way a moon­walk can. Lau­ra For­czyk is an Atlanta based astro­physi­cist who now spe­cialis­es in space analy­sis and con­sult­ing work. She also grew up dur­ing this new era, when space became com­plex, tech­ni­cal and ulti­mate­ly, a lit­tle bit boring.

We saw the rou­tine space trav­el of the space shut­tle going to the ISS when we were grow­ing up,” says For­czyk. As impor­tant sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, tech­no­log­i­cal­ly as that is, it was not very excit­ing. It didn’t cap­ture our imag­i­na­tion as a brand new trip to the moon did in the 1960s.”

And then, the inter­net hap­pened. This was a com­mu­ni­ca­tions rev­o­lu­tion that rad­i­cal­ly changed how we lived. It also cre­at­ed mul­ti-bil­lion­aires, pri­vate indi­vid­u­als who could inject space with some blue-sky thinking.

Indi­vid­u­als like Musk and Bezos have enough mon­ey to con­duct the space pro­gramme on the scale of a small nation,” says Kei­th Cow­ing, an astro­bi­ol­o­gist at NASA in the 1990s who now edits the news site nasawatch​.com. And they can do what­ev­er they want because they can. That has nev­er hap­pened before.”

For­cynk, who has sur­veyed over 100 young Amer­i­cans with a career in space for her book Rise of the Space Age Mil­len­ni­als, says that this pri­vati­sa­tion of space trav­el by celebri­ty bazil­lion­aires has had an impact­ful trick­le-down effect.

It does help that influ­en­tial peo­ple like Elon Musk are talk­ing about Mars – because it doesn’t seem ridicu­lous if he’s actu­al­ly [talk­ing about] mak­ing it hap­pen,” she says of the man whose Tes­la also made the elec­tric car (almost) a com­mon­place real­i­ty. He hasn’t made Mars hap­pen yet. But he could.”

The space econ­o­my is esti­mat­ed to grow to more than $20 tril­lion in the next 20 years – lit­tle won­der every­one wants a slice”

Fifty years ago, we looked to gov­ern­ment agen­cies to turn sci­ence fic­tion to fact. NASA has not exact­ly lost its ambi­tion – the U.S. space agency plans to put the first woman on the moon with­in five years as part of its Artemis mis­sion – but Hous­ton, it has a prob­lem. It is at the mer­cy of what NASA admin­is­tra­tor Jim Briden­s­tine polite­ly terms tech­ni­cal and polit­i­cal risks. The tech­ni­cal aspect is part­ly about how to get to space safe and secure – the last thing NASA wants is anoth­er Chal­lenger dis­as­ter. The polit­i­cal risks are about who holds pow­er and purse strings in Wash­ing­ton, which tend to slow NASA down. 

The cur­rent incum­bent Pres­i­dent Trump is, pre­dictably, all over the place on space. In a tweet from ear­li­er this year, he announced the U.S.’s inten­tion to go back to the moon; a cou­ple of days lat­er the caps lock was ful­ly engaged. NASA should NOT be talk­ing about going to the Moon – we did that 50 years ago,” he tweet­ed to, pre­sum­ably, some major eye-rolling over at U.S. space agency HQ. Even if the Pres­i­dent is on board, Con­gress may not be so will­ing to finance a trip to the moon which would hand­i­ly coin­cide with the end of a sec­ond, glo­ri­ous Trump term in office. 

Prob­lems of cash flow and pol­i­tics mean NASA increas­ing­ly looks to the tech-cash-rich pri­vate sec­tor to help realise its ambi­tions. It has always worked with com­mer­cial part­ners, like aero­plane man­u­fac­tur­ers Boe­ing and Lock­heed Mar­tin. But the new­er play­ers are dis­rup­tors: promis­ing to get into space faster and cheap­er. SpaceX has suc­cess­ful­ly demon­strat­ed that reusable rock­ets work, mean­ing more fre­quent launch­es with the same kit. Bezos’s Blue Ori­gin is cur­rent­ly test­ing out its lunar lan­der so it can elbow in on moon missions.

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The space econ­o­my is esti­mat­ed to grow to more than $20 tril­lion in the next 20 years, accord­ing to Mor­gan Stan­ley. Lit­tle won­der every­one wants a slice. In Jan­u­ary this year, the Chi­na Nation­al Space Admin­is­tra­tion became the first to land a space­craft, Chang’e 4, on the far side of the moon. An Israeli non-prof­it, SpaceIL, crash-land­ed a space­craft into lunar rock and dust in April. India is mak­ing moves on the moon; its Chan­drayaan-2 moon lan­der was due to set off for the lunar sur­face in July before a last-minute tech­ni­cal snag.

India’s progress is a mat­ter of nation­al pride; China’s ambi­tions in space have already opened up a war of words with Trump over who gets to occu­py the ter­ri­to­ry. Space has been weaponized before, most dra­mat­i­cal­ly in Ronald Reagan’s plan to take out Russ­ian nukes – in space – dur­ing the Cold War. Star Wars, as the ini­tia­tive was deri­sive­ly nick­named, nev­er got off the ground. But the ques­tion of who con­trols space, despite inter­na­tion­al agree­ment on rules of engage­ment, feels unset­tled once again.

Between blow­ing the shit out of space, blow­ing the shit out of each oth­er in space or sim­ply blow­ing a small for­tune on an eight-night stay up there, Space is where it’s at. Which begs one ques­tion: where does that leave life on Earth?

Growth is going to come to an end, either sud­den­ly or in a con­trolled way” – Sir David Attenborough

Elon Musk presents an excit­ing vision of our future, but it does not nec­es­sar­i­ly include the Earth. Cli­mate change is the biggest threat to human­i­ty, he told Rolling Stone in 2017, and SpaceX is an elab­o­rate insur­ance pol­i­cy against man-made armaged­don. If we were a mul­ti-plan­e­tary species, that would reduce the pos­si­bil­i­ty of some sin­gle event, man­made or nat­ur­al, tak­ing out civil­i­sa­tion as we know it, as it did the dinosaurs.”

Jeff Bezos, mean­while, believes it is pos­si­ble to pre­serve the Earth; we just need to move indus­try and pre­sum­ably deliv­ery ware­hous­es to space in order to do so. There is no Plan B,” the Ama­zon boss told an audi­ence at a launch event for a new Blue Ori­gins lunar lan­der in Wash­ing­ton in May. We have to save this plan­et, and we shouldn’t have to give up a future of our grandchildren’s grand­chil­dren of dynamism and growth. We can have both.”

Nei­ther coun­te­nance a halt to lim­it­less growth, which envi­ron­men­tal activists argue is the only viable solu­tion to the cli­mate emer­gency. It seems incon­gru­ous to be plan­ning Vir­gin Galac­tic trips to the moon for the mega-rich while the rest of us are look­ing up the Swedish for fly­ing shame. There is con­cern that plans to put the space econ­o­my into warp dri­ve divert atten­tion, invest­ment and resources from sav­ing this plan­et. As Sir David Atten­bor­ough told jour­nal­ists at the World Eco­nom­ic Forum in Davos ear­li­er this year, Growth is going to come to an end, either sud­den­ly or in a con­trolled way” and any­one who thinks we can have infi­nite growth in finite cir­cum­stances is either a mad­man or an economist.”

Space might yet help us out of this almighty quandary. It’s qui­et­ly done the work of life­saver for decades. Space tech­nol­o­gy is respon­si­ble for GPS, mete­o­ro­log­i­cal fore­cast­ing, glob­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems, dis­as­ter man­age­ment, agri­cul­tur­al and ener­gy reg­u­la­tion. Space has saved us for half a cen­tu­ry,” says Cow­ing. The satel­lite warn­ing sys­tem, the abil­i­ty to mon­i­tor crops – those two things alone would jus­ti­fy every­thing we spend on the space pro­gramme, peri­od. Being able to see a typhoon approach in Bangladesh so you can tell one mil­lion peo­ple to move away from the shore, how do you put a val­ue on that?”. Space has also giv­en us a fresh per­spec­tive. The icon­ic Blue Mar­ble image of Earth tak­en by the crew of Apol­lo 17 in 1972 helped gal­vanise the mod­ern envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, struck by the pow­er­ful pho­to of home. 

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Could Space give us fur­ther food for thought about Earth?

Yusa­ka Maeza­wa wants his trip around the moon to pro­voke reflec­tion, though what that would be remains sketchy. The artists who go with him should, he says want to make the world a bet­ter place”. He also thinks it would not be bad for his retail busi­ness either, which has expe­ri­enced its first-ever prof­its slide this year. Maeza­wa has not made any more pro­nounce­ments about who is due to join him in space, though Ringo Starr wish­es peace and love on any lucky civil­ian-artist-cos­mo­nauts. The Zozo founder’s fash-dash-for-space is still TBC. But either way, it’s clear that space is, once again, the final fron­tier, humanity’s still-unre­solved, great and ulti­mate leap forward.


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