How space got its buzz back

Weightlessness training. Photography by Ralph Morse via Getty

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.


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.


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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