2016 in review: tech CEOs reach for the stars
From colonising Mars to factories in space, Silicon Valley billionaires are looking up. (Literally.) And yet NASA’s future is unclear. Who should lead the space race in the 21st century?
‘In the solar system, 2016 was a year of endings and beginnings,’ reflected New York Times science writer Kenneth Chang last week. The European Space Agency (ESA)’s Rosetta probe ended its mission by crashing into the comet it had been circling since 2014. NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter. ESA’s ExoMars probe entered orbit safely — but its lander smashed to the surface and was lost.
And as the year drew to a close, the last remaining member of NASA’s ‘original seven’ astronauts, John Glenn, died aged 95.
Now, as Donald Trump waits to become president, the space community is holding its breath. Besides defunding its climate change research, his plans for NASA are unclear — but many believe that he will abandon Obama’s dream of reaching Mars.
Luckily for fans of the Red Planet, the billionaires of Silicon Valley could step in instead. They too had a year of beginnings. Elon Musk of SpaceX outlined his plan to colonise Mars in 50 years. The billionaire Yuri Milner launched Breakthrough Starshot, a project to reach our neighbouring solar system. After successfully landing a reusable rocket last year, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos began building a new rocket factory in Florida. And earlier this month, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic completed its first successful test flight since a fatal crash in 2014.
The men all have different goals. Musk has spent his whole life dreaming of reaching other planets; he has ‘no other purpose’, he says. Bezos cares more about the industrial side: moving large industrial factories to space is the best way ‘to save Earth’, he argued in June.
Private companies scheduled more launches into space than ever before in 2016, but it did not always go smoothly; in September a SpaceX rocket exploded before it even got off the ground, costing Musk millions.
Despite such setbacks, the men are united by a belief that the future of space travel lies with them, not government organisations like NASA. Is that a good thing?
Of course, say some. Technology CEOs can lower costs, while offering exciting new solutions to space travel. It is not the 1960s any more; governments do not have to lead the way when some of the most innovative minds in the world are eager to step in. Best of all, private space firms will make the solar system accessible to everyone.
Wrong, say others. Exploring space takes a Herculean effort; it should not be left to a few businessmen who care more about profit than science. It ‘requires a sense of national purpose,’ said the journalist David Carr in 2014. ‘Only a robust nation can absorb the cost, some of it in blood, and the towering risk of leaving behind the gravitational pull of earthly constraints.’
- Should space travel be privatised?
- If you could spend your whole life’s savings on a trip into space, would you do it?
- Design a poster advertising holidays in space.
- Choose one of the four companies mentioned in this article, and produce a report which explains what it hopes to achieve, and how it will do it.
Some People Say...
“One thought kept crossing my mind — every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder.”John Glenn on space travel
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why should I care who leads the space race?
- In reality, it is a combined effort — NASA focuses on researching the science, while private companies develop new, cheaper technologies. But who leads will change how we interact with space. For example: should the first humans to walk on Mars be scientists who wish to study and protect it? Or ordinary people hoping to start a life there?
- How long have private companies been involved in space?
- In 1990, a law was passed which required NASA to hire private firms when launching satellites into space. This helped the small industry boom into the juggernaut that it is now. In 2010, NASA also began relying on Russia to send its astronauts to the International Space Station — but in 2014 it gave these contracts to US companies Boeing and SpaceX.
- Rosetta probe
- The spacecraft reached the comet 67P in 2014. Its lander Philae performed the first successful landing on a comet.
- Original seven
- Also known as the ‘Mercury Seven’, the men were chosen for NASA’s space programme in 1959. In 1962, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
- In November Trump promised to stop funding ‘politicised science’ at NASA, one of the leading researchers of the effects of climate change on Earth.
- Founded in 2002, Musk’s company has a contract with NASA to deliver satellites and people into space. However, some of these plans have been delayed after an unexplained crash in September.
- Breakthrough Starshot
- Yuri Milner teamed up with Stephen Hawking to launch this radical project, which involves beaming lightweight nanocrafts to Alpha Centauri with lasers.
- Jeff Bezos
- The Amazon CEO founded Blue Origin in 2000, and successfully landed its first reusable rocket in November 2015.
- Virgin Galactic
- Branson’s company hopes to be the first to take tourists into space. In 2014, a test flight crashed in California, killing the pilot.