The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The billionaires’ space efforts may seem tone-deaf, but they’re important milestones

Billionaire Richard Branson floats in zero gravity in Virgin Galactic's spacecraft July 11. (Virgin Galactic/Handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Miles O’Brien is the science correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and an aerospace analyst for CNN.

On Tuesday, Amazon founder (and Post owner) Jeff Bezos plans to travel into space on his own rocket. He follows Richard Branson, who on July 11 became the first owner of a privately built spacecraft to take it for a suborbital ride.

The idea of billionaires reaching deep in their pockets to fund their own gold-plated bungee jumps may seem frivolous and tone-deaf. Given the aching wealth disparities and environmental catastrophes confronting the spaceship we all share — Earth — it’s hard to stomach such a narcissistic spectacle.

If we don't solve those existential problems, nothing else really matters. But I don’t believe we face a choice of either solving what ails our planet or moving beyond it. We can — and must — do both.

My enthusiasm for civilians in space predates the recent billionaires’ race. For four years starting in 1999, I worked diligently, along with my bosses at CNN, to secure a seat on a space shuttle for a mission to the International Space Station. Then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and his team had become convinced that the idea of “embedding” a journalist on the shuttle crew — from training to touchdown — would be an effective way to engage the public in the agency’s mission. We had planned to publicly announce it all in early 2003, a few weeks after the space shuttle Columbia arrived home safe and sound.

So when I reported for duty at CNN Center in Atlanta in the early hours of Feb. 1, 2003, I had a lot on my mind. I was the network’s space correspondent, and on that morning the shuttle Columbia and its crew of seven were due to land in Florida at 9:16 a.m. EST. At the anchor desk, my attention was divided between other news of the morning and the NASA Television audio feed I had dialed up on my cellphone. When I heard astronaut Charlie Hobaugh unsuccessfully trying to reach Columbia for a “comm check,” I knew that the crew was lost.

During a commercial break, after it became clear that the shuttle had broken up upon reentry, I began sobbing. Mostly I was crying for the loss of my astronaut friends and the lifelong repercussions for their families. But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that I thought about myself and my family. Had my pursuit of this goal really been fair to my children? Regardless, I knew instantly all my efforts to fly were moot — quixotic. I knew the shuttle program was on a short path to retirement. So, too, any chance of a reporter hitching a ride.

Less than two years later, I was in Mojave, Calif., covering an event that changed my outlook. On Oct. 4, 2004, a tiny craft called SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by demonstrating it could reach the edge of space twice in as many weeks. This dramatically reduced the time NASA normally needed to launch, recover, refit and relaunch any space vehicle in its inventory. A successor to that vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, was the craft that safely lofted Branson into the record books last week.

Another billionaire with stars in his eyes, Elon Musk, traveled to New Mexico to see Branson fly. His rocket company, SpaceX, is in a whole different league. His hardware puts a payload into orbit — orders of magnitude more complicated than a suborbital hop. So far, he has flown 10 astronauts to the International Space Station under contract to NASA. The company plans to launch the first private orbital flight this fall. Musk has not given himself a ticket to ride on his own rocket yet, but he has apparently bought his way onto the waiting list for a ride on Branson’s.

While NASA (and its Pasadena, Calif.-based Jet Propulsion Lab) are unmatched at unmanned space probes, the agency’s record for manned missions has lagged, to say the least. For decades, NASA has acted like that guy bragging in a bar about winning a state championship 50 years ago. You may not love them, but the billionaires behind these private-sector efforts have both the resources and the impatience with government bureaucracy to put Americans back in space — where they belong.

They’ll help the rest of humanity along the way. Solar power can be generated in orbit with much greater efficiency and beamed back to Earth, and asteroids can be mined for minerals. We need to find cheaper, faster ways to launch sensors into space to help climate scientists quantify the calamity back home.

And who knows what else? It’s worth remembering the X Prize was modeled after the $25,000 Orteig Prize — offered in 1919 to the first aviator to fly an airplane nonstop between New York and Paris. When an unknown airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh won it in 1927, who would have imagined complaining about Internet connectivity while flying cross-country near the speed of sound?

So the Branson and Bezos efforts are important milestones. Eventually, many more of us will have the chance. Who knows what inspiration and innovation these missions will spark to solve some pressing earthly problems?

That’s a far better story than the one I had hoped to tell years ago.

Read more:

Read a letter responding to this opinion: The rich men’s space race

Megan McArdle: The billionaires’ space race benefits the rest of us. Really.

Alexandra Petri: Some one-star Yelp reviews of space travel from the near future

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: What Richard Branson and his critics both get wrong about equal access to space

Lori Garver: Forget new crewed missions in space. NASA should focus on saving Earth.