Starlink app adds a 3D sky scanner so users can better check for obstructions between their dish and SpaceX’s internet satellites – take a look

Elon Musk looking at his iPhone
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • SpaceX updated its Starlink app with a 3D sky scanner for users to check for skyward obstructions.
  • The app generates a dome above the Starlink disk, flagging obstructions that could block connection.
  • Starlink beams the internet down to users’ terminals from a network of 1,650 satellites.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

SpaceX on Tuesday added a 3D sky scanner to the app for its Starlink satellite internet.

It says the scanner makes it easier for users to check for skyward obstructions before installing their dish.

On the old app version, users checked for obstructions above the dish with their phone camera. In the new version, the app generates an image of a 3D dome above the Starlink dish, showing potential obstructions in different colours.

The parts of the 3D dome that are red warn users that obstructions could stop them connecting to Starlink’s network of 1,650 satellites. Blue indicates no obstructions. Based on the scanner, users can decide where best to place their Starlink dish.

Other updates to the Starlink app include a tool tracking how many times the internet service drops, and a dark mode that makes the app’s background black.

People who received their $499 Starlink kit must download the company’s app to set up the equipment and join the network. A monthly subscription to the satellite internet service costs $99, and the company is currently charging $100 for pre-orders.

Starlink, which beams internet down to Earth from its satellites in orbit, has topped 90,000 users. Its goal is to provide a worldwide internet network.

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A black hole warped space-time so much that astronomers saw flashes of light from its far side

black hole blink
An illustration shows a black hole with a corona (the ball of white light) as it devours material streaming into the black hole.

  • Astronomers have seen light from behind a black hole for the first time.
  • The black hole warped light from X-ray explosions on its far side, bending the light around toward Earth.
  • It further confirms Albert Einstein’s theory that massive objects like black holes warp space-time.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

For the first time, scientists have seen the light behind a black hole.

Because no light can pass through a black hole and come out the other side, the discovery further confirms Albert Einstein’s theory that massive objects, like black holes and neutron stars, warp space. This particular black hole, 800 million light-years away, was distorting space so much that astronomers could see X-ray explosions flashing behind it.

“Any light that goes into that black hole doesn’t come out, so we shouldn’t be able to see anything that’s behind the black hole,” Dan Wilkins, a researcher at Stanford’s Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, said in a press release. “The reason we can see that is because that black hole is warping space, bending light and twisting magnetic fields around itself.”

EHT black hole magnetic fields
A view of the M87 supermassive black hole in polarized light shows its swirling magnetic fields.

According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, massive objects warp the fabric space-time. Instead of continuing in a linear fashion, space-time bends around them, creating curved paths that other objects must follow as they travel. That, Einstein said, is gravity.

In the same way gravity forces a planet to orbit a star, light should follow the same curved path around objects like black holes, which can have the mass of billions of suns. But nobody had ever observed a black hole bending and warping the light behind it until now.

general relativity illustration shows curvature of space time around earth
An illustration shows the curvature of space-time around objects with mass.

Wilkins and his fellow astronomers were not trying to find examples of black holes warping space-time. Instead, they were observing the black hole in question with X-ray telescopes to study its corona – a region of electrons heated by the black hole’s immense gravity to temperatures as high as a billion degrees.

From this hot, spinning disc, magnetic fields arc away from the black hole in huge loops, then twist and snap, exploding in bright flashes of X-ray light. It looks similar to what happens on the surface of our sun (the outermost layer of which is called the corona).

“This magnetic field getting tied up and then snapping close to the black hole heats everything around it and produces these high energy electrons that then go on to produce the X-rays,” Wilkins said.

coronal mass ejection sun
A plasma loop bursts from the sun’s corona, February 24, 2015.

But as the researchers observed these bursts of light, they also detected smaller, slightly delayed flashes in different colors. These mystery flashes seem to be the bent light of coronas on the other side of the black hole. They lined up with the researchers’ predictions of what that distant corona activity should look like.

Wilkins and his colleagues published their findings in the journal Nature last week.

“Fifty years ago, when astrophysicists starting speculating about how the magnetic field might behave close to a black hole, they had no idea that one day we might have the techniques to observe this directly and see Einstein’s general theory of relativity in action,” physicist Roger Blandford, who co-authored the paper, said in the release.

Wilkins hopes to continue studying black-hole coronas with a future space-based X-ray observatory, the Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics (Athena). The telescope is still in early development; the European Space Agency plans to launch it into orbit around Earth in 2031.

“It’s got a much bigger mirror than we’ve ever had on an X-ray telescope and it’s going to let us get higher resolution looks in much shorter observation times,” he said. “So, the picture we are starting to get from the data at the moment is going to become much clearer with these new observatories.”

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Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet is acquiring a license to provide blanket coverage to Britain, the Telegraph says

Tesla CEO Elon Musk with a hardhat.JPG
Tesla CEO Elon Musk in Germany this week.

Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet venture has secured a license to construct a satellite ground station on the Isle of Man, which will provide “blanket coverage” across Great Britain, the Telegraph reports.

Starlink, part of of Musk’s SpaceX, has filed an application with the communications regulator for the Isle of Man to improve its broadband coverage for rural areas in northern Britain that cannot be reached by fiber broadband or 5G internet, the newspaper reported.

By transmitting from a station on the island, which is west off the coast of northern Britain, Starlink can capitalize on the island’s less crowded airwaves so their signal can reach these rural broadband holes, the Telegraph said.

Starlink already has established satellite bases in Buckinghamshire and Cornwall. With the three ground stations and its network of satellites in orbit, the company is expected to beam down full broadband coverage for all of the UK, it said.

The internet service would compete with other British broadband companies in Britain, particularly the UK government-owned OneWeb, which also works with a low Earth orbit satellite network.

SpaceX is looking to provide Starlink satellite internet globally by this September and connecting in-flight internet service. The company has been working on launching 42,000 Starlink satellites into orbit by 2027 to support its global broadband signal.

Global coverage of Starlink’s service could allow more and more rural and underserved communities to get fast broadband.

Starlink launched a UK limited test service earlier this year, charging £89 ($123) a month, plus £439 ($610) for a satellite dish, according to the Telegraph. More than 500,000 people have placed an order for Starlink internet, Musk said in May.

Ofcom, the UK’s communication regulator, said last week it is updating the terms and process for obtaining licenses for low-orbit satellites, like the ones Starlink uses, and were halting any current or new applications. However, the regulators said they were in the final stages of issuing one license that was developed with their proposed guideline. Ofcom did not comment on who filed the application.

Starlink could not be reached by the time of publication.

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Business leaders have immense power over space travel but there’s a risk they won’t make ethical decisions for the rest of us, say experts

space station
A view from the International Space Station.

  • Many business leaders are showing a keen interest in space travel.
  • Experts have questioned how leaders’ decisions about the future of space will affect ordinary people.
  • One said it’s unclear whether leaders will make humane social and political orders beyond Earth.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently jetted to the edge of space and back in a rocket designed and built by his company Blue Origin. Not long before that, fellow billionaire Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic, also traveled to the edge of space.

While both events were marked as milestones in ushering in a new era of commercial space travel, some space industry figures say there are inherent problems with giving business leaders the keys to space. These leaders also include SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who along with Bezos and Branson, has shown great interest in the space sector.

“They may not make the wisest or most ethical decisions for all of us,” said Jordan Bimm, a space historian at the University of Chicago.

According to Bimm, for Bezos and especially Musk, tourism is just one step in a grand vision of private space settlement. “Bezos envisions millions of humans living off-world in verdant cylindrical space stations. Musk, on the other hand, is fixated on Mars and establishing a million-person city there,” he added.

But this approach is perilous, according to Bimm. He said: “Can we trust them to establish just and humane off-world social and political orders?”

Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

The shift to privatized space travel could also shake up the way NASA operates in the future, Bimm said: “It could mean a revitalized NASA, or a NASA that shifts into more of a basic space science and advisory role to private companies doing human spaceflight.”

Billionaire business leaders are also changing the career path into the space industry, experts told Insider.

“What is changing is the type of elite person allowed to go there,” Bimm said. “Before, it was soldiers and later scientists, and now we are seeing the very wealthy and their handpicked companions added to this elite lineage,” he said.

Michael Brown, assistant professor from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Monash University, agreed, saying that in previous decades those chosen for spaceflight missions tended to be pilots, scientists, engineers, and doctors.

Back then, crews were also carefully selected by a committee of government experts. “Later on, novelist Tom Wolfe famously described what set these astronauts apart as ‘the right stuff’- essentially skill, bravery, and ego,” Bimm said.

But to get to space today, you simply need the “right funds” to buy a ticket, according to Bimm. Or “as we saw in the case of Oliver Daemen and Mark Bezos, the right family to buy a ticket for you.”

Bimm added: “The flight was exciting to watch but also raises key questions about the future: what, and more to the point, who is space for? Soldiers, scientists, and now the wealthy.”

There are many unanswered questions about how accessible space travel really is but according to Brown, “space billionaires are only broadening space access to space millionaires.” He said the access they provide is “limited to a couple of minutes of floating.”

Matthew Hersch, a historian of aerospace technology at Harvard University, said that although the invention of commercial space travel is great, demand from ordinary people seems low.

“We haven’t seen evidence that demand for space launch services is elastic enough to support selling launch services to average people, even if they can be offered cheaply enough,” Hersch added.

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A government watchdog just rejected Jeff Bezos’ protest of NASA awarding a lunar lander contract to SpaceX alone

Jeff Bezos Elon Musk
Jeff Bezos (left) and Elon Musk.

  • Jeff Bezos has been dealt a loss in his protest of NASA’s awarding SpaceX a lunar lander contract.
  • Blue Origin had said it was unfair of NASA to award the $2.9 billion contract to just one company.
  • SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded to the news on Twitter with a flexing bicep emoji.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Jeff Bezos has just been dealt a blow in his effort to challenge a big victory for SpaceX.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Friday denied a protest that Bezos’ Blue Origin had filed that contested NASA’s decision to award a lunar lander contract to SpaceX alone.

“GAO first concluded that NASA did not violate procurement law or regulation when it decided to make only one award,” the office said in a statement.

Elon Musk’s spaceflight company SpaceX was chosen to receive the $2.9 billion contract in April, edging out defense contractor Dynetics and Blue Origin. The contract is part of NASA’s goal to return astronauts to the Moon as early as 2024 through the agency’s Artemis program. NASA’s decision came as a shock since the agency had been expected to choose two of the three companies, not just one.

Shortly after, Blue Origin and Dynetics filed protests challenging the decision. Blue Origin said NASA was required to award contracts to multiple companies in accordance with its initial stated preference.

When announcing it had picked SpaceX, NASA said it only chose one company because of limited funding from Congress for the program.

Blue Origin says NASA never initiated talks with the company to try to negotiate the price of its human landing system, which NASA expected would cost the agency $6 billion, roughly twice as much as SpaceX’s price. Blue Origin says that NASA did, however, allow SpaceX to negotiate.

“The announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all,” GAO’s statement continued. “In reaching its award decision, NASA concluded that it only had sufficient funding for one contract award. GAO further concluded there was no requirement for NASA to engage in discussions, amend, or cancel the announcement as a result of the amount of funding available for the program.”

Read more: Companies’ mad rush to cloud giants like Amazon and Microsoft might finally be about to slow down, according to a Morgan Stanley survey

The office added that “the evaluation of all three proposals was reasonable, and consistent with applicable procurement law, regulation, and the announcement’s terms.”

A Blue Origin spokesperson told Insider the company will “continue to advocate for two immediate providers as we believe it is the right solution.”

“We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but the GAO wasn’t able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction,” the spokesperson said. “The Human Landing System program needs to have competition now instead of later – that’s the best solution for NASA and the best solution for our country.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded to GAO’s decision on Twitter, simply writing “GAO” and adding the flexing bicep emoji.

Just days ago, Bezos offered to cover up to $2 billion dollars in costs if NASA were to give Blue Origin another shot at the lunar lander contract.

Dynetics did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Read the original article on Business Insider

A Harvard-led team is launching a new project to search for physical evidence of aliens and their technology

Artist's impression of 'Oumuamua
An artist’s impression of interstellar object ‘Oumuamua.

When the first interstellar object ever observed, ‘Oumuamua, careened past Earth in 2017, it seemed to be accelerating. That’s not what most space rocks do – which is in part why Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb says ‘Oumuamua was an alien spaceship.

Although most researchers agree that the object was a space rock – either a comet or piece of a tiny planet – Loeb thinks there are countless other objects like ‘Oumuamua whizzing by our planet, some of which could come from aliens, too. So he launched a program to find them.

On Monday, Loeb announced an initiative called the Galileo Project – after the Italian astronomer – that will search for physical evidence of alien technologies and civilizations.

“It’s a fishing expedition, let’s just go out and catch whatever fish we find,” Loeb said in a press conference. “And that includes objects close to Earth, hovering within our atmosphere, or objects that came from outside the solar system that look weird.”

The $1.75 million project, backed by at least four philanthropists, aims to use a network of Earth-based telescopes to look for interstellar objects that could be extraterrestrial in nature. The group will also hunt for potential alien ships in Earth’s orbit, as well as unidentified flying craft in our atmosphere.

Finding interstellar objects before they pass Earth

oumuamua 1I 2017 u1 solar system trajectory illustration comet asteroid or alien spaceship nasa swri esa stsci PIA22357_fig1
An illustration of ‘Oumuamua flying through the solar system in 2017.

By the time astronomers became aware of ‘Oumuamua’s existence, it was already zipping away at 196,000 mph. Several telescopes on the ground and one in space took limited observations, but astronomers had just a few weeks to study the strange, skyscraper-sized object before it got too far away.

That left many questions about what the object was and where it came from. In a book Loeb published in January, “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth,” he describes ‘Oumuamua as a defunct piece of alien technology.

“The object has anomalies that merit some attention – things that do not line up in the ways we expected,” Loeb told Insider ahead of the book’s publication, adding, “when something doesn’t line up, you should say it.”

Two years after ‘Oumuamua’s discovery, astronomers spotted a second interstellar object: a comet called 2I/Borisov. With the Galileo Project, Loeb and a team of 14 other researchers hope to spot future interstellar objects early as they approach Earth. To do this, they plan to use the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii and an 8-meter-wide telescope currently under construction at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile.

Early detection could enable scientists to send probes to these objects, according to Frank Laukien, a visiting scholar at Harvard and a co-founder of the Galileo Project.

“We should, next time, have much better data much earlier, and maybe land on them or get very, very close to them,” Laukien said in the press conference.

Searching for signs of extraterrestrial technology

vera rubin telescope
Large Synoptic Survey Telescope building at Vera Rubin observatory at Cerro Pachón, Chile, in September 2019.

Loeb describes the new project as complementary to the SETI Institute, which searches for extraterrestrial life using radio telescopes. But the Galileo Project, he said, will search for physical evidence of alien civilizations, rather than radio signals. That includes potential alien satellites that could be orbiting Earth or fragments of extraterrestrial craft. (One of Loeb’s hypotheses is that ‘Oumuamua is a piece of lightsail or antenna that broke off a larger ship.)

Loeb also plans to examine unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, within Earth’s atmosphere.

Last month, US intelligence officials released a report describing 144 incidents since 2004 in which military personnel encountered UAPs. One of those incidents turned out to involve a deflating balloon, but the rest remain unexplained, the report concluded.

ufo uap pentagon triangle
A still from Navy footage of unidentified aerial phenomena.

“It’s an unusual admission by the government, saying there are objects in our sky we don’t fully understand,” Loeb said.

According to the Galileo Project’s website, these UAPs could be artifacts of an extinct alien civilizations or active extraterrestrial equipment. So the group hopes to image future UAPs in higher resolution by creating a network of 1-meter telescopes around the world.

Such telescopes, which cost about $500,000 each, can spot details just 1 millimeter in size on objects the size of a person a mile away.

“That could help us distinguish a label saying ‘thing made in country X,’ from a label saying, ‘made by exoplanet Y,'” Loeb said.

Avi Loeb Stephen Hawking 2016.JPG
Physicist Avi Loeb on stage in New York in 2016.

He added that the Galileo team plans to make its data public to encourage other scientists to engage in the search, too.

“Finding others on cosmic streets will help us mature – help us realize were not the sharpest cookies in the jar, and intelligent life that is way beyond us may exist out there,” Loeb said.

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A Virgin Galactic ticket holder who met Blue Origin passenger Wally Funk at parties said the 82-year-old had ‘the energy of 6,000 labradors’

Blue Origin astronaut Wally Funk makes a speech after the launch.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew member Wally Funk speaks during a press conference after flying into space in the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket on July 20, 2021 in Van Horn, Texas.

  • A Virgin Galactic ticket holder told Insider that Wally Funk was very “understated” and energetic.
  • Caroline Freeland, who is training for her spaceflight, said she met Funk at parties and talks.
  • Freeland said she also met Richard Branson, who she described as a “lovely chap.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Wally Funk, who flew to space with Jeff Bezos on Tuesday, bounces around and has endless amounts of energy.

That’s according to Virgin Galactic ticket holder, Caroline Freeland, who told Insider that she has met the 82-year-old on several occasions.

After buying her $250,000 ticket for a trip to the edge of space on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceship, Freeland, 58, was invited to former astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s 49th and 50th anniversary parties.

Picture of Virgin Galactic ticket holder next to Wally Funk
Virgin Galactic ticket holder, Caroline Freeland, standing next to Wally Funk.

The three-day celebrations in Cape Canaveral allowed Freeland to get to know many well-known astronauts, including Funk, who is the oldest person to travel into space.

Freeland, who has already completed some training for her spaceflight with Virgin Galactic, described Funk as “very understated … engaging, easy, charming, happy, and fun.”

The recent Blue Origin astronaut “really bounces around … she has the energy of 6,000 labradors,” Freeland said.

Aviator Wally Funk behind a control panel
Wally Funk behind a control panel.

Funk was part of a group of female aviators called Mercury 13 in anticipation of flying to space in the 1960s but she never got the chance to go. Bezos asked Funk to join him, his brother, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen on a trip to space in Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.

Funk also traveled to London and gave a speech about her experience in the space industry to 10 to 15 Virgin Galactic ticket holders, which Freeland said she attended.

Freeland said that these meetups were “one of the wonderful things about this whole journey to becoming a future astronaut.”

The ticket holder and future astronaut said she’s also met Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who she described as a “lovely chap.” Branson beat Bezos to space by nine days when Virgin Galactic flew its first crewed mission 55 miles above Earth.

Freeland, who is London-based, said she also met former NASA astronaut, Mike Massimino, at the parties.

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Jeff Bezos’ 18-year-old space-flight companion reportedly told him he had never bought anything from Amazon before

Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew is seen in blue flight outfits sitting in front of the shuttle's capsule.ª
Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew (L-R) Oliver Daemen, Mark Bezos, Jeff Bezos, and Wally Funk hold a press conference flew into space on July 20, 2021.

  • On their Blue Origin trip, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen told Jeff Bezos he’d never bought from Amazon.
  • Bezos replied, “Oh, wow, it’s a long time ago I heard someone say that,” Daemen told Reuters.
  • Amazon revenue was key to funding the trip; Bezos has thanked Amazon workers for making it possible.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The 18-year-old passenger on Blue Origin’s spaceflight on Tuesday had an awkward admission to former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos during the trip.

Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen told Bezos onboard the New Shepard rocket that he had never bought anything off of Amazon before, Reuters reported Friday.

“I told Jeff, like, I’ve actually never bought something from Amazon,” Daemen told Reuters.

Bezos, the former Amazon CEO who credits the company’s revenue with making the trip financially possible, was taken aback.

“He was like, ‘Oh, wow, it’s a long time ago I heard someone say that,'” Daemen continued to Reuters, which notes that Bezos bankrolled Blue Origin by selling billions of dollars’ worth of Amazon stock.

Bezos thanked Amazon workers and customers after Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket touched down again.

“I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this,” he said in a press conference after the flight. “Seriously, for every Amazon customer out there and every Amazon employee, thank you from the bottom of my heart very much. It’s very appreciated.”

Joining Bezos and Daemen on the trip to suborbital space were Bezos’ brother, Mark, and 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk.

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Astronomers spotted a distant planet in the middle of making its own moon

orange disk around a star with planet small orange dot
The PDS 70 system, located nearly 400 light-years away and still in the process of being formed, with planet PDS 70c circled in blue.

For the first time, astronomers have captured an alien moon in the making.

Two enormous Jupiter-like planets are orbiting a star about 400 light-years away – and one of them seems to be forming a moon. Researchers aimed the radio dishes of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) at the distant planetary system and captured a ring of material surrounding the planet.

That “disc” is exactly how astronomers think moons form. A planet’s gravity captures surrounding dust and gas, then its rotation whips that material into a spinning disc. Over time, the dust and gas falls together into moons. Astronomers still don’t fully understand how this process works, so they could learn a lot from studying this planet.

Similarly, the star itself has a disc – material that could one day coalesce into new planets.

“These new observations are also extremely important to prove theories of planet formation that could not be tested until now,” Jaehan Bae, a researcher at the Earth and Planets Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who co-authored the study, said in a press release.

The first image, above, shows the star at the center of the disc. The system is called PDS 70, and the planet with the moon disc is called PDS 70c.

The planet’s moon-making halo, captured below, is about the width of the distance between Earth and the sun. That’s about 500 times larger than Saturn’s rings.

exoplanet small orange dot surrounded by disk
The planet PDS 70c and its disc.

The disc contains enough material to make three moons the size of our own moon, according to the astronomers, who published their research in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on Thursday.

“In short, it is still unclear when, where, and how planets and moons form,” Stefano Facchini, a co-author of the study and research fellow at the European Southern Observatory, said in the release. “This system therefore offers us a unique opportunity to observe and study the processes of planet and satellite formation.”

The other planet circling this star does not show signs of a disc. The researchers said this could indicate that the moon-disc planet gobbled up all the available material, starving its twin. In addition to forming moons, the disc is likely helping the planet grow larger as material slowly falls into it.

The researchers plan to look at this star and its disc-adorned planet more closely with the Extremely Large Telescope, still under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Once built, it will be the largest visible- and infrared-light telescope on Earth.

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SCOTT GALLOWAY: Bezos’ Blue Origin trip was an empty-calories honor for an ‘egonaut,’ not an astronaut

Jeff Bezos walks with Lauren Sanchez ahead of Blue Origin spaceflight
Jeff Bezos walks with Lauren Sanchez ahead of Blue Origin spaceflight.

  • Scott Galloway is a bestselling author and professor of marketing at NYU Stern.
  • The following is a recent blog post, republished with permission, that originally ran on his blog, “No Mercy / No Malice.”
  • In it, Galloway shares why he thinks Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin flight wasn’t the milestone it’s chalked up to be.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ever since the first tribe walked out of the Great Rift Valley and crossed the Sinai into Asia, humans have been explorers. We’ve crossed continents, then oceans, and in the 20th century, left Earth itself. There’s glory in our species’ expansive nature, and as the TV show says, space is the final frontier. However, Jeff Bezos is not my astronaut.

I felt more disdain than wonder watching Richard Branson’s joyride and Jeff Bezos’s soulless flight to the Kármán Line.

Everybody gets a “For All Mankind” trophy

There was no ground broken here. In 1903, the Wright Brothers completed the first powered flight. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first human in space. In 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first human on the moon. Those are milestones worthy of celebration. In 2004, Burt Ratan’s Scaled Composites carried the first people into space on a privately built spacecraft – a milestone of sorts.

What was accomplished on July 11 (Branson) and 20 (Bezos)? Well, one of Bezos’ passengers, Wally Funk (great name), became the oldest person ever in space. After the flight, she reminded us that when you’re 82 you have zero fucks to give. She was disappointed in both the view and the length of the flight, and she found the cabin insufficiently spacious for the “rolls and twists and so forth” she wanted to do.

Another of Bezos’ passengers became the youngest person ever in space. This sounds like something, except that he bought his way onto the flight – actually, his father, a private equity billionaire, paid for the recent high school graduate’s estimated $28 million ticket. My youngest has been acting up (if “acting up” is terrorizing all of us – he ​constantly assesses the household for weaknesses and then makes brazen attacks on his older brother and anything resembling domestic harmony). I don’t have any idea how to deal with this, so I bought him a $1,000 iPad. His mother told me I was sending the wrong message. I reminded her that the message could have been 28,000 times worse. So, there’s that.

Blue Origin’s reusable rocket is a real technological achievement, but that was news … back in 2015. None of the July “astronauts” were even the first space tourists. That empty-calories honor belongs to Dennis Tito, who paid $20 million for a ride on a Russian rocket in 2001. And Tito spent a week in space, living on the International Space Station – the equivalent of nearly a thousand 11-minute trips on Blue Origin.

Astronauts, my ass. Apollo 11 and Columbus travelled 240,000 and 3,000 miles to reach the moon and Caribbean, respectively. New Shepard 4 traveled 0.026% of the way to the moon. Put another way, on Tuesday we watched a man plant a flag three feet up from base camp at Mt. Everest and expect to be knighted. This weekend, I’ll be in Montauk. I plan to swim a half-mile from shore (I can do this) and declare I’ve discovered Spain.

It’s his money, and he has the right to spend it on what he wants. But if Mr. Bezos was genuine about doing something more than crashing a canary yellow T-top Corvette into a Bosley for Men franchise, he could raise the minimum wage at his firm to $20/hour.

Egonauts

In addition to vanity projects for billionaires, these pseudo-events were advertisements, promotions for the brands prominently displayed throughout the breathless television coverage.

But advertisements for what? Human exploration is about the future, and space exploration is a long bet on a very distant tomorrow. What kind of future will the billionaire space race promote? One clue: After his flight, Bezos said, “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this.”

He’s right. We did pay for it. Eighty-two percent of American households are Prime members, and the company has 1,298,000 employees. We also paid for the Apollo program, of course, only there’s a difference. To put Neil Armstrong on the moon, we paid taxes, and elected representatives to decide how to spend them.

In the 52 years between Armstrong’s July accomplishment and the Branson/Bezos “accomplishments,” the United States has radically restructured its economy. Specifically, we’ve handed it over to billionaires. Now, rather than paying taxes, we pay for our Prime memberships. Instead of NASA, we fund Blue Origin. We’ve elected people who defund NASA so businessmen can lead us to new frontiers instead of test pilots and physics PhDs.

Historically, astronauts were the best and the brightest. The pioneers of the 1960s were war heroes and accomplished pilots who combined physical skill and courage with crisp engineering minds. Neil Armstrong, a legend among test pilots, flew more than 900 different types of planes before leaving the Earth in July 1969. When the Lunar Module’s computer conked out on final approach, he manually piloted the craft to the moon’s surface. Those that followed, in the Space Shuttle and aboard the International Space Station, were scientists and engineers of distinction.

“Astronaut” used to connote something noble, something that cemented the best of what it meant to be American: Men and women of exceptional capabilities and unremarkable origins. Armstrong was the second person in his family to attend college, and his father was a state government bureaucrat. John Glenn’s parents were a plumber and a teacher. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was a PhD physicist; her father was a community college professor, and her mother volunteered as a prison counselor. Former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson, a PhD biochemist who spent more time in space than any other American (665 days), grew up on a farm in Iowa. (Kudos to the FAA, which, just before Bezos took off, issued a new policy requiring that a space crew member actually contribute to the mission before receiving astronaut “wings.”)

In the Prime Space future, we won’t have astronauts, we’ll have egonauts.

The problems of the Prime Space future go deeper than who gets to ride Jeff’s cocket to the Kámán Line. An ever-expanding array of technological innovations, businesses, and services fall under the rubric of “space.”

One of the earliest and still most important benefits of space exploration was the Global Positioning System. It’s hard to overstate the importance of GPS, which is foundational to our mobile economy. GPS was born of a US Department of Defense project in 1973; it continues to be run by the DoD, which makes it freely available to all users.

Bezos and Elon Musk are launching thousands of satellites over the next several years to enable their Kuiper and Starlink systems. There’s a lot to celebrate about these projects, which promise broadband internet for remote and underserved regions. But do we want Bezos and Musk – or shareholders in their companies – to control that access? With the number of satellites projected to grow from 3,000 to 50,000, space hauling will be an enormous business.

Bezos dreams of moving pollutive manufacturing to space, which seems both insane and amazing. Musk wants to build a colony on Mars, which seems more like space execution than exploration. But as humanity expands to become a space-faring species, who should control who gets to go and what we do up there? To whom do the benefits of all this technological innovation flow?

I know two things about Blue Origin. One, Amazon’s customers and employees paid for it, just like Bezos said. Two, the commonwealth may register progress, but there will be less public spillover from the technology and an increase in private capture. Imagine the tax avoidance that will occur in space, where nobody can hear the IRS scream.

The counterweight to market externalities is democracy. And a democracy that cedes ownership of its future to a winner-take-all market will lose control of that future. Democracy acts through governments (and taxes), whether we like it or not.

The right stuff

While Bezos was high-fiving his employees after his jaunt into space, NASA scientists were working on projects for all mankind. The Perseverance rover on Mars has its own drone, which is sending back amazing pictures. In November, NASA, along with the European and Canadian space agencies, will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble; under development since 1996, it promises to advance human knowledge about the formation of the universe and the origins of life.

It’s unlikely these projects will attract any venture capital money or support a SPAC. Private space projects might be dressed up as achievements for humanity, but their aim is to return capital to shareholders. And when that’s the criteria, the astronauts and their efforts become limited in scope.

Mach-3 train wreck or galactic ATM

Whatever you think of space travel as a human endeavor, space tourism is an awful business. Even assuming all goes well, it makes no sense. These are vanity projects, and the only people that will make money from them will be the early investors … who bail out before impact.

Most businesses are either demand constrained (the market for its product is limited) or supply constrained (it can’t make enough of its product). Virgin manages to be both. To meet its profit targets, it has to sell about 3,100 tickets per year at a whopping $400,000 each, a 60% increase from the current price. After an ad the entire world saw, the product has a waiting list of … 600 people. My Brand Strategy class at Section4 has 1,500 people, and there’s dramatically lower odds you’re going to blow up in your chair.

But even if there were an annual demand from 3,100 people willing to pay that fee, to supply the spaceflights, Virgin would have to make two flights per day, every day, without mishap. So far in all of 2021, it has flown … twice. The true addressable market for space tourism is zero. It’s the mother of all product-market mismatches. By comparison, Google Glass and Cheetos-Flavored Lip Balm (an actual thing) were on point. Virgin Galactic may achieve great things, but the stock (Nasdaq: SPCE) is a Mach 3 train wreck.

The worst-case, and most likely, scenario? Death. Rockets to space are controlled explosions of thousands of gallons of flammable material. Re-entry is a high-speed fall into the searing heat of friction. Virgin Galactic has already lost one pilot, Michael Alsbury, who died when his SpaceShipTwo craft broke apart in the atmosphere. Five hundred and ninety people have headed into space, and 19 have not returned, meaning space travel is more dangerous than base jumping. A space tourism fatality is a question of when, not if. Exploration and innovation are worth risks, even to human life. Floating weightless for 300 seconds is not.

Richard Branson understands these risks. Last May he sold $500 million of his Virgin Galactic stock, and this April he sold another $150 million, trimming his holding to less than 25% of the company. He was able to make both sales because he took the company public in 2019 via a SPAC controlled by former Facebook employee Chamath Palihapitiya. Who also shed his entire personal stake in the company back in March. Billionaires vote with their wallets, and the two largest shareholders believe their capital will achieve greater returns elsewhere.

Sally Ride

One of 35 people selected from 8,000 applications, after receiving a PhD in Physics, Ms. Ride spent 843 hours in space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, where she was charged with operating the robotics arm (“Canadarm”). I wonder if, when peering down at Earth 300 miles below, she registered satisfaction from her hard work, or the reward of pursuing greatness in the agency of others. Was it freeing to be in space, on a craft judged only by her skills and character? I don’t know. What I am certain of is that Mission Specialist Sally Kristen Ride is a United States Astronaut and went to space for all mankind.

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