On Sunday, January 21st, a small company called Rocket Lab launched a brand new rocket and successfully placed their first payload into orbit. It was a picture-perfect launch that deployed small cubesat satellites from two private companies into space. Dubbed #StillTesting, the rocket also tried out a new upper kick stage motor, and deployed a bold experiment called the Humanity Star.
The Humanity Star
The Humanity Star is a 1-metre geodesic sphere designed to reflect light from the sun down to observers on Earth. It’s a bright object that people can track from the ground as it passes from North to South and back in its polar orbit. It’s meant to inspire us. From Eric Berger’s article in Ars Technica:
“The whole point of the program is to get everybody looking up at the star, but also past the star into the Universe, and reflect about the fact that we’re one species, on one planet,” Beck told Ars in an interview before the launch. “This is not necessarily part of the Rocket Lab program; it’s more of a personal program. It’s certainly consistent with our goal of trying to democratize space.”
Opposition and Support
Soon after the company announced that the payload had been deployed in to orbit, something began happening on Twitter. Astronomers began denouncing the “star”. They complained that it was adding to an already difficult problem with light pollution, and had the potential to ruin valuable observations from telescopes down on Earth. Meg Schwamb is a respected astronomer and also part of the Planet Four citizen science project, which we talked about extensively with Michael Aye back in episode 4.
Looking up at the Moon and the planets in the night sky invokes similar feelings of wonder – why do we need this artificial disco ball in orbit? https://t.co/FDxiR7FyQr
— Meg Schwamb (@megschwamb) January 24, 2018
Mike Brown is another well-known astronomer. He famously discovered the dwarf planet Eris, which eventually led to Pluto’s declassification as a planet. He also put forward the hypothesis (along with Konstantin Batygin) that there is another, actual planet nine hidden out in the farthest reaches of our solar system.
— Mike Brown (@plutokiller) January 24, 2018
“The whole point is to get people talking as a planet and I think we’ve achieved that. If you’re going to do something big some people will love it and some people won’t love it and it’s all about sparking the conversation.”
Rocket Lab had been monitoring how people reacted to the launch of the Humanity Star. Beck said positive messages had exceeded negativity at a ratio of about nine to one.
“Although there are a few people that it doesn’t sparkle with them the vast majority of people are inspired. It’s just incredible to see how many people have been thinking and pondering about it.”
It seems that, on Twitter at least, you either love it or you hate it.
I’ve spoken before about topics revolving around the theme of polarizing space. In Episode 34, Laura Forczyk helped us sort through the pivot from Mars to the Moon, a perennial debate favourite among space geeks. I covered the same topic in an Off the Cuff episode (premium content for Patreon supporters paying $1/month or more) exactly 1 year ago today. SLS vs. Commercial Rockets is another great example (and another topic I covered in Off the Cuff), as is human vs robotic exploration, planetary protection (for or against), and of course, “New Space” vs. “Old Space”.Hear all the “Off the Cuff” content and more by subscribing on Patreon for just $1/month
A lot of these arguments can be broken down to a really basic “change” vs. “don’t change”. Really, if you’re a pessimist, almost every argument in history is essentially that. But in the case of the Humanity Star, and a lot of the tribal space arguments, we’re really looking at a shift in who drives the conversation. Are the skies the domain of scientists, funded by governments and absent of profit motivations? Or are they the playground of the world’s elite? This tweet from Richard Easther, an astrophysicist from the University of Auckland, belies the undertone of the argument perfectly.
Worrying that Rocket Lab’s “humanity star” will not be bright enough to be truly stunning but plenty bright enough to annoy astronomers and people who dislike cheesy stunts. (But peak brightness depends on spin rate, so YMMV on the first)
— Richard Easther (@REasther) January 24, 2018
Rise of the Billionaires
Since the dawn of the space age, space exploration has been driven by governments. In the earliest years of geopolitical motivations driving the space race, it was governments going toe to toe. Since then, it’s been mostly the same. National agencies drive the agenda, remain the largest customers, and regulate the industry. But in the past couple decades, this has begun to change.
In 2004, Anousheh Ansari and her brother Amir made a multi-million dollar contribution to the X-PRIZE foundation, which held a competition for non-government agencies to put a spacecraft above the karman line twice in two weeks. The competition went to SpaceShipOne, a spaceplane which became the first private spacecraft to reach space. It’s pilot, Mike Melville, became the first private astronaut. Today, the heritage of the vehicle lives on through Virgin Galactic, another private organization headed by a wealthy man with cosmic ambitions, Richard Branson. Anousheh later went on to fly herself to the International Space Station as one of the first privately-funded astronauts.
Of course, more such privately funded figures are today becoming not just spaceflight players, but household names. Elon Musk’s SpaceX put the first private liquid-fueled rocket, the Falcon 1, in to orbit in 2008. Since then they’ve pushed many boundaries. They were the first private company to launch, recover, and launch a spacecraft again (Dragon 1). They were the first to complete a propulsive landing of an orbital-class rocket (and then launch it again). They’ve become the highest volume launch organization in the world, putting 18 successful payloads in to orbit last year. That beat any other country, and accounts for roughly two thirds of all American launches that year.
Elon Musk isn’t the only one, either. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is silently and steadily building a rocket empire called Blue Origin to send tourists to space and later enter the commercial satellite market. He’s also following a reusable rocket strategy, one that promises to continue to drive down costs and democratize space access. Bob Richards of Moon Express seeks to put a lander on the moon. Peter Diamandis, Chris Lewicki and Eric Andersen want to mine asteroids with their company Planetary Resources. And of course, there’s Peter Beck, who just wants the world to look up at his Humanity Star and wonder.
Is this Good?
The “Billionaires of Space” have done a lot of good, to be sure. Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard rocket has provided opportunities for many small payloads to reach space, including projects from schools and universities. SpaceX has lowered the cost of access to space tremendously, charging NASA a third of what it would have to use the Shuttle to send cargo to space, returning all of its original investment, and driving economic activity in the United States instead of abroad. That’s of tremendous benefit to American taxpayers. Given how fast everything has been changing, we are probably only scratching the surface of what’s possible as these new players continue to disrupt an industry that has been stagnant for a long time.
But there are concerns as well. In a recent Planetary Radio episode, Mat Kaplan hosted a panel with Planetary Society staff Jason Davis, and our past guests Emily Lakdawalla and Casey Dreier. Casey brought up a wonderful point. Private investment in industry to the scale we’re seeing tends to happen in times of tremendous economic inequality. By definition, there needs to be a huge wealth gap between the richest and poorest among us to facilitate this kind of unencumbered spending by private individuals in to a specific pursuit. And if you think that isn’t true, I invite you to check out what SpaceX is launching next. I’m not here to discuss the nature of economic inequality or its solutions, but it is something that should be considered by anyone pondering which side to take in this.
Interestingly, this is not the first time this has happened in space exploration, either. Casey also interviewed Alex MacDonald on the Space Policy edition of Planetary Radio back in December. Dr. MacDonald wrote a book called “The Long Space Age” which tells the story of the surge of investment in private observatories in the United States in the 19th century. I recommend you listen in to hear the parallels between then and now.
We’re obviously in a time of change. The old guard of space is under pressure from a newer, younger perspective that wants to change things and make them their own. One only has to watch a United Launch Alliance webcast and a SpaceX one to see the difference. The days of control rooms filled with weathered Caucasian men in suits and military uniforms are fading. Those of control rooms filled with young, diverse engineers in jeans and t-shirts are swelling. They’re different. They cheer at stage separations, they share on Twitter, and they put weird space disco balls in to orbit. But that doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong.
As the Humanity Star coverage filled the airwaves this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about polarizing positions. Tribalism is a curious part of human nature, one that simultaneously offends me but that I also can’t help but sometimes get sucked in to. I come back to reminding myself, over and over, that space, like many debates in our time, is a complicated issue, and not one that can properly be dissected in a tweet (whether you have 140 or 280 characters).
It’s OK to be excited about the SLS rocket’s capabilities, while also being critical of its program management. It’s OK to cheer the landing of a SpaceX rocket, while also being concerned about the cult of personality around it’s founder. It’s OK to want to protect other planets from microbial life but also send people to explore them. And it’s OK to be delighted about a human-made artificial star, while also sympathizing with astronomers, whose valuable telescope time might be polluted by more light.
Space is for everyone. But for most of us watching from the sidelines, we’ll need to be happy being armchair administrators. That’s all fine, as long as we recognize that there are different perspectives, it isn’t black and white, and our diversity makes us stronger. If we’re going to Mars, I’d like it to be built on a stronger coalition than 50% +1.