Sunday 16 June 2019

The billion dollar race to be masters of the universe

Despite last week’s Virgin Galactic disaster, the race to conquer space is heating up, writes Ed Power

Sir Richard Branson with his Virgin Galactic Space craft at the Farnborough International Airshow 2012 as he has said that he will persevere with his space tourism venture following the death of a pilot killed when a rocket crashed during a test flight in California. Photo: PA
Sir Richard Branson with his Virgin Galactic Space craft at the Farnborough International Airshow 2012 as he has said that he will persevere with his space tourism venture following the death of a pilot killed when a rocket crashed during a test flight in California. Photo: PA
Richard Branson onboard his Virgin Galactic Space craft at the Farnborough International Airshow in 2012

Ed Power

Down it came, streaking earthwards like a cheap special effect from a chintzy action movie. But the explosion that lit up the aching skies of New Mexico last weekend was no tacky Hollywood distraction: it was an all too real calamity, which left a pilot dead and may have sent a billionaire's dreams literally up in smoke.

Following the fatal crash of the Virgin Galactic test flight, ashen-faced entrepreneur Richard Branson declared his ambition of organising space tourism flights as early as next year would be put on hold until investigators ascertained the cause of the calamity (latest reports identify human error as a possible factor).

Whatever about the damage to Branson, the accident has focused attention on the extraordinary space race between a clique of billionaires seeking to turn the heavens into their private playground. The Virgin boss is just one among many high net worth individuals who, having become masters of the universe on terra firma, have cultivated what might be considered an obsession with outer space. The shuttering of Virgin Galactic would assuredly not spell the end of this new quest to conquer the stars.

There is something rather quaint about the jostling among the super-wealthy to expand our knowledge of and engagement with the solar system. You are reminded of the early days of aviation, when the rich tried to outdo one another attempting to fly fastest and longest (or, if lacking the courage themselves, bankrolling others).

In one sense Branson is an outlier: he's an old-fashioned Richie Rich whose fortune flows from bricks and mortar businesses such as records, airlines, and music stores. Ranged against him are a panoply of internet gadzillionaires, convinced they have the vision and leadership to boldly go where no dotcom geek has gone before.

This exclusive club includes Elon Musk, founder of online payment service PayPal; Microsoft's Paul Allen, John Carmack, of gaming company iD and Jeff Bezos, the force behind competition-crushing online retailer Amazon.

Sprinkled across the deserts of the south-western US, these sultans of bling are pouring millions into space research, with the intention of picking up the slack from NASA, the US government agency having scaled back on manned space flight with the winding down of the Space Shuttle programme.

Still, despite superficial similarities, the billionaires' projects vary hugely in scope and ambition. Branson's aim is to make space tourism a reality via rocket-propelled passenger jets blasting to the outer limits of earth's atmosphere (Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Stephen Hawking are among the 700 to have booked a ride).

Musk's goal, in contrast, is a return to the moon - an undertaking he intends funding by putting his rockets to use launching commercial satellites. Most mysterious of all is Bezos: little is known about his Blue Origin company, though interest is piqued by its website, which has as its logo two turtles bearing a shield, the earth below, a scattering of stars above (cue X Files music).

The motives of these cash-happy stargazers are widely flung. Branson, at least until last weekend's mid-air explosion, appeared to be driven by a sense of fun and adventurousness. For his part, Musk couches his plans in historical terms. The way he sees it, if we don't find a way to colonise outer-space we are putting a time limit on the human race.

"History is going to bifurcate along two directions," he says. "[Mankind can be] a single planet species until an extinction event, or we'll be a multi-planet species, out there exploring the stars. I like the second one. We should aspire to that. We were on our way there with Apollo. We are trying to restore that as much as possible."

A late entry to the space race is Bas Lansdorp, with his Mars One project, which aims to establish a colony on the Red Planet by 2024. The company's strategy is singular to say the least: some of the $6bn expense of sending a crew of four to Mars is to be defrayed via a deal with Dutch TV company Endemol (creator of Big Brother) that will see the mission filmed for a reality TV show. Mankind's greatest achievement may also be its tackiest.

Among the volunteers is Irishman Joseph Roche (28), who has reached a shortlist of 700 candidates (some 200,000 initially applied). That's despite the near certainty that if he ever arrives on Mars, he will probably die there too (and perhaps sooner than he might expect: researchers at MIT estimated the colonists would be dead within 68 days, owing to lack of food and oxygen supplies).

Nonetheless in interviews Roche, research projects co-ordinator and education learning manager at the Science Gallery in Dublin, seemed unfazed, saying that, as a scientist, the opportunity to study an alien world first hand is too good to pass up.

"I know it sounds like a lot to give up but what you'll be gaining as one of the first inter-planetary scientists is immense. Even if they called me right now and said there's a taxi waiting outside, you need to go, I'd go in a heartbeat," he said recently.

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