Tom Clyde: Bezos in space
Jeff Bezos’ rocket ride was on while I was eating breakfast, so I watched it. There’s no question that the technology behind it is amazing, and that new stuff will ultimately spin out of it. The computer industry and all the good (and bad) it has brought to the world was largely a spin off from NASA and the moon landing. They did the engineering for the moon landing with slide rules, but the line from your cell phone to some engineer at NASA is pretty straight.
The motivation behind the moon landing wasn’t entirely scientific advancement. There was more than a little bit of concern about being able to nuke the Ruskis from space before they did it to us. The International Space Station seems to be less fear-driven and more purely scientific. Bezos and Richard Branson aren’t motivated by national defense or pure scientific advancement. They did it because they had the cash laying around and had run out of things to brag about at cocktail parties. They also think there is a market for paying customers for space tourism — bringing space travel to the masses, or at least the masses with tens of millions of spare change. In time, the cost may come down to where any of the 1% could afford it.
I’m skeptical of the notion of space tourism. Bezos’ trip was under 11 minutes. That’s not even enough time for a snack. The cruise ship crowd will expect at least a buffet lunch and a couple of drinks. They probably need to work on that. On the other hand, if everybody is burning their vacation budget to go to space for 10 minutes, maybe they won’t be trampling the National Parks. Or using up the local powder by 9:15.
You wonder where it ends up. Is space tourism real? Should the City be making plans for a space port in the Arts & Culture District? Space travel might become an essential element of our full Disney experience. If ski conditions aren’t what you expected, you could go snowshoeing, or maybe go to space instead.
There has been a lot of discussion about the misallocation of resources involved. For what the billionaires have spent on their space stunts, they could have paid to vaccinate all of Africa against Covid, or funded schools and other programs to lift people out of poverty. They could have done a lot of things, useful or benevolent things, and instead they went for a rocket ride. Well, it’s their money, and it’s really not up to the rest of us to tell them how to spend it. Is that how I would have spent that much money if I were in their position? I’m so far from being in their position that I have no idea. It would have bought a lot of antique tractors. Maybe all of them. Then what’s next?
People were describing Bezos as a hero after his flight. It was all computer controlled. There were no controls in the capsule. Bezos wasn’t a pilot. Bezos was like a cat riding around on a Roomba, and being credited for the engineering that made it happen. He wrote the checks, then strapped in for the ride. Not exactly Neil Armstrong-level involvement. That’s not to detract from the engineering accomplishment, but let’s give credit where credit is due.
The idea of the re-usable rocket seems so reasonable. But NASA never did it. Their rockets came crashing down into the ocean. Watching the rocket body return to earth and land itself, straight upright on the same spot where it launched, was amazing. It even fired a bit of fuel to create a cushion of thrust to make the landing slow and smooth. That’s engineering.
The visuals were interesting. The west Texas launch pad, and especially the landing site, looked about as moon-like as you can get. The crew of people who were actually making this all happen were dressed in black and blue pajama tops that looked like they were borrowed from the set of “Star Trek.” Somebody made a deliberate decision on that, then went on Amazon and searched “space crew shirts” to get them. They looked more than a little geeky.
Bezos triumphantly got out of the capsule following the successful and very smooth landing, and doffed a well-worn cowboy hat. It was fully appropriate to the Texas setting, reasonable for a bald-headed guy in the sun, and oddly evocative of Slim Pickens final ride at the end of “Dr. Strangelove.” I have no idea where private space travel will take the world, who will go there, what impact billionaires’ toys falling out of the sky will have on the rest of us. It seems like a bad idea, but it does look like it could be fun.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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