The Edge Episode 12: 2021, A Space Hotel Odyssey

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Space. The final frontier. Since the first human left Earth’s atmosphere in 1961, few earthlings—and even fewer private citizens—have had the opportunity to “boldly go” there. But, with new advancements from SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other spaceflight companies, wealthy tourists could soon be booking rooms in hotels in outer space. As with any new industry, the rise of space tourism raises some new, sometimes uncomfortable, questions: Are we colonizing space? Is this just another exclusive vacation experience for the ultra-rich? Why are billionaires spending so much money on space tourism when there are plenty of humans on Earth without food, housing, or health insurance? To learn more, Laura and Leah speak with the fifth-ever space tourist (and first one to make the trip twice) and one of the minds behind the universe’s first space hotel.

Show Notes:

  • Kenneth Brower’s essay about the choice between adapting to life on Earth, or building a new one in the stars
  • Adam Mann’s story about Berkeley alum Leroy Chiao, the veteran of three space shuttle flights and a six-month stint on the International Space Station
  • Marina Koren’s Atlantic article about Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos’s fight for the moon
  • David Verbeek and Helene Fouquet’s L.A. Times article about the environmental cost of space travel

This episode was written and hosted by Laura Smith and Leah Worthington and produced by Coby McDonald.

Special thanks to Pat Joseph, Maddy Weinberg, Nathalia Alcantara, Charlie Pike, Jeff Greenblatt, and Charles Simonyi. Art by Michiko Toki and original music by Mogli Maureal.

Transcript:

LEAH WORTHINGTON: On Oct 5th, 2007, Charles Simonyi found himself in a very unlikely place. He was lying on his back, belted tightly into one of three seats in the crew compartment of a Russian rocket pointed straight up into the sky toward its ultimate destination: outer space. 

LAURA SMITH: That may not have been an unusual place for an astronaut to be, but Charles is not an astronaut. He’s a Microsoft engineer and a Cal grad in engineering mathematics. He wasn’t there for his expertise. He was there because he bought a ticket. In other words he was a space tourist. 

CHARLES SIMONYI: I think everybody wants to be an astronaut. When they were growing up. People with the right stuff, were willing to have the talent and who are willing to dedicate their lives, maybe they have a chance of going to space. But the rest of us, people without the right stuff, I don’t think that was in the books.

LEAH: Charles may not have had the right stuff to be an astronaut, but he had plenty of the right stuff for space tourism; in other words: money. His two round trip tickets cost a total of $60 million.  

LAURA: As he sat in the Soyuz rocket, Charles wondered if the launch would happen at all. He says that the flight, like all space flights, was shrouded in uncertainty. They get canceled or delayed all the time and any small health hiccup can get you booted from the launch. 

CHARLES: Up to the last minute, it was really up to the doctors that that could have said you know, “hey stop this, this is, this is not going to work.” 

LAURA: But he got the go ahead and then the launch sequence began…  

[RUSSIAN RADIO TRANSMISSIONS]

CHARLES: The arms that hold the rocket kind of fold back. And the gantry tower is folded back, and we are just standing there in the open. And you can feel a sway of the structure, and we were nudging each other that it’s the wind is blowing us up a little bit. And then you can hear a lot of noises from the inside. So you kind of hear the gyros running, the pumps running. The blast-off is not a big deal.

[SOUNDS OF BLAST-OFF]

CHARLES: I would describe it as: imagine that you go into an elevator and you lie down on the floor, horizontal, and somebody pushes the button. You feel that you are rising. I mean, that’s about it. And you are on your back, so it’s a very comfortable position. So the acceleration is the least when you are starting. You are really rising relatively slowly. You are gaining 10 miles an hour every second, which is not unreasonable. In five seconds you would go 50 miles an hour. But in 100 seconds you will be doing 1,000 miles an hour. So in eight minutes now you’re doing 17,000 miles an hour, just with same steady acceleration. The explosive devices that separate the stages, they sounded like when you are in a train, and you hear this big bang of metal against metal. When the main engines shut down, it really feels like somebody stepped on the brake. You are in orbit in eight minutes.

LEAH: And just like that, Charles became the fifth space tourist. And he liked it so much he went again.

CHARLES: I am the first that went twice. So at least in the books, it will be always written that the first to go twice was Charles Simonyi.

LAURA: And since his second trip, only one other private citizen has gone, making Charles one of only seven people in the history of the world to be a space tourist. 

CHARLES: At the time, but even today, to go in orbital spaceflight is a great privilege. 

LEAH: And it’s a privilege that, if our guests today are right, will soon be extended to many more people as the space tourism industry explodes. Or, I should say, takes off

LAURA: Space might be the next frontier, even the new Wild West, with all the moral ambiguity that that phrase implies. 

[THEME MUSIC] 

LAURA: This is The Edge, a podcast produced by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association.

LEAH: In this episode we’re heading to outer space to find out when you, yes you, might be the next extraterrestrial tourist. 

LAURA: I’m your host Laura Smith. 

LEAH: And I’m your other host, Leah Worthington. 

[MUSIC OUT]

LEAH: So as we were saying, Charles Simonyi was the fifth space tourist. The first was in 2001.

LAURA: 2001, a space tourism odyssey! 

LEAH: That’s right. The first space tourist’s name is Dennis Tito. And he worked in finance. 

LAURA: Shocking.

LEAH: Which is why he had a mere $20 million to spare on his space vacation. But in the very near future, many more private citizens are planning to go, which could in theory bring down the price. A lot of people are saying this is the future of travel. 

CHARLES: Now we can look forward, in the next couple of years, I think there’ll be probably hundreds more people that will go to orbit and and probably thousands or more that will do suborbital spaceflights.

LEAH: Charles and others like him see a future where whole families could go to space on a kind of extreme family vacation. 

CHARLES: Going to air suborbital flight with my girls would be a fantastic experience. 

LAURA: So Charles went to space on a small three-person Russian mission to the International Space Station. But companies envision a future where space travel looks a little more like the luxury hospitality industry we have here on earth. And they’re already working on designing and building the infrastructure to make this happen. Starting with…space hotels! 

LEAH: Space hotels! We’ll talk more about those in a bit—don’t worry. But first let’s introduce someone who’s helping make them a reality. Jeff Greenblatt is an environmentalist, an energy systems modeler, and one of the minds behind the universe’s first space hotel. 

JEFF GREENBLATT: My heroes growing up were Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan. I watched the Cosmos series when it first came out on PBS and was completely enraptured by it. Yeah, I mean, I read all the space magazines and I imagined flying on the space shuttle, which was the, you know, the spacecraft du jour when I was growing up. And so I had thought a lot about space, I even wrote, like in first or second grade to a teacher that I wanted to explore the planets and become an astronaut when I grew up. So, it’s been there for a long time, it just kind of went underground for a while.

LEAH: But, like many wannabe astronauts, he abandoned that dream, for a while. He went to Berkeley where he got his Ph.D. in chemistry and started working in climate and energy tech. But then along came Elon. Elon Musk, that is.

JEFF: When I found out that Musk was not only trying to build his own spacecraft, that it was going to be reusable, but that he wanted to start a city on Mars, I thought, “Hold on, what has changed here while I’ve been paying attention to the environment?”

LEAH: What had changed was that while Jeff was working as a sustainable energy consultant, a renaissance in space travel was taking place, led by billionaires like Musk and Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. And Jeff decided he needed to be a part of it. So he joined a startup called Orbital Assembly, which is the world’s first large scale construction company and where he’s working on one of the first “space hotels.”

JEFF: I serve as their chief scientist and chief visionary officer currently.

LAURA: To be perfectly frank, space really scares me. And I wonder if, but I like to think of myself as like, an adventurer. Is it like the pioneering aspect? Is it like the unknown? What is it about space that gets ya?

JEFF: How there’s so many things, I mean, part of it is yes, definitely just this sense that we are part of something so much larger, and that there is so much more to explore that we don’t understand even about our own solar system. I see there as being great potential to expand the human experience by allowing, you know, hopefully one day millions of people to be able to travel into space and look back on our planet or travel to other bodies in our solar system and experience the wonder and majesty of that. 

LEAH: Though he’s never been, Jeff says that for those who have been to space there’s something sort of existentially transformative about it.  

JEFF: We hear from many astronauts, you know, who’ve been into space, that they have the sense of kind of responsibility for the whole human species and the planet when they see Earth from that perspective. And so imagine if thousands of people now get this experience every year, and the perspective that they bring back into their daily lives, in discussions in, you know, developing government policy, corporate responsibility, social contracts, it could have a pretty important effect without going very far into space. There’s actually some companies I have encountered whose sole mission is to give as many people as possible this experience, which has a technical term: it’s called the “overview effect.”

LAURA: I just found a quote from Michael Collins from Apollo 11. And it’s so beautiful. I just want to read it for a second. He said, “The thing that really surprised me was that it—Earth—projected an air of fragility. And why? I don’t know. I don’t know, to this day, I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.” 

JEFF: Yeah.

LAURA: Who knew these astronauts were such poets?

LEAH: Our space tourist, Charles Simoyni, was a little less sentimental about the overview effect but he did tell us something about the view from space that had never occurred to me.

CHARLES: It’s super-interesting in that you go around the Earth in 90 minutes, and that means 45 minutes in daytime, 45 minutes at night. So, every 90 minutes you experience the spring, the autumn, you can see snow, you can see deserts, you can see daylight, you can see night. That incredible variety of  just conditions and circumstances around the world.

LAURA: Okay, now for the part you’ve all been waiting for: space hotels! We asked Jeff to tell us more about this big, commercial project: the Voyager Space Station.

JEFF: So you think of it as a thin doughnut, and attached to the rim of the doughnut, are these different habitat modules. So the donut is actually, it’s a continuous tube that would allow passage, you know, around the circumference of it with some elevator shafts to the center, to get to and from what are called the docking, the docking area. 

LEAH: The docking area is like a central landing pad where the spaceship will arrive and leave with the passengers. Once they arrive, visitors will be shuttled to the pods along the outer rim of the doughnut where they’ll spend the rest of their trip. 

JEFF: And around the outer rim, where most of the activities take place, that’s right, there are these different modules. They’re all the same size on the outside, but inside, they’ll be outfitted differently. So some of them would be hotel rooms, some of them would be a gymnasium/auditorium, multipurpose area, there’ll be restaurants. And of course there would be research facilities as well, and equipment rooms.

LEAH: How many people could stay in this hotel?

JEFF: It could hold at maximum capacity, like, I want to, say, upwards of 300 people at a time plus 100 staff, that’s what we’ve spec’ed it for.

LEAH: I wonder if you could do your best at painting a picture of what it would actually look like.

LAURA: What am I going to eat for dinner? That’s what I want to know.

JEFF: Yeah, I mean, you would, you would book a ticket, just like you would any exotic vacation. And they probably take a deposit. Of course, there’s going to be some training involved, we’re not getting around the fact that getting up off the planet is still going to be a physically demanding task—you experience several G’s of acceleration, which is several times you know, normal Earth gravity when you’re accelerating. So that can be hard on a body with underlying heart or other physical conditions, it might exclude you. So you might not be able to go if you don’t pass a, you know, a pretty rigorous physical. But yeah, I mean, you want to make sure that you’re in good health. If something goes wrong up there, you can’t get to a doctor right away. We would have medical facilities, but they would be fairly limited to basically triage and first aid. If something serious went wrong, you could get on a shuttle and be sent back down within a few hours, because we have escape vehicles that are part of the plan. 

LEAH: Thank god. 

LAURA: Yeah, the idea of escape vehicles is somehow both reassuring and terrifying. 

LEAH: Yeah, that’s true. Like, oh great there’s an escape pod. But also…wait, why do we need an escape pod?! 

LAURA: This reminds me of what Charles was saying about the eight months he spent training in Star City, which is a cosmonaut training center in Russia. A lot of the training was learning how to deal with emergency landings. But then there was all the medical prep…  

CHARLES: The worst part of the training, were the doctors. In my case, they put a catheter into my heart. So that’s pretty invasive. But that’s because they were worried about my heart. And again, it’s just to make sure that I’m not going to die on them. And that would be frankly, very embarrassing.

LEAH: I really love that Charles thinks dying in outer space would be embarrassing. 

LAURA: I know, that seems like a pretty badass way to go, actually.

LEAH: Better than, like, choking on a piece of sandwich, which I almost did the other day. But, anyway, the point is: Once you’re actually in space, you get to experience some pretty cool physical sensations. Like imagine just floating through the air as you sleep…

CHARLES: To me it was an excellent feeling to, to sleep in weightlessness. 

LAURA: Although he said there are some drawbacks.

CHARLES: On the ground, you always sleep on one side or the other side, and when you sleep on yout right side, the left side is kind of resting, and then you change sides. And in space, you can’t be on left or right side, you’re just floating there. And, in a way, you never rest because you always feel the pressure from the inside of your body, on your skin. Because you are basically a big sack that is holding what’s inside. 

LAURA: We’re just innards floating through space in skin sacs..

LEAH: Thank you for that, Laura. Here’s Jeff again. 

JEFF: Dealing with the zero gravity that you will experience during the journey and in certain parts is also something that you want to be prepared for. Some people are much more prone to motion sickness and nausea than others.

LAURA: Woohoo, sign me up!

LEAH: I think we’d be the most annoying space guests. 

LAURA: Definitely. Our anxiety might be contagious. But I have to say I like the idea of this “space workout” we’d have to do first. I wanna be astronaut fit. 

JEFF: So yeah, there would be, there would be some hoops you’d have to go through. But then once you are ready, hopefully you’d be able to get on an appointed flight that wouldn’t be delayed by months, like things are now, and you would get on and it would launch on schedule, because there’ll be daily flights or weekly flights to the station and other destinations. You would be in orbit for possibly up to a couple of hours as you’re waiting to dock with the station. And then once you dock, you float out the hatch, and down a tube that then becomes your elevator, they close the latch above you, and you start to experience a sensation of very mild gravity, which increases as the tube moves toward the outer rim. And you walk out and you’re walking on the moon. 

LEAH: To be clear, you’re not literally walking on the moon. Jeff’s just referring to the experience of being in very light gravity. It’s pretty cool actually—this artificial gravity is created because the hotel is constantly spinning.

JEFF: And someone would lead you to your hotel room. And in terms of what you’d have for dinner, Laura, pretty much a five star restaurant. So whatever your heart desires, we would have the works and fabulous chefs that would cater to your whim. 

LAURA: I think you should get that guy from the Copenhagen restaurant. He’s always trying to do new things. 

LEAH: Mm. Yeah, those like really innovative entrepreneurial chefs who are trying to like, play with chemistry.

LAURA: Yes.

JEFF: Oh, for sure I think we would welcome that kind of innovation. And it would be one of the hallmarks that you can get food here that you can’t get anywhere on Earth. So it’s another draw for why you would bother to spend the money. We expect that at full capacity, we would be sending several ships worth of people and equipment up per week. And so we could really embrace the fresh ingredients paradigm. Maybe it wouldn’t be daily, but we could certainly have, you know, let’s say food shipped every, every three days.

LEAH: So farm to outer space to table. Or, farm to outer space table?

LAURA: Yeah I’m just wondering how that kale will do on the rigorous blast off to outer space. I mean, if I need to do a bunch of workouts to survive, won’t the kale wilt? 

LEAH: Yeah. And also, not to be nit-picky but…unless they’re sprinkling moon dust on our food, it’s pretty unlikely that this is food we actually wouldn’t be able to eat on Earth.

LAURA: We are definitely not getting invited to space. 

LEAH: Yeah, you’re right.

JEFF: It will certainly be a huge break from what the people on the International Space Station eat right now. Which is, you know, goo in a tube.

LEAH: I kind of want to try that too.

JEFF: Well, you can, I’m sure you can order that as well. That will be a I mean, that will be a deceptively popular item

LAURA: It’s kind of like a cruise ship for space. That’s like everything you need is right here on this boat, but we’re in outer space.

JEFF: Yeah, in many ways, it is like a cruise ship in the sense that it has entertainment. Maybe you have nightly shows, and you have people there to wait on you. It’s definitely a service-oriented, you know, experience. And it is a, obviously, a unique destination unlike anything on earth. And that’s what we’re hoping will keep people interested, at least for the first few years. And then of course, we’re probably going to have to offer something new, you know, “Oh, you’ve been here before,” okay, well, we need to make it still appealing so that you’ll come the next time. People are probably going to want to spend a lot of time looking out the window. But then they’re going to want to take a break and have you know, kind of the normal comforts of home and some entertainment. So I could see as long as you have enough unique offerings, you could easily fill out a week or so. And then people are probably going to be ready to go back. But yeah, I mean, if people wanted to spend longer, we thought about the idea of having essentially you know villas that you would rent out by the month. 

LAURA: A lunar Villa! Forget your Tuscan Villa, I’ve got my lunar Villa!

JEFF: It’s a big vision. I mean, I want to say, you know, this is not something we’re building next year, you know, we hope that this is something that we can realize within the decade.

[MUSIC]

LEAH: So, since we spoke to Jeff, his company Orbital Assembly has announced that they’re planning to have people booking rooms and staying at the hotel in 2027. 

LAURA: Ok, this sounds great and all. But now I’m just dying to cast some doubt on all this. 

LEAH: I know. Yes. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. MONEY. 

LAURA: Can we talk some like nitty gritty numbers? Like if you had to guess, like, the first several iterations of this…how much money are people going to be paying to do this?

JEFF: So, you know, several tourists have flown to the International Space Station. They’ve spent upwards of 30 to $40 million for a ticket. Okay. Of course, there aren’t too many people in the world who would be willing to spend that much money. But believe it or not, there is actually a lot of money out there at individual discretion. There were about 40 million millionaires in the world, in 2017, or 2018. And that number grows by about 5 percent every year. A person with that amount of wealth is very comfortable spending about 1 percent, maybe a little bit more, on a so-called discretionary purchase each year. So I think the bottom line is that, you know, if you’re spending millions of dollars on a ticket, you’re going to get on the order of maybe, you know, a few dozen to a few hundred tourists a year who want to who want to go, but as that number decreases, then the number of eligible people starts to balloon exponentially. And a recent survey that was done, by a research firm called Cohen & Company, found that basically 40 percent of millionaires are actually interested in going into space in some fashion. 40 percent.

LEAH: See, Laura? People want to go. 

JEFF: Yeah, a lot.

LAURA:  Leah and I sort of have an ongoing debate where Leah wants to go to Mars, I do not want to go to Mars, I want to live here on earth, where…I’ve seen the movie Mars, and it looks like a hard, hard life.

LEAH: Such a realist. Where’s your spirit?

JEFF: Clearly Leah’s a pioneer.

LAURA: Yes. I believe I’m slowly being sold on this, actually. I want the overview effect.

LEAH: You just don’t want to—

LAURA: I don’t want to live on Mars. 

LEAH: You want to be able to come back. 

LAURA: Yeah. I want to see my daughter grow up. Or, I guess I could bring her.

LEAH: That’s true.

JEFF: She might want to go. She might want to go to Mars. We’re hoping that with the economies of scale, that we would be able to offer a trip into space for a fraction of what it costs today. So instead of spending $30 or 40 million, maybe it’ll be $3 or $4 million, which, again, is still large, but then we’re talking about space station number one. When we go to space station number two or three, you know, we hope that in time, it will break below that million dollar level. And then it’s still an expensive vacation, still something most people can’t afford, but it’s something that one could save for, one could compete for, get scholarships for. And certainly, as the number of uses of space habitation increases, there’ll be more and more investment in this, that I think, you know, eventually can get it down to the level where a family vacation might take place in space.

LAURA: Could that happen in my lifetime?

JEFF: I think so. It’s economies of scale. It’s: how fast do we want to grow this?

LAURA: I also often think about, you know, what are the things that are going to seem so insane, when I’m very old, and I’ll be like, “I can’t believe they did this in my lifetime!” And my great grandchildren will be like, “I can’t believe you didn’t grow up with this!”

JEFF: I think we’re going to see this transformation that you’re talking about, Laura, and it will be akin to just hopping on a commercial flight, for a few hundred bucks, maybe a few thousand bucks to get into space. But I can’t see it being much more than that in the long-term because it’s going to be such a commodity. You might be packed in like sardines, but you’re only there for a few minutes anyway, before you get to your destination.

[MUSIC]

LEAH: So, Jeff says there’s another reason for us to explore the idea of bringing more people into space. 

JEFF: Increasingly, it’s kind of become an environmental imperative, frankly, and it’s hard sometimes for people to understand that. We’re rapidly outstripping the ability of our planet to support the lifestyle and number of people, you know, that we have, and that we can’t quickly change that. And while we’re doing our level best to try to quickly decarbonize our energy system, become more efficient, reuse our resources, we’re running out of space. And while I’m not saying that going into space to solve our resource problems is going to be cheap, easy, or even wise in all cases, there is a vast potential out there, that dwarfs the resources that we have on earth, that if we think sufficiently long-term and systematically, we can actually find ways to lighten the load on the Earth by making judicious use of space resources, both for providing materials that we need back on Earth as well as providing new living spaces for people one day to live up there. 

LEAH: Is there a sense within the space exploration space tourism community that we will eventually as a species leave Earth, and that this is kind of gearing us up for that inevitability?

JEFF: I think there is a large fraction of people who believe that in their bones, and then there’s another group of people who just kind of thinks that this is an inexpensive fantasy, that will never happen. I certainly would like to think that we become a multi-planet species, or should I just say, an off-Earth species, because maybe living in orbit isn’t really on a planet, right, at all. I think that there’s a really positive future for us if we do that, because it means that we no longer have to figure out a way to fit more and more people into less and less land and dealing with the increasing environmental problems that we’re creating for ourselves on Earth. We have the potential to essentially remove that human pressure from the planet, once we have the technology to build comparable or superior habitats out in space, and people will want to live there. They will want to migrate there, at least will have a choice between living on earth and living among the stars. So to answer your question, yes, there is a strong contingency of people in the space community who believe that this is our destiny. And there’s others who I think are more pessimistic about it. And I think until we find out what we can and can’t do, you know, through the laws of physics and economics, the jury’s still out on that. But I’m with the former group.

LAURA: Holy moly, there’s a lot going on there. He’s talking about colonizing AND MINING SPACE. There are so many ethical implications with that, I don’t even know where to begin.  

LEAH: Right, and we don’t really have time in this single episode to get too far into space colonization, but I will say that one of the arguments that he and other scientists are making is that the technology that they’re developing for space tourism could potentially be useful on Earth and maybe…in space colonies. 

LAURA: Highly skeptical. How so, Leah?

LEAH: Well, let me just give you an example: So, if you’re building say some kind of a space generator and you want it to be as energy-efficient as possible, right—because you’re not just like plugging it into the moon—you might end up with infrastructure for more sustainable living on Earth as well.

LAURA: I’m just very skeptical of the idea that what is currently a luxury good for the uber-wealthy could actually benefit all of mankind.

LEAH: I know. AND, I should add that there definitely are some environmental concerns about space travel itself. You know, there’s the CO2 pollution from launch fuel as well as the soot—or black carbon—that is emitted from rockets, that, it’s not a huge amount with every single rocket, but the more we build up the infrastructure, the more we’re going to space, environmentalists are concerned that that could start to accumulate in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Private companies are promising to make cleaner energy a priority, but so far there hasn’t been a lot of regulation.

LAURA: I just want to point out how bleak this whole scenario is. Like what is going on on Earth that it makes more sense for us to travel en masse to another planet, and potentially pollute more along the way? Imagine how bad it would have to be on Earth for us to want to go live somewhere that is entirely unfit for human habitation. Like there’s no water, we can’t breathe air, but for some reason it’s better than Earth? 

LEAH: Right exactly. And then there’s the question of who would be going to live on this other planet. Is it wealthy people who can afford to escape the hellhole of Earth? Or are we just catapulting masses of poor people to this uninhabitable planet to make Earth more comfortable for the wealthy?

LAURA: Let me guess which one it is. 

LEAH: Yeah, I keep thinking about the movie Total Recall with all the poor living in Martian slums. 

LAURA: Uh oh…tell me more. I haven’t seen it.

LEAH: Well, apart from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s enormous biceps, and frankly 10/10 acting, the movie is a pretty dystopian vision of what life on Mars might look like. 

LAURA: Let me guess: There’s a malevolent overlord who owns the planet and hoards all the power and resources.

LEAH: Wow, yes, how did you guess? Basically, the wealthy tourists from Earth get to go to the fancy hotels where they eat fancy, white tablecloth dinners alongside big-window views of the vast, red landscape. Meanwhile the rebels, aka Mars-dwelling humans, live in…let’s call it “lower income housing.” 

LAURA: Sending people to live on Mars seems like a terrible idea.

LEAH: Yeah, I mean this vision is still a pretty long way away. But if there’s one thing we know about humanity, it’s that if we can do something we will. So the question isn’t so much “if,” but “when” and “how”? 

LEAH: If the system is already built so that the first people who can go are going to be primarily wealthy, probably primarily white, are we already off on the wrong foot?

JEFF: Well, I mean, again maybe you can build an altruistic element into this, I mean, maybe something in the vision of the of the company, or even the, you know, the government that is that is sponsoring this could say, “We realize that we have to rely on wealthy individuals to bootstrap this. But we want to ensure that there is a diversity, both of backgrounds and wealth levels going forward, that will be guaranteed by the structure that we put into place.” So that maybe some percentage, some increasing percentage of people, you know, who live on the station—kind of like the idea of affordable housing, I guess, but taken to a whole new level—you know, would be required to have an income under a certain amount, and that that’s held up as a community value. You know, it’s really because we want there to be a diversity of perspectives, as well as lifestyles. 

LAURA: I feel convinced that you want these things. But I worry that this is a rarefied community of white billionaire men who maybe don’t see the value in having a diversity of voices. And, you know, there can be a few people who really care about this, and then if the big bankrollers don’t care, it doesn’t happen. Do you feel like this is a community effort?

JEFF: You know, in a way, it’s still a bit of the cart before the horse, but obviously, things can run away quickly, and then you realize it’s too late to sort of have the community voice heard. There are groups of people who are starting to voice these kinds of desires, groups within the space community who were talking about these long term, you know, visions of what kind of society we want to have up there. 

LAURA: I don’t know about “affordable housing” and better “visions of society”…

LEAH: Me neither. I mean, the bottom line is…we’re not quite there yet. But the work is starting to happen. And, as Jeff says, there’s no better time to start planning—and dreaming.

JEFF: I think that it is the time to dream and imagine what might be possible as long as it’s grounded in the true reality of what’s possible. I think to imagine that we’re gonna have millions of people working in space in a decade is his fantasy. But by the end of the century? I don’t think it is fantasy. And we want to build toward having that happen in as fair and equitable a way as possible. And I think that maybe the answer is engagement and making people’s voices heard. When we start to believe that this is going to happen, it’s really essential that the everyday person start to engage in what kind of future they want. And maybe this is an opportunity not only to imagine a better future in space, maybe a better future on Earth too.

LAURA: Oooh, that’s a nice line.

[MUSIC IN]

LAURA: This is The Edge, brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m Leah Worthington.

LAURA: This episode was produced by Coby McDonald, with support from Pat Joseph, Maddy Weinberg, Nathalia Alcantara, and Charlie Pike. Special thanks to Jeff Greenblatt and Charles Simonyi. Original music by Mogli Maureal.

[MUSIC OUT]

LAURA: It may just sound like Leah and I do this alone because you only hear our voices, but actually there’s a whole team of people working here. And we’d like to take a moment today to thank someone who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make this podcast great. Thank you Maddy Weinberg for all you’ve done for us and best of luck in your next adventure.

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