Science fiction

Last Friday, NASA made an announcement that surprised a lot of people, awarding the contract to build the new lunar lander that will take astronauts back to the moon for the first time since 1972, to Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

It’s not so much that SpaceX won, it’s that NASA didn’t also award a backup contract. Reading between the lines, it looks like that might have been because it just doesn’t have the budget to do so. As a result, Jeff Bezos’s company, Blue Origin, which has been around for more than 20 years and also bid on the lander, won’t be included.

I wrote about this for early Saturday, focusing on the “full blown rivalry” between Musk and Bezos, in the words of Christian Davenport, a reporter for The Washington Post who also wrote a book called The Space Barons.

Apparently it started with a 2004 meeting between the two men that didn’t go well, and escalated when Musk outbid Bezos for NASA's Launch Pad 39A, which is where Apollo 11 and the Space Shuttle launched from. Bezos responded by buying another launch complex from NASA, and the two have needled each other, mostly over social media, ever since.

Davenport says Musk has mostly been driven to explore space because he was almost offended to realize that rocket tech hadn’t advanced much in the 40 years following the moon program. But, even though Blue Origin lost the most recent NASA contract, I find I’m drawn more to Bezos’s motivation.

In 2018, Bezos had a writer from Wired accopmany him to Blue Origin’s launchpad in West Texas, but asked him first to watch a 1975 television program that Bezos said would help him explain his long-term plans.

It turned out to be an espisode of a PBS program in which a moderator interviewed a physicist named Gerard O’Neill, and legendary science fiction author Isaac Asimov.

To summarize, O’Neill explains that he thinks in the future, most humans won’t live on Earth, but instead on mile-long cylindrical habitats, orbiting the planet. We’ll use Earth, Wired’s Steven Levy wrote, “for R&R, visiting it as we would a national park. Then we’d return to the cosmos, where humanity would be thriving like never before.”

Bezos says his initial passion for space was prompted by the experience of watching Apollo 11 as a 5-year-old, along with things like the O’Neill/Asimov discussion (Asimov basically agreed with the plausibility of O’Neill’s ideas), and even Star Trek (which reportedly is why your Alexa is so much like the the voice interactive computer on that television show).

At Princeton University, he was the head of the local chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, and he launched Blue Origin — according to Levy — after going to see the movie October Sky (about a boy in the 1950s who is obsessed with rockets and eventually becomes a NASA engineer), accompanied by another science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson.

I don’t really have time or space here to go through the whole history of Blue Origin or SpaceX, but it’s hit me recently that 100 or 200 years from now, people might not remember Amazon or Tesla except as historical brands, the way people might react to Burma-Shave and DeSoto.

But, imagine if you could be one of the people who leads the conquest of near space — be it to Mars, or to a bunch of giant spinning cylinders orbiting the planet. That’s probably a whole other level of legacy, and it might explain why these two mega-billionaires, who don’t compete head to head elsewhere, are like oil and water when it comes to space. (They don’t mix here, but maybe they would a little better, up there.)

For now, just enjoy the latest milestone: NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, which took off and hovered for the first time yesterday on the surface of Mars, 38.6 million miles away.

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7 other things worth your time

  • The U.S. State Department will boost its "Do Not Travel" guidance to about 80% of countries worldwide, citing "unprecedented risk to travelers" from the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, 34 of the world’s 200 countries are listed as "Level 4: Do Not Travel;" getting to 80% suggests adding another 130. (Reuters)

  • Walter Mondale, the former vice president whose accomplished career was marred by one of the worst electoral shellackings in American history, died Monday. Mondale, who was also the first presidential candidate to select a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, to be his running mate, was 93.” (Politico)

  • “Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett has reportedly sold a book, receiving an advance of $2 million. … One industry source told Politico that the "eye-raising amount" is likely the most a justice has received since Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor sold their own books.” (The Hill)

  • After paying some of its flight attendants not to work during the pandemic, American Airlines says it’s looking for volunteers to come back, starting with the ones with the most seniority. If they can’t reach their goal of adding 200, they say they’ll “draft” their newest hires. Obviously they can’t force them to work, but they can say return to the skies now, or don’t come back at all. (View From the Wing)

  • “A new breakaway soccer competition known as the European Super League has been met with widespread criticism and resistance from former players, politicians, governing bodies, pundits and fans.” Besides undermining existing leagues, it would also cement the positions of 15 top teams, which could never be relegated or excluded, no matter what happens. (CNBC)

  • Interesting story about life for former NBA and WNBA players: basically, once they retire, they face a never-ending parade of pickup games against amateur players who think they can beat them one-on-one. Actually, the most interesting part for me had to do with the mental place some of these former pros say they have to reach in order to compete. Example, Brian Scalabrine, who played as a backup for 11 years in the NBA: It’s “a dark place. ‘If I miss this next shot, my kids are going to die.’ I would say that to myself, just to get through, just to put the pressure so I can lock in and make the shot.” (NYT)

  • How Tom Cruise saved Ray-Ban. Twice. (First, by wearing the company’s shades in Risky Business, then in Top Gun.) (Mentalfloss)

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