Thought provoking article by Daniel Jeffries
A lot of people got up-in-arms that Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson took a joyride in space but not me.
I was excited, because I was looking beyond a few rich folks blowing a ton of money to what it really means:
The beginning of a bold new era in space exploration.
To understand why, you just have to turn back the clock to 1961. That’s when John F Kennedy proudly promised America would put a man on the moon within a decade. We’ve lived in the space age ever since. What was once science-fiction turned into science fact. For sixty years the most technologically advanced and powerful countries on Earth raced to send people, probes and drones beyond the bounds of our atmosphere.
But in the last decade we’ve seen a new contender in the push to the final frontier: private enterprise.
NASA doesn’t even build its shuttles anymore. They flew their last space shuttle mission over ten years ago. Now it’s companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX that ferry thousands of satellites to space and carry astronauts to the international space station (ISS). SpaceX already launched 25 missions to the ISS and hurled over 1600 satellites into orbit and they’ll deliver 12,000 sats by 2024, bathing the entire Earth in high speed, low-latency Internet. A close friend of mine got Starlink a half year ago and it wasn’t that fast and had intermittent outages, now it has none and a consistent 250 Mbits per second download when local internet near him is only 50 Mbits and not getting upgraded any time soon.
But Musk’s team isn’t the only company pushing the bounds of the Earth. Amazon’s Kuiper project plans to launch their own high speed internet megaconstellation, and satellite specialists Viasat and Kepler communications hope to do so soon after.
Musk and Bezo’s companies have even bigger plans beyond universal internet and sending astronauts to the ISS. They want to do everything from landing people on Mars, to building space colonies, to deep space mining of billions of asteroids packed with precious metals. Musk even plans to build rockets that will let passengers get anywhere on the Earth in under an hour. Think New York to Shanghai in 29 minutes.
Of course, these companies aren’t really new but they’ve mostly flown under the radar. They’ve done their work quietly in tandem with NASA and other nation-state space agencies for more than 10 years. The news was followed be avid space enthusiasts and sci-fi aficionados like myself. Musk, of course, has his own cult-like following of admirers because of his constellation of cutting edge companies, everything from Tesla to the Boring Company, but nobody really paid much attention to the space race if you weren’t a space geek like me.
That is until the space tourism race between billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson changed all that, rocketing the privatization of space to the front pages of the Internet.
It’s safe to say the response wasn’t kind.
Instead of cheers, Bezos and Branson got heckled and spit on. We saw everything from memes about the Blue Origin rocket looking like a big dick, to outright, seething hatred of the rich, to even semi-rational folks wondering why these rich bastards need to waste time and money joyriding around the Earth when we’ve got so many problems back home.
But like so many discussions today, the highly polarized, invective fueled verbal diarrhea lacked any and all nuance and it missed the great potential the privatization of the space race will mean for mankind. It also showcases how much humans love easy answers to complex problems. Some of the most popular tweets were some variation of “if Bezos just spent X instead of joyriding he could solve poverty, world hunger and homelessness” and give everyone a unicorn and their own personal rainbow too.
More than anything, what gets lost in all these simplified solutions is that few people seem to understand just how much our push into space has already changed our lives for the better.
Maybe you think you’ve never gotten a damn thing from space?
But if you ever had heart surgery, took a picture on your phone, or you dropped your glasses and they didn’t break or scratch, then you’ve been the proud beneficiary of space exploration. More on that later, but just know that those were spin-off technologies that came from trying to solve the hard problem of bursting through the atmosphere with men and machines and coming back to tell the tale.
Now, as we move from a public to a private space race, we can expect those innovations to go exponential as more and more companies get in on the final frontier. We’ll see a tsunami of new tech in everything from medicine, to AI, to materials science, to communications that will change life as we know it.
To understand why we only have to look back at past technological revolutions.
Early to Late Stage Tech Revolutions
What is a technological revolution?
It’s really the diffusion of ideas and innovation into a social system.
Ideas or inventions start small with a single person or a few people, and then it spreads to more and more people, who build on the original ideas and suddenly we see wide ranging effects as that technology ends up in the hands of a wider and wider swath of people and as it gets integrated into all our lives.
Many of the greatest insights and inventions in history have come from lone geniuses, like Gregor Mendel single-handedly figuring out how genetic traits pass from partners to children in plants and animals, to Edison perfecting the light bulb, records, TVs and more. But many revolutions require way more than one mind to solve that vast array of problems. A hundred different discoveries are needed to bring it all together and that takes lots of people looking at the problem from many different angles.
What may surprise you is that many of those revolutions started in the public sector. That’s because governments are often fantastic at funding early R&D. They can fund things when no private enterprise would dare touch it because the time horizon to a working prototype is just too long. In any early stage technological revolution, there may be no clear idea of how to actually solve the problem, or a number of key intermediary technologies may not exist yet to make the answer more obvious to a wider audience. Businesses won’t touch something with no clear path to victory, but governments, at their best, take the long view.
That’s why DARPA (the US’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, which funds high-risk/high-reward future tech) has been so successful spawning technologies like the Internet, Tor, GPS, Siri and self-driving cars long before anyone would touch them.
One of the most powerful examples of government accelerated research is the Human Genome Project. That international effort cost over a billion dollars and took 13 years to sequence one full human genome. Now it costs about $1000 bucks to sequence an entire genome, a 1 million fold reduction in cost.
That investment in genetics technology, both by the public and private sectors, is directly responsible for the breakthrough of the mRNA vaccines in fighting COVID, as well as other drugs that are starting to fight the virus in folks who already got sick, like cloned antibodies. Without that initial investment by the government or private companies taking those ideas and making them cheaper, faster and more widely available, we’d likely still be hunting for effective vaccines, as the virus gets more and more out of control. In the past, most vaccines took a decade or more to develop.
But the public sector is only one factor in the equation of innovation diffusion. It wasn’t long after the start of the Human Genome Project that the first private genetics companies spun up, most notably Celera Genomics, led by American researcher Craig Venter. His $300 million dollar efforts sped up the processes of sequencing DNA, but his company was able to do it cheaper and faster because they learned from the data that came from the publicly funded project. In turn, the public efforts sped up because they adopted the innovations of Celera.
Too often today, people look for an either/or solution, either public or private, but they’re thinking of it wrong. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses and the two of them together balance each other’s weaknesses.
Governments are great at taking on big risks, over longer time horizons. They can continue funding something with no clear solution in sight and no easily discernible commercial use. Private enterprise is great at taking something and making it better, smarter, cheaper and then scaling it. The two approaches work best when they work together, creating a virtuous loop.
While angry people got up-in-arms about rich people in space, they missed one of the most important transitions in the history of the world. The switch to a private space race will spawn trillions of dollars in innovation that go well beyond a few rich folks flying around the edges of the planet.
We’re already seen hundreds of life changing technologies come out of the public space race and as private industry does what it does best, accelerate and expand, we’ll see 10s of thousands of new technologies in the coming decades.
That’s because from great adversity comes great innovation.
Space is one of the most hostile and unforgiving environments known to man. It can kill in an instant, and it makes everything, like working with simple tools, ten times harder. Mark Shuttleworth, one of the first private citizens to go to space, told me he worked with a box of experimental soil samples and the contraception broke so he had to put his hands deep inside it to work it manually. Inside the box were a bunch of needles and a single mistake might rip his gloves or puncture his hand or worse, all while he was floating around the Earth on the ISS with the closest doctor 408 km below.
It’s out of this unforgiving environment that true innovation comes. Necessity and adversity are the mother of invention and space is the mother of all adversity.
Space, Yesterday and Tomorrow
But what’s space got to do with me?
If you’ve ever had heart bypass surgery or know someone who’s still alive because of it, like my grandfather who’s still going strong at 95, then you’ve benefited from space.
In 1979, sci-fi author Robert A Henlein appeared before congress after recovering from one of the earliest known vascular bypass operations in the world. “In his testimony, reprinted in his 1980 book Expanded Universe, Heinlein [said] four NASA spinoff technologies made the surgery possible, and that they were only a few from a long list of NASA spinoff technologies from space development.”
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Probably the most famous technology to come out of NASA is the CMOS image sensors that power the camera in your smart phone. It miniaturized cameras to the size of a chip. Without it you wouldn’t be watching hot people dance on TikTok or posting every dinner you ever bought on Instagram.
It’s also given us the soft memory foam that makes it easier to sleep at night and that made even those crappy futons at your friend’s place in college comfortable-ish to sleep on. If you ever lived off freeze-dried food in your dorm when you didn’t have two quarters to rub together you also gained from the space race.
Did you clean that nasty dorm with a small, cordless vacuum after a night of partying or just before your parents came to visit? The original DustBuster came out of NASA contracting with Black and Decker to create a portable, cordless drill. The company managed to miniaturize the parts so much that it went on to create the DustBuster.
If you’ve ever had LASIK surgery to correct your vision then you’re seeing better because of space. “LASIK technology comes from the 1980s efforts for autonomous rendezvous and docking of space vehicles to service satellites.” The scientists created a range and velocity imaging system called LADAR that helped dock spacecraft. That fast tracking technology got transmuted into the breakthrough eye surgery when doctors figured out how to track eye movements at the rate of 4,000 times a second, and used a laser to precisely reshape the cornea.
If your grandparents can hear you even after their hearing started to break down, it’s probably because of cochlear implants, which gives hearing sensation to people when regular hearing aids do nothing to help. They were invented by NASA engineer Adam Kissiah in the 1970s. He combined the vast range of knowledge he picked up working on electronics instrumentation at the space pioneer, with lunch breaks and evenings in the NASA technical library “studying the impact of engineering principles on the inner ear.”
“Since 1976, with the NASA Technology Transfer Program connecting NASA resources to private industry…NASA has published over 2,000 other spinoffs in the fields of computer technology, environment and agriculture, health and medicine, public safety, transportation, recreation, and industrial productivity.”
And because private industry is incredible at speeding up the pace of innovation, we can now expect 10s of thousands of inventions we can only begin to imagine now.
But it’s not hard to imagine some of them.
Ubiquitous internet could break authoritarian regimes as they lose their stranglehold on information and people start to get direct access to the information their governments are so desperate to hide from them.
Pushing out into space will require more efficient fuels and we’re already seeing that with the alternative BE-4 fuel of the Blue Origin rocket. That will ripple down into how we power vehicles on the ground and in the air, everything from boats to airplanes to long-range drones. Branson’s team took a different approach, carrying the rocket as high as they could before letting it blast off, saving a ton of fuel in the process because most of the fuel burns in the first 20 minutes trying to get off the ground. So despite people complaining about the environmental impact of their flights, it’s likely to lead to a boon in the battle against climate damage as we get more efficient fuels and better ways to travel long distance.
As we push to colonies on the moon or Mars and beyond, we’ll need a way to bring medicine with us without waiting for a central manufacturing hub to make them and deliver them. We can expect the rapid evolution and miniaturization of portable genetics and chemical printers that can make medicines on the fly. In fact, we can expect medical tech breakthroughs across the board, as space pioneers need more miniaturized scanning, diagnostic and treatment machines. Hello, tricorder and personalized health care.
It’s not hard to see astronauts needing fast sealing gel that can stop hemorrhaging to deal with bad wounds in deep space and the army is already working on it. Or how about a robotic trauma pod, a la the surgery machine in Prometheus?
Beyond medicine we can expect the rapid evolution of agriculture in a box. You can’t wait a few hundred days for a robot-supply drop from Earth if you’re starving so you better have a way to grow your own food. That’s why NASA and space companies spent the last thirty years working on how to bring a hell of a lot of seeds to space and grow everything an explorer needs.
They’re not the only ones. We’ve already got vertical farms taking off around the world now and a dramatic improvement of vertical farms will mean a dramatic reduction in world hunger and climate damage. Vertical farming can grow food three times faster with 95% less water. Forget needing genetically engineered crops to grow in harsh environments and beat back swarms of parasitic insects. Just grow it all in a box.
But it won’t just be upgrades to our physical technology, we can expect upgrades to our software too. We’ll see the synergistic evolution of AI and space, because without machine learning getting a lot farther into the Universe is a big problem. That’s because the equipment people bring will need to self-diagnose and self-heal. There are too many moving parts now, too many sensors and we need lots of micro-brains watching them. We’ll see the dawn of tiny intelligent machines with everything from our engines to our life support sensors waking up and monitoring themselves for anomalies.
It’s not like people living on Mars can just tap their phone and order a new oxygen generator from Amazon overnight, so we’ll need all kinds of intelligent agents to monitor, track and fix our machines in real time. AIs will also design better materials and drive the deep space mining rigs, probes and sensors. Quantum computers will make our neural nets and machine learning systems faster and more powerful by an order of magnitude and we’ll move from simple visual pattern recognition to deeper cognition, making AIs one of the most important co-pilots on our voyage.
We can also expect to see the rise of the interplanetary internet because we’ll need to stay in touch with people back on Earth to do everything from from solve problems to remote surgery, not to mention needing to stay in touch with autonomous drones farther out in space. Luckily, folks are already working on it now. Hopefully we’ll see better security on the next-gen net, as the Chinese and others are already pushing the bounds of quantum satellite communication which makes for better transport layer security at the very least.
All that and more is coming and it will enrich all of our lives.
We’ll go to a hospital and they’ll print off medicine rather than waiting for it to get delivered. The AI assistant will customize the dose and formula for our personal makeup.
We’ll have food that wasn’t saturated with pesticides in some third world country because the poorly paid and poorly treated workers ignored standards and hit the plants with 100 times the levels safe for human consumption.
We’ll touch down in Barcelona in thirty minutes for that magical European vacation we always wanted to take but kept putting off.
And the little assistant in our phone powered by a neurochip will order a gift for your mom on her birthday when you forget.
It’s not coming tomorrow but it’s coming faster than you think. As the private space race heats up, so will the spin-off technology that so few people think about as that technology works invisibly in their lives every day. You don’t think about everything that went into miniaturizing an entire camera down to a single chip but without it you wouldn’t be taking pictures of your dinner with a device that fits in your pocket.
Miniaturization is a miracle.
This picture below says it all. All the technology in this picture from the 80s now fits in your pocket.
The joyrides of billionaires serve a purpose too.
The first rides in space cost 10s of millions and only the richest of the rich could afford it.
But just like someone’s got to pay $10,000 for that first OLED TV before the rest of us can get one for under a $1000 a few years later, someone had to be the first private person to go to space.
The Cycle of Poverty and Why Soundbite Solutions Fail
But what if those billionaires just spent that money directly on solving the world’s problems? Couldn’t they just fix everything?
You’ve probably seen the tweets.
It would cost just $20 billion to end homelessness in America! Just 20 billion dollars! That’s less than we spend on “weight loss and self improvement.” Not to mention that Bezos could pay off everyone’s student loans, create world peace, solve the crisis in the middle east, end racism and still have a 100 billion dollars left over.
Except that’s just nonsense, nothing but wishful thinking, by people who haven’t even bothered to do ten minutes of Googling and critical thinking.
Take the homeless numbers. Did you know that Jeff Bezos could end homelessness in America for just $20 billion dollars?
Except no, no he couldn’t.
To start with, the number comes from a misquote of a HUD (Housing and Urban Development) official from 2012, who said they could address homelessness with $20 billion dollars a year, not a one time payment of $20 billion. A New York Times article from 2012 correctly quotes the official:
“Mark Johnston, the acting assistant housing secretary for community planning and development, estimated that homelessness could be effectively eradicated in the United States at an annual cost of about $20 billion. The housing department’s budget for addressing homelessness is currently about $1.9 billion.” [Emphasis mine.]
That’s to house an estimated 500,000 homeless folks in America, at a rate of close to $50,000 per person. Of course, would that really end homelessness? No, because homelessness is a complex problem. People end up homeless for a variety of reasons but it’s often a terrible tragedy or a mental health challenge that sends them on a horrible spiral to the street. Just putting those folks in houses wouldn’t solve the problem because they’d still need to eat, get back on their feet, get treatment and find a way back to the workforce, all of which would cost billions and billions more.
To make matters even worse, the HUD numbers probably drastically underestimate the problem. If you read the amazing Humans of New York Instagram stories, maybe you read the latest one about Harlem Grown, a grassroots initiative to build farms that kids in Harlem can spend time in and where they can get good, clean food, when some of those kids “couldn’t name a single vegetable…[because] there are 55 fast food restaurants in this community, but not a single supermarket.” The founder, Tony Hillery, notes that there are 115,000 kids living in shelters in the city. That’s one city and those 115,000 kids (not to mention their parents) don’t count in those nice, neat numbers of 500,000 homeless people because their problem is “solved” as they live in a shelter, instead of under a bridge.
Of course, it’s not solved. It’s just badly solved because living in a shelter is not the same as living in a room of your own and having a chance to learn without wondering if everything you depend on could disappear in an instant.
That means the problem is much, much bigger than we think. It probably puts the number at 100s of billions of dollars a year, if not more.
There’s also the little problem that money doesn’t just fix everything either. The history of the world is rife we rich people trying to fix problems through big donations but it doesn’t always work out.
One of the most recent failures was Mark Zuckerberg donating a whopping $100 million to Newark schools that did little to nothing to change the punishing fate of the one of the most impoverished school systems in the country. As the mayor said “You can’t just cobble up a bunch of money and drop it in the middle of the street and say ‘this is going to fix everything.’”
Of course, we imagine if we’d just had the right people and the right plan and the right execution on that plan it would have worked. Except that’s just the problem. It’s really hard to know exactly to fix something so complex as homelessness. That’s why you so often see public officials say vague things like the answer is to “create more jobs” as if jobs come out of thing air because we snapped our fingers and not because of supply and demand, aka the intersection of private enterprise and what people want.
Solving real problems requires spending that money wisely and having the will and the right ideas to make it happen. Local solutions like what Harlem Grow do, are often more effective but they don’t solve the whole problem just pieces of a multifaceted monster of a problem. And of course we all think we know how to fix it. But reality has a way of proving us wrong. Understanding the hidden incentives in a system to root out the problem is incredibly challenging and even some of the smartest and most well intentioned folks on the planet get it wrong again and again.
As Andrew Carnegie said “Of every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today,” Carnegie wrote in 1889, “it is probable that nine hundred and fifty dollars is unwisely spent.”
Carnegie was one of the most successful philanthropists of all time. His libraries all over America probably did more to level up people’s education than almost any other act of giving before or after. And people still complained about it. Andrew Carnegie gave away 90% of his money in his life time and people had all kinds of ideas about how he could do it better. They complained he wasn’t giving enough away or giving it to the wrong things. The religious wanted him to build churches and couldn’t understand why he was wasting money on libraries and swimming pools.
The truth is we all love easy answers and quick solutions because they’re harder than actually fixing the problem by donating time or money or starting something ourselves.
We can and should find ways to alleviate poverty, starvation, joblessness, and hopelessness. We should help people working two jobs just to put food on the table and we should go to space too. But it’s not either or, either go to space or save the world, one or the other. But serious problems demand serious thinking if we really want to solve them.
And we may have to face an even darker truth: It’s likely that if we could easily solve the problems of the world we would have solved them already.
We hate to admit that problems are nasty, intractable and intricate and maybe there is no answer. Certainly, the answers won’t fit in a tweet or in a spending bill. It won’t come from yelling at rich people on social media or posting your solidarity on Instagram.
Well if rich people can’t fix it all directly, maybe we should just tax the hell out of them and take that money to fix it ourselves?
Governments don’t have a great track record on this front either.
Governments in Europe take 42–45% or more of people’s wages and guess what, they still have homelessness. Germany has a 42% tax on the “rich” (aka anyone making 57K, not exactly Bezos level) and still have more homeless people than America, with an estimated 860,000 people stuck on the streets, whereas the estimated number of homeless in America is 567,715 as of 2019. Considering there are 84 million people in Germany versus 333 million in America, that number is even more stark.
Switzerland is one of the richest and most successful socialist nations on Earth and they solved homelessness by not bothering to count homeless people until 2020. Hey, if you don’t have stats then the problem doesn’t exist, right? Trump wanted to try that same trick with COVID by not testing so much. Problem solved.
Still we imagine that if we could only take back all the money those rich bastards “stole” we could solve everything. The problem, of course, is that governments have a very different idea of what to spend that money on. You might think to spend it on the most vulnerable and helpless in society but they go and spend it on whatever they want to spend it on, like wars that run for 20 years only to have the government we installed collapse the instant we pull out and lots of bureaucrats to enforce increasingly insane and intricate rules and all you have is a lot less money and the same problem.
That brings us to the darkest truth of all.
It’s likely that most governments and societies just don’t care enough to solve the problem even if they could find a way to do it.
Homeless people aren’t “productive” to the economy and governments tend to see the mass of people as a system of economic cogs in the machine. When you think of people as nothing but parts in a machine, rehabilitating the most vulnerable and weak is seen as nothing but a low return on investment. The huge cost of bringing those poor folks back into the system, retraining them, feeding them and housing them in the hopes that they’ll go back to contributing to the great economic monster faces a tremendously high barrier to success because many of those folks will never make it back to what a government sees as functioning members of society. That’s one of those nasty, hidden equations nobody likes to think about but that policymakers and world leaders do in secret behind closed doors.
It would be amazing if there were easy answers to everything. Take money from here, drop it here and voila, it’s solved by brilliant people with perfect insight and perfect execution on those ideas.
But it doesn’t work that way and imagining that it does shows just how much we increasingly live in a society of black and white thinkers. We can all tweet out a solution to a complex problem in a few hundred characters or less and then sit on our ass and not donate a single dollar or volunteer an ounce of our time. If you really want to change the world, donate some of your own time or money, or both, to a local group of heroes like Harlem Grow (which the Bezos family donates to by the way).
The Taoists had a saying, “if you want to change the world, first tend your own garden.”
What is black and white thinking? It when you see everything as totally good or totally evil. You’re either with us or against us. There’s no nuance or complexity. Black and white thinking is fine in children but it’s poison for adults. Nuance is necessary to understand everything at any deep level in life.
The truth is governments, private enterprises, rich people and regular people, do both good and evil and everything in between and sometimes at the same time.
We can celebrate the fact that Bezos built Amazon from his garage to a company that does 100s of billions of dollars in business every year, employs 1.2 million people and created a platform where 10 million other small businesses sell their wares, while still being pissed off about some of those employees breaking their backs in factories for low wages and still not being able to make rent.
There’s no doubt that capitalism has its flaws. It can be a brutal Darwinian evolution of winner take all but it’s also created some of the greatest prosperity in history, across every income class, and it’s spawned countless innovations and inventions from rockets to computers to the Internet you’re reading this on right now.
To paraphrase an idea of Churchill, Capitalism is the worst form of economics, except for all the rest.
The privatization of space will have negative consequences and some amazing ones as well. Like everything in life the truth is somewhere in between. We’ll get personalized medicine but we’ll also have Starlink satellites hiding killer asteroids and an increase in space junk but at least those satellites might topple a ruthless dictatorship or two while they’re at it and make it so some kid in the sticks can get an education from the massive corpus of free classes so that kid can go on to build a better life.
No matter what, humans are going to space. Humans are an imaginative and curious set of creatures. If we can dream it, we want to do it. As Sir Edmund Hillary said when asked why he climbed Mt Everest, “because it was there” and we’ll go to space for the same reason.
And while we may not figure out a way to solve world hunger with simple fixes, the technologies that come from the accelerating space race will still change the world for the better, in tiny ways, that are so often hard to see and so easily missed in our increasingly black and white dialogue.
But they’re a lot easier to see if you look just a little more closely.
Then maybe the next time you look into your grandfather’s eyes, after he survived heart surgery, and you get to enjoy one last weekend hearing his old stories, you’ll remember that it was a dozen small steps for man and a few giant leaps for mankind that were behind those precious extra days.
This article by Daniel Jeffries, author, futurist, systems architect, and thinker, was originally posted at: https://firstname.lastname@example.org/the-space-race-is-awesome-and-simplistic-solutions-to-complex-problems-are-not-awesome-1bffe4ddb4fc