I make it a point never to argue with publicists. I figure they have a hard enough job already—cold-calling or e-mailing self-important journalists like me to pitch ideas, knowing there are thousands of other publicists out there targeting the same reporters at the very same time. But I broke my personal rule when it came to Richard Garriott’s rep.
Garriott is the videogame entrepreneur and space tourist who, in 2008, paid a reported $30 million to fly aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and then came home to release a movie about it. He is the son of Skylab and shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott and thus has space in his blood, and by all accounts acquitted himself extremely well during his time aloft—unlike, say, space tourist and ex-Senator Jake Garn, who flew on the space shuttle in 1985 and distinguished himself mostly by how much time he spent throwing up while he was aboard. So the bar was low, but Garriott cleared it impressively.
Still, his publicist had a different story to sell. Garriott’s mission, he said, was a milestone in exploration, a signal moment proving that space flight could be democratized, that space tourism was a viable enterprise and that the door to orbit was now open to all of us. This was rubbish of the first order: tourism is not the same as exploration, a $30 million price tag for a seat into space democratizes nothing, and unless you too grew up in Houston with an astronaut for a dad and astronauts as your neighbors, you may find the road to the cosmos a little less clear than Garriott found it. I made these points in an e-mail that I sort of, kind of regret sending and the publicist and I communicated no further.
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Today, at South by Southwest, I had a chance to see Garriott make his own case before a very engaged audience, describing where he sees space exploration going over the next 30 years. I came away both more and less impressed with him than I was before.
Much of Garriott’s talk was a simple cook’s tour of all of the private projects trying to commercialize and otherwise open space up in the wake of the mothballing of the shuttles and NASA‘s near-term abdication of its manned spaceflight work. There are the Jeff Bezoses and Elon Musks and Richard Bransons building their own spacecraft and, in some cases, planning to charge people to fly on them. There are the asteroid mining companies, the microgravity drug-manufacturing schemes, and the space-based solar power generation projects, not to mention the giddy plans by folks like Garriott’s fellow space tourist Dennis Tito to fly humans around Mars in just five years and the peyote-grade idea by Dutch engineer Bas Lansdorp to send a one-way group of settlers to Mars and fund the whole enterprise by staging it as a reality show. Garriott somewhat credulously touted all of these (except the Lansdorp silliness) as evidence of the explosive dynamism of the private space field.
“The ship is turning,” he said.”The phoenix is rising on the back of something that’s sustainable.”
The flaw in this statement—aside from the ouch-inducing mixed metaphor—is that a list of projects is not the same as a list of viable projects. Of all of the undertakings Garriott cites it’s Musk’s that has the most credibility—something Musk has proven with the successful ISS resupply missions he’s flown so far. Drug manufacturing in zero-g is a very real thing too—but a very limited thing. The best way to learn how molecules in drugs will bind with protein molecules on a virus or other pathogen is to crystallize the proteins, then diffract x-rays through them to learn their precise structure. But Earth’s gravity and the convection currents it causes can distort the crystalline structure. This problem is eliminated in orbit, where the pull of gravity is reduced to effectively nothing.
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Swell. But protein crystal growth has been the biggest go-to justification for building the $100 billion ISS for the past 30 years, and no one has ever proven that it can be done on a commercial scale—or that there aren’t cheaper, unmanned ways to do it. Garriott says that when he went aloft, he conducted some crystal work for paying companies and that if an astronaut could do only a few million dollars worth of that kind of research while in space, the trip could turn a profit—provided we develop systems that can reduce the cost of launch to, say $1 million per seat, instead of the $30 million he paid.
“Elon believes he can get the price down that low,” says Garriott, “and I think an astronaut could do $3 million to $4 million of work.”
But there’s fuzzy thinking at work even in terms of Garriott’s faith in the estimable Musk. Part of what makes him so enthusiastic is the announcement just this week that Musk’s SpaceX company has completed a third successful test of its Grasshopper craft, a one-piece booster and crew compartment that could take off like a rocket on legs and land the same way. But grasshopper flew only about 240 ft. up (80 m) and didn’t go very fast. The development of this kind of so-called single stage to orbit (SSTO) spacecraft has been the space engineer’s version of the hunt for cold fusion or the perpetual motion machine ever since humans began dreaming of flying in space, and no one’s cracked it yet. That doesn’t mean Musk can’t—he may well. But it does mean that a 240-ft. test is an awfully thin reed on which to hang the hope that the goal is within reach. And Garriott’s statement that ships like grasshopper would need only 10% more fuel than a traditional expendable booster beggars belief.
So what did the space tourist have to say that was good? A lot actually. As a businessman, Garriott is aware of market and political cycles and has thus neatly divided his 30-year vision into 10-year plans—each slightly more than the lifetime of any two-term presidential administration, which is important since no sooner do new Presidents take the oath of office than they often begin undoing the work of their predecessors.
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Garriott sees the first decade as a time to develop commercial boosters and spacecraft, exploit the space tourism and asteroid mining market, grow crystals and explore space-based solar power—potential moneymakers all. In the second decade we could target the moons of other planets—Mars and Jupiter specifically—since putting crews there helps us avoid the gravity well of the planets themselves, making landing and takeoff much easier. In the third decade we could begin homesteading other worlds.
“I believe it really is essential for human beings to become a multi-planet species,” he says. “It’s necessary for our survival.”
Garriott also has some clear-eyed ideas for how to solve some stubborn objections that cranks like me always raise about plans like his. It’s one thing to mine an asteroid, the skeptics say, but how in the world do you wrangle a building-sized thing back to Earth and get it on the ground. His answer: sacrifice most of it. If you drop it through the atmosphere into the desert you’re going to lose alot of it to atmospheric heating, but who cares? “What’s left would still be pure platinum or titanium,” Garriott says. A very good point.
More relevant, Garriott is thinking big thoughts and at least presenting them in a coherent and reasonably disciplined way. That’s more than NASA has done for a long time and more than entrepreneurs like Branson and Tito are doing. As the post-shuttle era unfolds, Garriott surely has a place as an idea man. If only a fraction of what he pitches works—and if he inspires more idea people on the way—he will have done something far more worthy than he ever did on his fleeting, $30 million vacation.