SpaceX’s tourist mission is boldly ambitious, improbably timed and ludicrously priced

With SpaceX’s announcement that it will be sending two people into space for what seems to be a princely sum, it establishes itself once more as insanely ambitious and quite probably the foremost space company. We consider the issues the mission faces, and how it looks set to continue to establish space as a playground for the super-rich

SpaceX has announced that, for a “significant amount of money”, they will send two private citizens for a weeklong trip around the Moon. The mission is planned for spring next year, and will see the passengers, who are currently anonymous, launch inside a Dragon capsule atop the as-yet-untested Falcon Heavy rocket.

The launch, if on deadline, will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Americans’ first-ever orbit around the Moon. Moreover, it will place SpaceX several years ahead of tests for NASA’s Space Launch System, intended to carry astronauts into low-Earth orbit, and dramatically ahead manned testing.

“Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration,” SpaceX said in a statement Monday.

Space tourism beyond low-Earth orbit

Images courtesy of SpaceX

This is not the first case of space tourism. Dennis Tito famously paid $20m for a weeklong trip to the International Space Station in 2001, but this new mission is significant for its schedule, cost and the potential to firmly establish SpaceX as the foremost private space company.

Firstly, although Elon Musk would not disclose the precise amount the couple had paid, he estimated the mission’s cost to be slightly more than a crewed flight to and from the ISS aboard a Dragon 2 craft.

According to Space News, each of those missions will cost about $300m.

While a trip around the moon is certainly more impressive than a visit to the ISS, it’s worth noting how much this reinforces that space tourism will be, for the foreseeable future, the sole province of the super-rich.

SpaceX’s scheduling challenge

This of course, is all assuming that SpaceX can successfully stick to its schedule.

Musk isn’t known for his timekeeping and given that the Falcon Heavy rocket will only have its first test launch this summer, a mission schedule of next year seems overambitious.

Add the fact that that just last week a crewless Dragon had to abort its rendezvous with the ISS due to a glitch, and the explosion of a rocket in September 2016, it’s somewhat hard to believe that this is a schedule SpaceX will stick to.

NASA’s response

However, even assuming that the mission is pushed back a year or two, it is likely to beat out NASA. The company’s success will no doubt endear them to the business-focused Trump administration but, it seems, may also be of benefit to the US space agency itself. Throwing the slyest shade possible, NASA has essentially said that they’re happy for companies like SpaceX to handle the Moon because it lets them focus on more important things.

In a statement regarding the mission, NASA said: “For more than a decade, NASA has invested in private industry to develop capabilities for the American people and seed commercial innovation to advance humanity’s future in space.

“NASA is changing the way it does business through its commercial partnerships to help build a strong American space economy and free the agency to focus on developing the next-generation rocket, spacecraft and systems to go beyond the moon and sustain deep space exploration.”

Space: the rich’s playground

Given the Trump administration’s expressed enthusiasm for private space companies, it’s probably a good thing for SpaceX and the like to pull off missions like this; they’re almost certain to receive government support. However, much as it is early days, we do still need to deal with just how much of a pattern this sets.

As long as companies like SpaceX keep establishing that travelling beyond our planet is the province of those with millions in the bank alone, the easier it is going to be for them to keep following that model

Skipping the low-earth orbit stage entirely, SpaceX is basically saying that as long as you’re ludicrously rich, space is your playground. And if that becomes the expectation, then it makes it somewhat more unlikely that ordinary people will become the focus of future space tourism.

From a business mentality, however, it certainly makes sense. Space missions are expensive and if someone offered me several hundred million dollars to get them into space I’d certainly accept. However, it speaks of a worrying business- to-idealism balance that could well retard the development of space as a viable travel destination for ordinary people.

As long as companies like SpaceX keep establishing that travelling beyond our planet is the province of those with millions in the bank alone, the easier it is going to be for them to keep following that model.

If this mission is successful, we can only hope it serves instead as inspiration to make it viable for those not appearing on the Forbes rich list.

Advances in genetic technologies mean that it could soon be possible to de-extinct our closest relative. But even if we can, does that mean we should? We investigate

45,000 years ago our species was not alone on this planet. Alongside us, Homo sapiens, was a second member of our genus, Homo neanderthalensis, with its own tools, society and cultural practices.

At one time it is thought that there were around 70,000 Neanderthals living on Earth, mainly in what we now know as Europe and southwest and central Asia. How much our species interacted with this sapient cousin is not fully known, but there was certainly some interbreeding: while Neanderthals are long deceased, their DNA lives on in many Europeans and Asians.

But now, with the advances of genetic technologies, Neanderthals could return. Recent advances of gene editing tools such as CRISPR, as well as the sequencing of DNA taken from the bone of a female Neanderthal who is thought to have walked the Earth some 50,000-100,000 years ago, mean that what was once pure science fiction could soon become a reality.

Legendary geneticist George Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School who is currently spearheading the project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, has said that he thinks the de-extinction of Neanderthals will occur in his lifetime.

“The reason I would consider it a possibility is that a bunch of technologies are developing faster than ever before,” he told Spiegel Online in 2013. “In particular, reading and writing DNA is now about a million times faster than seven or eight years ago. Another technology that the de-extinction of a Neanderthal would require is human cloning.

“We can clone all kinds of mammals, so it’s very likely that we could clone a human. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so?”

Bringing Neanderthals back from the dead

When we consider de-extincting Neanderthals, it is important to note that we would not be bringing back a precise, perfect copy of the Neanderthals that lived on Earth up until their extinction some 40,000 years ago.

As Douglas McCauley, assistant professor in the University of California Santa Barbara’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, explains, the question of whether we can bring Neanderthals back from extinction “depends upon how much of a purist you are about the definition of Neanderthal”.

I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges

In the simplest terms, any scientists who set out to de-extinct Neanderthals will do so by cobbling together modern human and extinct Neanderthal DNA.

“The technique that many de-extinction scientists are now using to bring back extinct species is to sequence the genome of the dead species – line it up next to the genome of the nearest living relative – then use CRISPR gene editing techniques to modify elements of the genome of the living relative to approximate elements of the genome of the dead species,” explains McCauley.

This is the approach being taken by the Harvard team currently attempting to de-extinct the woolly mammoth.

“Here they are using the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth and the genome of a living Asian elephant. The goal, however, isn’t to bring back a perfect replica of the woolly mammoth. A success would be to genetically engineer a hairy, cold-tolerant Asian elephant.

“This would also remain the same strategy for any group attempting to bring back a Neanderthal. Again, this would be more like engineering increased Neanderthal-ness into the human genome – not like cranking out a carbon copy of a Neanderthal.”

This approach should be technically possible for Neanderthals in the near future. But, as McCauley explains, that doesn’t mean it will actually happen.

“Technically engineering more Neanderthal into the human genome will indeed be possible very soon,” he says. “Practically, I don’t really see this happening. People will most certainly use CRISPR and next-generation gene editing techniques to edit the human genome – but I think this is much more likely to be tuning humans up, rather than tuning down.

“I expect we will be more interested in engineering bigger brains than bigger brow ridges.”

Criteria for de-extinction

De-extinction is, in general, a topic that is set to be the subject of ever-greater discussion in the coming years, as hypothetical concepts become scientific reality.

“It is on the precipice of moving from a crazy idea we once mused about over coffee, to a real possibility we can actually make happen in the lab. From science fiction to real science,” summarises McCauley.

However, with such abilities come significant moral questions. De-extinction could be a vital tool for conservation, but it could also be used to produce creatures that are more reminiscent of science fiction horror stories than of scientific value.

As a result, efforts are already being made to build a moral framework within which de-extinction scientists can work. As part of this, McCauley authored a paper along with several colleagues that recommended using three specific criteria for the selection of candidates for the de-extinction process.

“I am a conservation biologist and an ecologist. The three criteria we issued were created from that vantage point: what species would we bring back if we genuinely wanted de-extinction to combat the ecological crisis being created by the ongoing human-driven mass extinction?” he explains.

“We suggested recovering species that: 1) performed ecological jobs that were highly unique and were not replicated by other surviving species; 2) recent extinctions for which the technological and ecological barriers for recovery and restoration were lower; and 3) species that we could meaningfully recover to historic levels of abundance.”

If following this approach, scientists would therefore favour species to de-extinct that could not only fulfil a role in the ecosystem that another species had not taken over, but were likely made extinct fairly recently and would survive and flourish in the current environment. And under these criteria, Neanderthals would be a poor choice.

“Neanderthals most importantly fail the first test,” explains McCauley. “Their ecology is very similar to another species that survived and thrived – our own.

“To put it bluntly, from a conversation biologists point of view: the last thing our planet needs right now is more hungry Hominids.”

Neanderthal revival: the moral issue

This is not to say, as some have suggested, that Neanderthals would pose any particular threat to modern humans.

“Quite the opposite,” argues McCauley. “The greatest challenge would be keeping de-extincted Neanderthals alive and safe from us, not worrying about them taking over.”

As these newly engineered Neanderthals would not be true replicas of their past equivalents, they would be likely to suffer from genetic issues, as well as being potentially highly ill-suited to the human-occupied modern world.

There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals

“There are likely to be a host of developmental issues associated with looking after imperfectly genetically re-engineered Neanderthals (e.g. birth defects), they are likely to be quite susceptible to modern disease, and it is unclear what habitats they would slot back into,” he adds. “Our species has taken over all of the once prime habitat of Neanderthals.”

Then there is the matter of Neanderthals’ original demise; something that could easily play out again if we were to bring back a group of the species. It’s hard to see the scientific value of de-extincting a species that would be at high risk of quickly becoming extinct again.

“It is important to remember that we likely played an important role in the original extinction of Neanderthals,” explains McCauley. “We competed heavily with them for food and homes and we may have given them lethal diseases. Reviving Neanderthals might simply be an act of recreating history.”

Value in de-extinction

For McCauley, there is currently no circumstance under which bringing back Neanderthals would be a good idea. But that does not mean that de-extinction as a wider practice does not have value – in fact, it could offer significant benefits, provided we select the right species to focus on.

“There is a very long list of other species that I think would be smarter to bring back before we started in on Neanderthals,” he says.

“As an ecologist that looks out at a world with species being driven extinct in all directions around us, I am all ears for smart new conservation tools.

“The challenge here will be carefully selecting targets that meaningfully help the planet, not using this new-found power to create oddities for zoos or bio-bazaar.”

School will use facial analysis to identify students who are dozing off

In September the ESG business school in Paris will begin using artificial intelligence and facial analysis to determine whether students are paying attention in class. The school says the technology will be used to improve performance of students and professors.

Source: The Verge

Company offers free training for coal miners to become wind farmers

A Chinese wind-turbine maker wants American workers to retrain and become wind farmers. The training program was announced at an energy conference in Wyoming, where the American arm of Goldwind, a Chinese wind-turbine manufacturer is located.

Source: Quartz

Google AI defeats human Go champion

Google's DeepMind AI AlphaGo has defeated the world's number one Go player Ke Jie. AlphaGo secured the victory after winning the second game in a three-part match. DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis said Ke Jie "pushed AlphaGo right to the limit".

Source: BBC

Vegan burgers that taste like real meat to hit Safeway stores

Beyond Meat, which promises its plant-based burgers bleed and sizzle like real ground beef and is backed by investors like Bill Gates, will begin distributing its plant-based burgers in more than 280 Safeway stores in California, Hawaii and Nevada.

Source: Bloomberg

The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation

Brain cells that destroy and digest worn-out cells and debris go into overdrive in mice that are chronically sleep-deprived. The discovery could explain why a chronic lack of sleep puts people at risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

Source: New Scientist

"We can still act and it won’t be too late," says Obama

Former US President Barack Obama has written an op-ed piece in the Guardian giving his views on some of the greatest challenges facing the world – food and climate change – and what we can do about them. "We can still act and it won’t be too late," writes Obama.

Source: The Guardian