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.

Gecko-inspired robotic gripper to clear up space junk

Researchers have developed a pioneering robotic gripper that uses gecko-inspired sticky pads to clear up space debris.

Developed at Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and detailed today in the journal Science Robotics, the gripper has been tested both on the ground and on the International Space Station, demonstrating that it can successfully operate in zero-gravity environments.

With around 500,000 pieces of man-made debris littering orbit, there is a growing need to successfully clear much of it so that humanity can safely increase its operations in low-Earth orbit. Each piece of space junk is whizzing around at up to 17,500 miles per hour, meaning a collision with a satellite, spacecraft or even astronaut would be extremely expensive and potentially very dangerous.

However, many conventional junk removal methods don’t work particularly well. Suction cups rely on creating a difference in air pressure, meaning they don’t work in a vacuum; magnets only work on a limited number of materials and debris harpoons risk missing and knocking the objects off in unpredictable directions.

Sticky solutions, then are preferred, however most tape-like solutions fail because the chemicals they rely on to make them sticky can’t cope with the massive temperature changes objects in space are subjected to. Which is where the gecko-inspired gripper comes in.

The robotic gripper being tested on NASA’s low-gravity aircraft the Weightless Wonder. Image, video  and featured image courtesy of Jiang et al., Sci. Robot. 2, eaan4545 (2017)

“What we’ve developed is a gripper that uses gecko-inspired adhesives,” said study senior author Mark Cutkosky, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford. “It’s an outgrowth of work we started about 10 years ago on climbing robots that used adhesives inspired by how geckos stick to walls.”

Geckos are able to scale vertical surfaces because they have microscopic flaps that create weak intermolecular forces between the feet and the wall’s surface, allowing them to grip on. The researchers have simply replicated these flaps, albeit on a larger scale; while each flap on a gecko’s foot is around 200 nanometers long, on the robotic gripper it is only 40 micrometers across.

However, it works in the same way, allowing an object to be gripped in a zero-g environment without needing to apply force.

“If I came in and tried to push a pressure-sensitive adhesive onto a floating object, it would drift away,” said study co-author Dr Elliot Hawkes, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Instead, I can touch the adhesive pads very gently to a floating object, squeeze the pads toward each other so that they’re locked and then I’m able to move the object around.”

A close-up of the prototype gripper. Image courtesy of Kurt Hickman/Stanford News Service

The gripper has already undergone extensive testing, including in JPL’s Robodome, which has a floor like a giant air hockey table that is designed to simulate a 2D zero-G environment.

“We had one robot chase the other, catch it and then pull it back toward where we wanted it to go,” said Hawkes. “I think that was definitely an eye-opener, to see how a relatively small patch of our adhesive could pull around a 300kg robot.”

Now it has been tested on the International Space Station, the next step is to test a version outside the space station, in the radiation-filled reality of space. Cutkosky also plans to commercialise the gecko-inspired adhesive here on Earth.

Human lifespan “could continue to increase far into the foreseeable future”

Scientists researching human lifespan have concluded that it has no detectable limit, and that with advances in technology and medicine it could continue to climb for the foreseeable future.

“We just don’t know what the age limit might be,” said study co-author Siegfried Hekimi, a biologist from McGill University.

“In fact, by extending trend lines, we can show that maximum and average lifespans could continue to increase far into the foreseeable future.”

The study, which is published today in the journal Nature, analysed the lifespan of the longest-surviving people from Japan, France, the UK and the US every year from 1968 to the present day.

The scientists found that there was no evidence that a limit on lifespan exists, and concluded that if it does, we certainly have not yet reached it or even identified what it could be.

The research flies in the face of previous studies that concluded that not only was there a limit of 115 years, but that we were beginning to reach it. However Hekemi and his colleague Bryan G Hughes do not believe this is the case, and are unable to even hazard a guess as to what such a limit could be.

“It’s hard to guess,” Hekimi said. “Three hundred years ago, many people lived only short lives.

“If we would have told them that one day most humans might live up to 100, they would have said we were crazy.”

Images courtesy of Jonathan Kos-Read

Average lifespans have jumped significantly over the past century. In 1920, Canadians had an average expectancy of 60 years, but by 1980 it had climbed to 76 years. Now it is 82 years, and is likely to climb further.

These jumps have been down to the revolution in medical science over the last hundred years, however advances in medical technologies could cause a significant further jump in our lifetimes.

In particular, work by organisations such as the SENS Research Foundation, led by noted gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, is focused on treating ageing as something that can be cured, and has seen growing support from the mainstream scientific community.

However, if such medical treatments do become available, they may only be available to those that can afford them, particularly in countries that do not have a single-payer healthcare system, such as the US. In these instances, there are fears that such treatments could divide humanity, with the rich gaining far longer lifespans than the poor.