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KIRK VS. DEATH

Captain Kirk has a good point about the space economy

William Shatner looks out the window of Blue Origin's New Shepard space capsule.
Blue Origin
William Shatner looks out the window of Blue Origin's New Shepard space capsule.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published

Chris Boshuizen, a co-founder of the satellite data firm Planet, took a ride to the edge of space with Captain Kirk this week on Blue Origin’s second crewed New Shepard launch.

But just ask Kirk—that is, actor William Shatner—why the trip actually mattered: The visibly emotional nonagenarian was shaken by the Overview Effect, the experience of seeing our tiny planet in the context of a vast universe.

“What I would love to communicate as much as possible is the jeopardy…the vulnerability…this air which is keeping us alive is thinner than your skin, it’s a sliver…this is life,” Shatner told Bezos, pointing at the ground after emerging from the space capsule, before looking up where he had been to say, “and that’s death.”

It’s a stark observation, and not an unusual one in the world of space business. Bezos himself sees the space industry as a way to protect the Earth from the unsavory byproducts of industrialization and to tap into solar energy, but his vision is decades away from realization, if not further. In the meantime, however, the space economy’s prospects are firmly focused back on the ground.

Planet, the firm co-founded by Boshuizen, is a good example.  It is hosting its annual customer conference this week, ahead of becoming publicly traded when its purchase by the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) trading as DMYQ on the New York Stock Exchange closes later this year.

Planet makes money selling data collected by its fleet of satellites to a variety of users back on Earth, but its CEO Will Marshall is personally driven by the goal of sustainability. “It’s not about the Moon, or Mars, or space tourism, for that matter, it’s about the Earth,” he said on Tuesday, citing senator Adlai Stephenson’s famous quote about “spaceship Earth.

The idea of Earth as the last platform for humanity may not seem as profound as it did in 1965, but solving today’s global problems, most notably climate change, demands planetary cooperation.

How satellite data can enable global cooperation

Consider the challenge at the upcoming United Nations climate conference: States will gather to assess goals for reducing carbon emissions and set new targets, but each will bring their own figures. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces authoritative reports on the path of climate change, but it moves slowly to reach consensus.

“What IPCC doesn’t do [is] give you the guidance, the control systems, for making decisions between a Tuesday and Wednesday,” Andrew Zolli, Planet’s chief impact officer, told me last week. “If you want to change a system, you have to measure it faster than it is changing.”

That is one thing Planet, whose spacecraft capture data about the entire Earth every single day, has set out to do. The Norwegian government is funding an effort to monitor deforestation using Planet data, an initiative that emerged from a previous UN climate conference. The company’s data are part of a project called Climate TRACE that wants to use machine learning to measure real-time emissions from power plants and other sources. Planet is also preparing to launch two satellites for the NGO Carbon Mapper that will provide real-time methane emission monitoring from space.

These efforts depend in part on the technology ecosystem and investment boom that has emerged from the success of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin that are developing the transportation infrastructure for space, including tourism projects. Indeed, Planet has signed a multi-launch deal with SpaceX as it prepares to loft the new class of satellites, called Pelican (a large, low-flying bird with good eyesight) in the years ahead.

Sending humans to space teaches a profound lesson about how precious the planet is, but yesterday’s trip underscores that humanity’s most pressing space mission is close to home.

A version of this story originally appeared in Quartz’s Space Business newsletter

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