Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: Why we see saucers, NASA bucks, and Boeing’s process predicament.
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There’s room for anything in space.
The vastness of the universe inspires futuristic visions—and also contains infinite room for business bullshit, fundamental human empathy, and, of course, the potential for extraterrestrial life-forms.
I don’t want to rehash Fermi’s paradox or the Drake equation here (my former colleague Steve LeVine has that available for you, though). I want to talk about UFOs and more specifically about the attraction they hold for so many people. As someone raised on the sweet nectar of The X-Files and the early internet, I certainly caught this bug—but the fever passed.
For others, it never does, and that’s why it is worth reading Sarah Scoles’ forthcoming book “They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers.” While many authors in this realm rely on sensationalism and avoid fact-checking, Scoles has written the definitive investigation into the origins of UFO culture and its persistence.
The starting point for the book is that 2017 blockbuster New York Times story and follow-ups, focused on a Defense Department unit that investigated unidentified flying objects. That story was also tied to Bob Bigelow, the Nevada hotel magnate-turned-UFO researcher and space businessman, as well as Tom DeLonge, the former frontman of Blink-182. I don’t want to spoil Scoles’ careful reportage, but the Grey Lady does not come out looking entirely responsible or transparent about its sources.
And yet, in the grey area (pun intended) between top secret government programs and the possibilities of the universe, there is still room to wonder. Scoles travels back and traces the post-World War II origins of flying saucers, emerging from a heady cocktail of nuclear weapons, Cold War paranoia, and the wonders of a nascent space program.
She finds the people who picked up the baton from the earliest UFO investigators and carried it until today. Each chapter unearths some half-forgotten urban myth and fleshes out the human story behind it, riding ebbs and flows in popular interest that seem linked as much to the national mood as anything else. Perhaps that Times story made such an impact in 2017 because of a wider sense that every other American norm was being cast aside.
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NASA still doesn’t have a full accounting of how it will get back to the moon despite nearly a year of planning.
This time last year, the US space agency had just put in a budget request that didn’t include Artemis, its program to return humans to the moon by 2024. A month later, US vice president Mike Pence announced the new moon deadline. Since then, NASA has promised lawmakers that it would have a clear plan in time for this year’s budget request (pdf).
Surprise: “NASA is conducting a Program Status Assessment of the overall Artemis effort … [t]his assessment includes review of the schedule and technical approaches as well as systems engineering integration and program management. In parallel, NASA is performing an independent technical and programmatic assessment, including a joint cost and schedule confidence level analysis.”
Still, reading between the columns in the budget tables shows the effort could cost more than $35 billion over the next four years. That would entail a large increase in the space agency’s budget, even as the Trump administration moves to slash spending on other domestic priorities. The administration’s proposal also includes cuts to several programs, including NASA’s STEM education efforts, that Congress is likely to restore.
And while there is bipartisan support for NASA’s lunar return, it comes in two very divergent flavors: a Senate bill that mostly backs the administration’s plans to integrate commercial partnerships into a sustainable lunar return, and a House bill that wants to ignore the lunar deadline and press on to Mars. Meanwhile, a lobbying battle has broken out between Boeing, which is pushing for an Apollo-style flags-and-footprints mission with its SLS rocket, and other contractors who want to build an orbiting way station and plot a long-term presence at Earth’s nearest astronomical neighbor.
“I remain eager to receive sufficient budget details to match our ambitious human exploration goals,” said Republican senator Jerry Moran, who heads a key committee that sets NASA funding. It remains to be seen whether NASA engineers, lawmakers, or corporate lobbyists will be the main force filling in those blanks.
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The moon rocket Boeing is building for NASA is called the Space Launch System. Here it is in January inside a Mississippi River barge on its way to a major test called the “Green Run”:
Assuming it makes it to the launchpad, it will be the largest rocket ever flown.
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One obvious reason we take Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin so seriously is because of what he’s accomplished at Amazon—not just amassing a pile of money, but demonstrating serious management chops. But the company is struggling to truly go global. Quartz’s Marc Bain walks through the competitors and regulatory hurdles that make international growth one of the few areas where Amazon has fallen short of its outsized ambitions.
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Boeing is still processing. We learned new details about the uncrewed test of Boeing’s Starliner, and the news was not good for the embattled aerospace giant. Not only were there three critical problems with the spacecraft that is designed to carry astronauts, but audits of the design and test process showed that these errors should have been caught—and were not. That has Boeing and NASA engaged in a complete review of the spacecraft code, even as a team of independent reviewers looks over the data from the vehicle’s first test. Maybe more worrisome for Boeing, this was the first time a NASA official connected Starliner’s problems to the software issues plaguing the company’s airline division.
Gerst goes private. Bill Gerstenmaier, the veteran NASA executive ousted last summer over the agency’s lunar return program, has taken a consulting job with SpaceX to help prepare for the crewed flight test of the company’s Dragon spacecraft. Few people in human spaceflight are more respected than Gerstenmaier (even the sanctioned head of Russia’s space agency congratulated him), so the move is a significant gain for SpaceX. Gerstenmaier has been working with SpaceX since at least 2008, so he knows the company about as well as any outsider could. Having overseen the commercial crew program since its inception, it is fitting he will see the project through.
Stop doing this. Banks trying to drum up investor interest in space publish research notes, and most of them do some math about launch costs or revenue or something. In an effort to drive me, personally, insane, Morgan Stanley published a note this week where the authors interviewed five senior employees who remembered watching the Apollo moon landings, and asked them how they felt about it. You’ll be shocked to know they thought it was cool! They also couldn’t decide if it was a Cold War triumph over the Russians, or a moment of human unity. Oh, and should we go back the moon? “I’d rather see a portion of our budget go to space exploration than to wars that we never seem to win,” one of these solons opined. Brilliant idea! Someone tell Congress!
*takes a deep breath*
Business in space isn’t going to be built on Apollo nostalgia, people. Oh, and full disclosure, Morgan Stanley also published a note this week on NASA and military spending boosting space business, so it’s not all dreamy reminiscence in the boardroom.
Spaceflight sold. Spaceflight, a company that acts as a launch broker for small satellites and operates its own remote-sensing constellation, BlackSky, is selling its launch business to two Japanese companies. Spaceflight has been an important player in expanding launch opportunities for small satellites that typically get a short shrift in the business, and was responsible for a record-breaking US launch in 2018. Assuming US regulators approve the transfer of a space company to foreign owners, executives say the split will help both sides focus on their different lines of work.
Swarm Technologies installed antennae at McMurdo Station in Antarctica as part of its plan to roll out an Internet of Things constellation this year…the Atlantic’s Marina Koren spends time in the Texas community where Elon Musk is building his new spacecraft, and things are not all copacetic…SpaceX plans to launch more Starlink satellites on Feb. 15; to understand why the network is likely to be spun out as an independent company, read this.
This was issue 34 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send any information about the Pentagon’s UFO investigations, details about the Artemis program status assessment, tips, and informed opinions to email@example.com.