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Modern space companies need more than Star Trek nostalgia

Blue Origin's plan to beam up Captain Kirk

Hosts T.J. Miller and William Shatner close the show during the 21st Annual Critics' Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California
This story was published on our Space Business newsletter, A glimpse at the economic possibilities of space.
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Dear readers,

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: Boldly going into the past, Blue Origin’s hunt for answers, and more Boeing Starliner delays.

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When Alexandra Abrams first walked into Blue Origin’s headquarters and saw a model of the USS Enterprise used in the filming of the first Star Trek series, she thought, “Ally, you are home, this is your mothership.”

That turned out to be a false impression, the former Blue Origin director of internal communications told me last week, after she revealed the company’s dysfunctional culture in an open letter written with twenty current and former employees at Jeff Bezos’ space firm. Their description of a sexist culture and excessive demands on the workers, which the company disputes, led the Federal Aviation Administration to open an investigation ahead of its next suborbital space tourism mission, expected Oct. 12.

The headline passenger? None other than William Shatner, the actor who so famously portrayed Star Trek’s Captain Kirk.

Science fiction is inescapable in space exploration; it creates the vocabulary to discuss and promote things that have yet to be invented. Technologists have been obsessed with the genre at least since Konstantin Tsiolkovsky read Jules Verne and reasoned out the mathematics of spaceflight. Bezos, Elon Musk, and other space entrepreneurs are inspired by futuristic stories of all stripes. So are many of their employees—Bezos’ lobby, which in addition to the USS Enterprise boasts a life-size Jules Verne-style spacecraft used as a conference room and more realistic gear like a cosmonaut’s spacesuit, is a recruiting tool, as Abrams’ experience shows.

With commercial space activity increasingly commonplace, I’m pining for a more relevant vision of the future—and advocates of private space might want one, too, if they hope to gain broad support for their endeavors. Bezos may be tickled by launching his favorite TV icon, but it gives the rest of the world permission to call his company a sideshow. Just watch SNL. (Well, don’t watch SNL, but you get my point.) I feel a similar impulse about hearkening back to Apollo 11 landing on the moon. You could be talking about what’s going to the moon right now would accomplish—nearly two-thirds of Americans weren’t alive when the last astronaut departed.

Bezos has outlined his vision of where space travel is headed, driven by concerns about climate change, energy availability, and the visions of space settlement theorist Gerard O’Neill, though never in much detail. Handed a megaphone on its own founder’s launch, and now with this second trip to space with human passengers, Blue Origin’s loudest message is nostalgia.

Every space company faces a Trek temptation. SpaceX tried and failed to launch a portion of the cremated remains of actor James Doohan, who played the engineer Scotty on the original Star Trek, in its first rocket launch. (A portion of Doohan’s remains would later be launched on a Falcon 9, and space tourist Richard Garriot says he brought some of Doohan’s ashes on a 2008 visit to the International Space Station.) But SpaceX, at least, carried a paid cargo for the memorial firm Celestis, not an orbital influencer. Musk’s most famous PR stunt—launching a Tesla into deep space—at least gestured at the future.

Suborbital tourism is an entertainment product; Virgin Galactic nodded to this in hiring the former manager of Disney’s global theme parks as its CEO. Blue, too, has done its market research, and the prototypical space tourist appears to be a wealthy man who is a Star Trek fan. On the other hand, Disney isn’t ostensibly at the vanguard of new economic revolution, or seeking multi-billion dollar contracts from NASA and the Pentagon.

Part of the problem is that science fiction only starts getting interesting once you leave the science behind. Star Trek wasn’t a show about spaceships, it was a vehicle for exploring what it means to be human. At least some engineers inspired to emulate visions of future technology also want a society to match, and they’re liable to notice when those goals diverge.

“Star Trek doesn’t just show the technological advancements,” Abrams told me. “They advanced socially. I thought Jeff was also aligned with that.”

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Imagery interlude

When the original Star Trek was still on TV, its creator and some of the stars, though apparently not Shatner, stopped by a NASA flight research facility. Here’s actor DeForest Kelley, better known as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, talking to Bill Dana, a NASA test pilot with a taste for cool footwear, back in 1967.

Image copyright: NASA

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Everyone’s talking about chips. A lack of integrated circuitry is slowing down the world economy. If you want to know more, you have to know about TSMC—Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company—tenth biggest business by market cap in the world and the subject of last week’s members-only Quartz Company email. Not a member yet? Sign up here to support our journalism, including Space Business.

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Space debris

WWSXD? One of the more interesting items to shake out of Blue Origin in recent weeks is a research memo the company commissioned on how its chief competitor SpaceX does business. It offers a portrait of the struggles at Blue and how executives sought to do more work, adapt to modern engineering approaches, and attract and retain better employees.

Big money in space data. Here’s a fun fact: The analysts at Euroconsult predict the market for data gathered in space will grow from about $1.5 billion in 2020 to $7.5 billion in 2030. That’s a big opportunity for private satellite firms, and no surprise, much of that cash will come from the defense sector. Related: The US National Reconnaissance Organization is gearing up to announce expanded purchases of commercial satellite data.

Boeing delay sees astronauts move to SpaceX. NASA said that two astronauts scheduled to visit the ISS on Boeing’s long-delayed Starliner space capsule will instead go on a SpaceX Dragon in 2022. The decision suggests more bad news to come for the Starliner program, which has been in limbo as Boeing tries to figure out what went wrong with sticky valves that aborted a test flight expected to take place in August. NASA’s commercial crew manager Steve Stich told reporters a release later this week would contain more details.

The future OneWeb is European. The French satellite firm Eutelsat increased its investment in OneWeb, which is deploying a broadband internet network in low-Earth orbit. The move comes shortly after Eutelsat rejected a $3.2 billion offer from a private buyer and suggests growing confidence among established satellite operators that the LEO business case will pay off. Eutelsat’s CEO said last week OneWeb should be seen as Europe’s response to ambitious constellations launched in the US and mooted in China.

Science fiction is still good, though. This recent feature on how science fiction and religion interact isn’t just interesting, it’s also a handy syllabus.

your pal,

Tim

This was issue 110 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your affirmative case for Star Trek messaging at private space companies, recommendations for commercial space-relevant fiction, tips, and informed opinions to tim@qz.com.

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