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What does space tourism have to do with saving the Earth?

William Shatner saw death in space.

The four private astronauts onboard the Blue Origin's New Shepard, alongside Blue's Sarah Knight.
This story was published on our Space Business newsletter, A glimpse at the economic possibilities of space.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published

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: What William Shatner learned in space, Planet’s Pelicans, and SpaceX’s pipe dream.

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Yesterday, a co-founder of the satellite data firm Planet took a ride to space with Captain Kirk. And that’s not even the most interesting thing that happened to the company this week.

Chris Boshuizen’s trip to the edge of space on Blue Origin’s second crewed New Shepard launch was cool. 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.

The company 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.

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.

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Imagery interlude

That’s life:

Earth as viewed from 10,000 miles
Image copyright: NASA

This image was captured by cameras onboard Apollo 4 in 1967 when it was orbiting 10,000 miles above the Earth, more than 150 times farther away from the planet than the altitude reached by Shatner and the New Shepard crew.

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✦ Where would you found your space tech start-up? The debate over whether Silicon Valley is the best place to open a tech company can be tiresome, especially because the answer is that Silicon Valley isn’t really a place at all. As venture money spreads beyond its ground zero, trends in local politics, global trade, and work culture are shifting where and how companies form. You can read all about it in this week’s Forecast email for Quartz members.

Not a member yet? Take 40% off the subscription fee, on me, using the code BLASTOFF.

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Space debris

Speaking of space tourists. Jared Isaacman, the entrepreneur who funded the Inspiration4 mission that took four passengers on three-day trip orbiting the Earth, gave a fascinating interview about the crew’s experience to CNBC”s Michael Sheetz. I did chuckle when Isaacman said “I’ll never do a joyride.”

SpaceX’s pipe problem. An orbital test launch of SpaceX’s next generation rocket, Starship, is currently awaiting the completion of an environmental review by the Federal Aviation Administration. That process may be complicated by SpaceX’s hopes of piping natural gas, the chosen fuel for its rocket and a power plant it wants to build, to its launch site near Brownsville, Texas. Experts who spoke to TechCrunch said the company’s proposal doesn’t cover its plans in enough to detail to satisfy environmental reviews.

Safety dance. Blue Origin’s New Shepard flight was an unalloyed success for the company, but it still has much to figure out on the culture front as its workers continue to share concerns about how it treats them. After talking to current and former Blue employees, I wrote about how workplace habits are linked to the way aerospace engineers think about safety.

Astra’s anomaly. Astra, the rocket start-up that saw an August test flight go awry, said that it had figured out what went wrong: Propellant had leaked out of the rocket before launch and became trapped in the interface between the rocket and its ground systems, and then exploded after the engine ignited, damaging electronics on the rocket. The company plans to make its seventh launch attempt during a window set to open at the end of October.

Annals of Consolidation. Rocket Lab, the leading maker of small launch vehicles, snapped up Advanced Solutions Inc., a Colorado-based software company focused on aerospace needs like simulating missions, testing components, and providing navigation. The deal, valued at $40 million, comes as Rocket Lab takes on regular satellite delivery service, launches exploration spacecraft built in-house, and looks to convert its rocket to reusability.

God’s astronomer. A brief essay by brother Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican observatory, includes this gem: “John XXIII had little knowledge of stars and planets, but he’d bring up a bottle of wine and hang out with the astronomers, and watch them work.” My kinda guy.

your pal,

Tim

This was issue 111 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send space solutions to earthly errors, your favorite TV characters to take future space tourism trips, tips, and informed opinions to tim@qz.com.

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