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: The tao of DAO, chaperones for private astronauts, and why the SLS exists.
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Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket is scheduled to take another crew of passengers to the edge of space this morning, and now I get to write this sentence: One of the passengers is Coby Cotton, a YouTube influencer whose ticket was purchased by MoonDAO, a community built on the ethereum blockchain. What is this, 2021?
DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations, are one of the more intriguing Web3 applications. These organizations are governed by digital contracts and governed by the owners of the tokens they create. Some DAOs are clearly end-runs around securities regulation, and others are scams, but the people behind MoonDAO are true believers in the potential of decentralized communities and want to create a future Moon colony.
To do so, they sold off “governance tokens” called Moonies to raise a pot of more than $8 million. It started off as a bit of a joke, inspired by another DAO that tried to buy a copy of the US Constitution, with the idea of acquiring some kind of space object. Then, the owners of the tokens (no individual owns more than 10%) decided on a plan to send people to space on a tourist mission as a statement of intent. A community member with connections at Blue Origin pitched the New Shepard, which founder Jeff Bezos rode on a 11 minute flight to space last summer.
What resulted was a deal to purchase two tickets, and thanks to the transparency of the blockchain, we know it cost MoonDAO $2,575,000. Some of that is transaction fees, but the figure suggests that a seat on New Shepard costs $1.25 million. (Blue Origin has not commented on ticket costs.) That’s an important data point as we try to figure out whether the company can even come close to recouping its investment in the vehicle. It’s also well over twice what competitor Virgin Galactic, which hasn’t flown in over a year, charges passengers.
Blue didn’t want to accept payment in cryptocurrency, according to one of the group’s founding organizers, Pablo Moncada-Larrotiz, so a member of MoonDAO had to open up a bank account to pay Blue in US dollars.
What then to do with the two tickets? One would go to any Mooney holder who entered a raffle by obtaining a free non-fungible token (NFT). That individual has been selected and is undergoing reviews by Blue, Moncada-Larrotiz said.
The second ticket would go to an online influencer who could help spread the word about MoonDAO and space. Moonie owners voted on four choices, with the stunt collective Dude Perfect just inching out the space-focused creators at Everyday Astronaut. (As Moonies have changed hands since the June vote closed, MoonDAO’s vote tracker continues to update, suggesting that EveryDay Astronaut would win in a landslide if the vote was held today.)
The choice is fascinating. Dude Perfect is among of the most lucrative creator projects out there, with 58 million subscribers on YouTube. Forbes estimates the group earns some $23 million a year. It’s possible they could have bought their own ticket on the flight. (A video of the five members launching model rockets to see who would go to space garnered 14.6 million views.) Instead, 5,000 space fans on the internet bought it for them.
The allure of Dude Perfect, per Moncada-Larrotiz, is the size of its following. Blue Origin must be thrilled as well. The company has been seeking celebrities; a trip with William Shatner garnered significant coverage, but an attempt to put comedian Pete Davidson on the rocket ended with the celebrity backing out. A millennial influencer with a massive online following could advance Bezos’ goal of generating excitement around space more than the usual wealthy adventurers and symbolic first-time astronauts onboard.
For MoonDAO, this a proof that a decentralized global community can marshal real resources to do something in space. Topping it will require generating more revenue: The organization has $11 million of crypto assets, but most are its own Mooney governance tokens. However, it does have on hand $1.8 million worth of Dai, a stable coin still pegged to the US dollar. The community is currently preparing a new constitution to govern its next steps, which could include designing and building a modular satellite.
“DAOs serve as a really interesting way to experiment with governance and organizing people and collective intelligence,” Moncada-Larrotiz says. He’s inspired by the vision of a multi-planetary society and wonders if this model of decentralized governance could be used in future space colonies. It’s not clear if the DAO model can really compete with traditional finance or survive the cryptocrash. But this experiment does say something about the demand for symbolic access to space, even at monopoly prices: It exists.
NASA’s first Artemis mission to the Moon is scheduled to depart in less than a month, so why not start getting excited about Moon rovers again? Here’s a prototype of a robot that can dig into the lunar soil being tested in the “regolith bin” at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center:
Private astronauts will need a chaperone. After the Axiom-1 mission brought three paying passengers under the guidance of a former astronaut to the ISS earlier this year, NASA decided that all similar trips must include one of its former professional space travelers. Axiom had hoped to send future trips to the station unchaperoned, but to ensure distraction-free visits, NASA wants to make sure they have a dedicated expert on-hand.
Heads up! It’s back to the debate over space object re-entry after an enormous Chinese rocket stage fell on Indonesia over the weekend. While that’s the most egregious example, we’ve also seen SpaceX drop a Dragon trunk on Australia and a second stage in Washington state, with the company refusing to acknowledge either incident publicly.
South Korea’s first lunar orbiter. The Danuri lunar orbiter is set for a launch from the United States on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Aug. 5, part of South Korea’s campaign to put a lander there by 2030. The space probe includes five scientific sensors that will attempt to examine difficult-to-see features on the surface of the Moon.
The end of Sentinel 1-B. After six months of malfunctions, the European Space Agency has declared the radar satellite Sentinel 1-B is done. The ESA’s loss could be an opportunity for the increasing number of private radar satellite operators.
Russia launches another satellite inspector. It appears that Russia has launched another spacecraft designed to approach and surveil US spy satellites. There’s nothing illegal about it, but the US Space Force considers these Russian inspectors to be offensive weapons and sees their use as provocative. The maneuvers of the spacecraft will be more closely watched than usual thanks to the tense geopolitical situation after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Why do we have the SLS? The Space Launch System rocket is expected to make its debut a month from now, but why does the expensive behemoth exist when SpaceX might be able to make it obsolete? The Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier explains the political realities that make the pricey vehicle a survivor.
This was issue 145 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your visions for a decentralized multiplanetary society, concerns about plummeting space hardware, tips, and informed opinions to email@example.com.