Dear NASA: What’s in It for Me?

Years ago I visited a friend at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, and he asked if I wanted to meet the captain of...

Years ago I visited a friend at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, and he asked if I wanted to meet the captain of the Voyager 2, the space probe launched in 1977, then headed toward Neptune. “Absolutely!” In the middle of a messy room sat a young woman drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette—the captain!—next to a toaster-size gray box with a white dimmer-like knob on top of it. Radio signals take hours to reach the Voyager, and between long stretches of boredom, the captain could use the knob to adjust its antenna. My friend was captain the previous week, and now it was her turn.

As we recalled during the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing last year, space travel is a great challenge, a destiny just out of reach—until it isn’t. It’s aspirational and inspirational. Even so, wise guys (like me) note that after billions poured into the space program, all we got were Tang and Velcro. Earthwise, that’s not so far off. It’s called space because, let’s face it, there’s not much in it.

Yes, communication satellites are important, as is GPS, which helps Uber steer a car toward you. But note that GPS first got off the ground in 1973 because it was funded for Nudet, or nuclear detonation detection—military tech, not space exploration. To be fair, NASA was an early customer of Silicon Valley, but quickly abandoned state-of-the-art chips in favor of highly reliable older ones.

Still, progress marches along. We now have a Space Force, founded a year ago this week. Boldly go! Last month, a privately funded SpaceX rocket and capsule safely ferried four astronauts to the International Space Station, an amazing accomplishment for all anti-big-government types. Astronauts will conduct experiments of unknown value to earthly pursuits. There have been 3,000 such experiments in 20 years, though nothing earth-shattering. Can spiders build webs in space? Not quite the right stuff. Last week Chuck Yeager died. Oh, and an Israeli former space officer says the Earth has been contacted by a “Galactic Federation.” Uh huh.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m fascinated by fiery launches and rocket stages that land on floating platforms for reuse. But I’m more in the “What’s in it for me?” camp. Communications, imaging and even travel benefit all of us. Going to Mars? I’m not so sure.

How about we mine asteroids for metals and even water?


Jeff Bezos

and Google’s

Eric Schmidt

were big proponents. But that funding spreadsheet never worked because, upon landing on Earth, the prices of those commodities would quickly drop through the floor. Good for earthlings, but not so good for return on investment, which is probably why it hasn’t been attempted.

China’s robotic Chang’e-5 spacecraft went to the moon to collect rocks (no they’re minerals—Jesus, Marie). Uh, couldn’t we just lend them some of ours from 50 years ago? No one has yet found “Space Odyssey” monoliths on the moon, but one just showed up in Utah. Weird. In October, using infrared imaging, NASA actually did find water on the moon’s sunlit side. This after the Europeans’ 2004 discovery of ice on the south pole of Mars. Rockets need hydrogen and oxygen for fuel, so maybe interplanetary travel will actually be a possibility someday.

Or so dreams

Elon Musk,

who envisions a million-population city on Mars by 2050. He thinks he’ll send cargo ships to Mars in 2024 and then humans will follow in February 2027 when Earth and Mars are closer to each other. Watch the


series “Away” for a taste. I’m skeptical. Mr. Musk often has a fantastical relationship with schedules, so maybe pad a few years, or decades, on.

Tinfoil-hat toppers, and many in Silicon Valley, fear Armageddon is coming and see Mars as our safety valve. Mr. Musk wants “enough of a seed of human civilization somewhere else” (perhaps enough to keep buying Teslas). Let’s hurry up and colonize Mars so humans can escape World War III or Covid-30. Maybe he watches too much sci-fi. On his own nickel, though, go for it.

On Wednesday Mr. Musk’s SpaceX tested a new Starship SN8 rocket prototype. Designed for Mars, the 8-mile test flight was a success but its return ended in a fireball—what Mr. Musk called a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Gotta stick the landing!

Meanwhile, back on the third rock from the sun, maybe there is utility to all this. Mr. Musk also intends the Starship to make 39-minute suborbital flights between New York and Shanghai, compared with 15 hours today for the 7,000-mile journey. Take a boat to a floating platform, launch into the lower stratosphere, reach a peak of 16,000 miles an hour (Mach 20) and then re-enter and carefully land on another floating launchpad offshore.

If all goes well, and I mean all, SpaceX thinks they’ll run commercial flights by the end of the decade at a cost of $2 million. That’s $20,000 a passenger—no meal. I’ll believe it when I see it, but when they say seat backs in their full, upright position and seat belts securely fastened, I think I’ll listen. Hopefully, the captain has more than a dimmer knob.

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Newsrust: Dear NASA: What’s in It for Me?
Dear NASA: What’s in It for Me?
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